Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I work at a fairly large university, and one of my responsibilities is meeting new adjunct faculty to complete hiring paperwork. (We do this to save them the trouble of traveling all the way out to our main campus, which is quite a drive from where we are.)
There is a new adjunct joining our faculty for fall term, and after rescheduling twice already (the person requests times, they are not assigned), we finally met at 8:30 this morning to complete her paperwork. Throughout our meeting, which took about 15 minutes total, she had her phone out, reading and sending messages. I was shocked, and afraid I would lose my cool, so I didn't say anything. She was nothing but polite when she spoke with the associate dean, so I can only assume that her rudeness was either because of my age or that she sees me as "administrative staff" and beneath her.
What is the appropriate way to handle a situation like this?
I'd say: "Do you need a few minutes to take care of that before we resume our meeting?"
Of course, the person might respond that she can do both just fine ... which, to be fair, might actually be true when the meeting is simply to fill out paperwork. This would actually be a lot ruder if the meeting was a discussion.
Not that her behavior wasn't rude. Of course it was. When you're meeting with someone, especially someone who has traveled to see you, you give the person your attention.
But ultimately, how assertive you can be in situations like this depends on hierarchy. If she's above you in the hierarchy, my suggested sentence above is as direct as you can get. After that, if the behavior continues, it's really the person's prerogative and you've got to deal with it--although, yes, it's still rude if the person doesn't at least give you the courtesy of an explanation. Simply saying something like, "I'm sorry about this; I'm dealing with a family issue that can't wait" can go a long way toward smoothing this kind of thing over.
If she's a peer, however, you can be as direct as you're comfortable being. I'm pretty assertive when I'm annoyed, so I'd say, "I'll give you a few minutes. Let me know when you're ready to resume." Or even, "This will go more quickly if we're able to focus on it for a few minutes" or "Do you mind focusing on this for a few minutes so we can get through it more quickly?"
Of course, if you're above her in the hierarchy