Just because cell phones have taken over the way we communicate doesn’t mean they have to take over your business. Here's some advice on how to institute a policy to protect your company from disruptive and legally-damaging behavior.
Despite their overwhelming presence in today's society, cell phones perpetually straddle the line between modern convenience and disruptive nuisance. The phone calls, text messages, pictures and other data relayed to family members, friends, doctors, or even co-workers while on the job are the source of many interrupted business meetings or disgruntled employees, which is why creating a cell phone policy is key to preserving the (literal) peace of your workplace environment.
'I definitely think that employers need to be sensitive to the fact that cell phone use is now the primary way we communicate,' says Nancy Flynn, director of the Columbus, Ohio-based ePolicy Institute and author of The e-Policy Handbook: Rules and Best Practices to Safely Manage Your Company's E-Mail, Blogs, Social Networking, and Other Electronic Communication Tools (2009). 'But you want to have a policy in place to protect your organization's assets and reputation.'
According to a 2009 poll conducted by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, nearly nine out of 10 – or 87 percent – of United States residents are cell phone owners, and that figure rises to 92 percent among Americans with jobs, meaning it's quite possible that every single one of your employees has a device attached to their hips. As a business owner, it's crucial to develop guidelines that can curb the boundless problems that excessive or inappropriate cell phone use can create for your company. The following guide will aid you in crafting effective language for your cell phone policy, as well as provide tips on enforcing it.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Who to Consult When Crafting a Unique Policy
To craft a policy that works specifically for your company, make sure you have the right entities involved in stitching together your policy. Managers and human resource representatives should be at the forefront of the effort, of course, but since mobile devices grow more and more technically complicated – especially if wired to your company's e-mail server – don't forget to bring in your IT staff. It's also wise to consult your lawyers, Flynn suggests. 'For a business owner, it's a good idea to run your policy past your legal counsel, particularly if you're in a regulated industry, such as financial services or healthcare,' she says.
Once you've pulled together the members of your team, here are a few questions to ask:
• What cell phone issues already exist within your company? Why exactly do you feel you need a cell phone policy? Is your office environment too noisy? Do you sometimes glance over and catch an employee texting when on a tight work deadline? Acknowledging these issues before you get started will help realize what you need to tackle when you start writing.
• What types of guidelines are reasonable for my kind of business? You should tailor your policy in accordance with the nature of your industry, suggests Flynn. Take time to assess the daily tasks of your employees. If you run a public relations firm, for example, where there's likely a necessity for constant communication, your policy might be more lenient. A company that involves construction or hazardous situations? Not so much.
• What mobile capabilities do my employees need? This is a vital question for IT, as they may need to install company-specific apps and software on employees' phones, or set up various e-mail or calling functions.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: General Cell Phone Etiquette
While the guidelines in your cell phone policy should be specific to the needs of your company, there as some basic rules of phone etiquette you should include. Many of these rules might seem to be common courtesy – or common sense – but explicitly explaining what you expect is the best way to get the results you want. These rules should be upheld on all devices, whether personally- or company-owned:
• The 'vibrate' function is your best friend. When working in a professional atmosphere, the vibrate function should be a default. No one likes a loud ringer – especially when left unanswered.
• No phone use during meetings. Instruct employees to step out to take calls or send texts when business meetings, conferences, or brainstorming sessions are being held. You may even ask employees to leave phones at their desks altogether. 'Any kind of business event where a ringing phone or tapping fingers can disrupt other people,' says Flynn. 'Texting can be as annoying as talking.'
• Letting calls go to voicemail isn't a sin. According to a survey of 1,500 adults by the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of them said they felt obligated to take a call – even if it interrupted an important meeting. Voicemail, however, can be just as efficient in communicating with others outside of work. Stress this in your policy.
• Maintain low tones. There are few things more annoying than a loud phone conversation, and that rings doubly true when people are trying to get work done. Clearly explain to employees to keep a low voice if they must answer their cell phones, or find a quiet area to talk. It might also be helpful to designate a specific area, like a lobby or cafeteria.
• Content and language guidelines. It's not uncommon for a customer to be offended or even turned away as a result of an employee's expletive-filled phone conversation. Professional communication is not the same as communication at home, and your policy should delineate the difference.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Addressing Productivity Issues
According to Flynn, the best way to make sure an employee's cell phone use doesn't infringe on the productivity of your company is to specify exactly when personal calls or texts should be made. Is it only during lunch breaks? Will you set certain intervals of time? How long will they be?
'It's not good enough to just say, ‘Employees are allowed a limited amount of personal cell phone use,'' she says. 'Use language that is not open to individual interpretation.'
That said, be sure to make provisions for emergency phone calls in your policy – after all, being accessible to those we care about is one of the main reasons people take their phones to work. You can do this by instructing employees to notify you or a manager of circumstances such as a pregnant spouse or infirmed family member, Flynn advises, in which case the ringer can be set to only sound when that person calls. You can also ask employees to inform you of the emergency call afterwards, so that you know the phone use was a necessity and not an issue of lost productivity.
Also, integrate elements of your company's social media policy. (Hint: if you haven't created one, maybe it's time.) Most cell phones manufactured today are PDAs, which have many of the same interactive capabilities as a desktop or laptop computer. If you already have limits set on how often an employee can sign into Facebook, that should apply to the cell phone application as well.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Work Duties on Personal Cell Phones
If your employees are making calls, sending texts or e-mails, or browsing the Web for work-related reasons via personal devices, keep in mind that this usage is billed on their own cell phone plans and therefore billable to your company. This is why you should include language in your policy stating that employees should get permission to perform these activities. Since most carriers have line-item billing, which shows the date, time, and phone number of each call, many companies instruct employees to make copies of their bills and highlight work-related calls, which would then be reimbursed. State in your policy that these numbers will be checked, and that there will be consequences for abusing reimbursement. 'Spell out in your policy that while you're going to be reimbursed for business calls, submitting false reports is theft, and can result in job termination,' says Hyman.
It could also be beneficial to add a data plan, Hyman says. Keep in mind, however that some carriers do not have and charge by increments of data, such as megabytes or kilobytes, which can become an exorbitant expense – especially for a small business.
You should also communicate that the employer is not financially responsible for a personal phone if it is lost, stolen or damaged while conducting business activity.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Company-Owned Cell Phones
Issuing company-owned cell phones to employees is a double-edged sword, allowing you to maintain tighter constraints on restive cell phone activity while leaving your company more vulnerable to liabilities. Here are some things you should keep in mind when addressing the use of company-issued devices:
• Reduce the expectation of privacy. 'The first step is to say, ‘You don't have any expectation of privacy with a device that we pay for and that we give you,' says Hyman. By reducing the expectation of privacy, you also reduce the chances of lawsuits from employees. In one recent case, for example, an employee sued an employer and won, because his sexual text messages – sent on company-owned equipment – were read, after another supervisor told him that they would not be.
• Keep ownership of the phone number. It's crucial to include language in your policy that states ownership of an employees cell phone number, says Hyman – especially for a sales-related business. 'You want to limit the chances of a departing employee soliciting or talking to customers,' he explains.
• Frequently review monthly charges -- and let it be known. Individual cell phone bills are a pain on their own, and company bills can be even worse. If employees know their bills are being reviewed regularly, the less likely you'll have overages and purchases of third-party content like apps, games, and ringtones. There are also tools like Auditel that can help manage your bill.
• Immediately report lost devices. As soon as employees realize a company-owned phone has been lost or stolen, they should report it so that service can be immediately turned off. There are also apps like WaveSecure that allow users to remotely track a phone's SIM card, and erase private data. You should also be clear on who will bear the financial responsibility for lost or damaged phones. If it's the employee, be sure to have them sign an acknowledgement form that states so.
• Be upfront about GPS tracking. Many phones come with software that not only allows GPS navigation, but also enables others to track them as well. 'If I'm UPS and I want to know where my truck drivers are, it's perfectly reasonable,' says Hyman, as long as those employees are notified that their phone contains such software. Instruct employees to shut off the phone or GPS application during non-work hours, so as to steer clear of accusations of privacy breaches.
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Safety, Liabilities and Legal Issues
• Camera Use: Most mobile devices today come equipped with cameras, and your policy should strictly define where and how they should be used – if at all. For example, consider restricting your employees from taking their phones to the restroom, says Hyman, recalling a client of his who sued her employer after she was sent inappropriate pictures of a manager in the restroom.
You also want to reduce the chances of any confidential or propriety information from ending up in an employee's phone – and later in a competitor's hands. You can do this by expressly forbidding mobile devices in the research and development department, for example, or in the vicinity of private documents or financial activity.
• Public Conversations: Regulations that ban the sharing of proprietary information should apply the same for verbal exchanges, via personal and company-owned phones. 'You want to put some confidentiality rules in place,' says Flynn. 'Business conversations should be held in private – not in an elevator or airport.'
• Talking and Texting While Driving: Many states, such as New York and Washington, have strict laws that completely ban the use of hand-held mobile devices while operating a vehicle. Even if your state doesn't have such legislation, your policy should completely prohibit drivers from using cell phones during work hours– especially in company-owned transportation. In the event of an accident, an injured party will likely sue the company – not the employee, explains Hyman. 'If I'm an employer, I can say, ‘No, you can't do this while you're working, therefore I'm not responsible,' he says. This should also apply to operating heavy machinery.
• Harassment: Don't forget to include guidelines from your workplace harassment policy. State that employees should immediately report to management if they feel harassed through texts or e-mails sent from another's cell phone. 'Any workplace technology has really made it so much easier for employees to harass each other,' says Hyman. 'It used to be where you would go up to somebody and ask somebody on a date and they'd say yes or no.'
How to Create a Cell Phone Policy: Enforcing the Policy
Any workplace policy is useless if not properly enforced. After you've solidified your guidelines, here's how you can make sure they're abided by.
• Keep it updated. You should review your cell phone policy at least once a year and review accordingly, Flynn advises. 'Electronic technology evolves so rapidly,' she says. 'Not too long ago, all we had to worry about was e-mail and instant messaging.'
• Have training sessions. It might seem a little frivolous at first, but a few training exercises or even well-enacted demonstrations could be quite effective in illustrating the type of behavior you expect.
• Explicitly explain disciplinary action. What will be the consequences of violating the rules in your policy? Disciplinary action will vary depending on the level of offense, of course, but it should be clearly described.
• Have every employee review and sign it. Allow employees time to internalize the policy. Include an acknowledgment form that should be signed and returned to you. 'It's just like with any other kind of policy,' says Flynn. 'They should agree that they understand the policy and will adhere to it, or follow consequences up to termination.'
Read The e-Policy Handbook: Rules and Best Practices to Safely Manage Your Company's E-Mail, Blogs, Social Networking, and Other Electronic Communication Tools by Nancy Flynn. This book serves as a comprehensive guide in establishing a policy to govern cell phone use, and will aid you in preventing instances of data theft, training employees, and managing emerging technology.
At ePolicyInsitute.com you can find do's and don'ts on electronic communication in the workplace, and even download fill-in-the-blank sample policies to help you along the way of creating your own.
Smart Policies for Workplace Technology: e-mail, Blogs, Cell Phones & More by Lisa Guerin is another resource to help institute the use of electronic technology on the job, which also covers Internet and e-mail conduct.
Studying Cell Phone Bans in the Workplace is an informative article for business owners who might opt for a total ban on cell phone use.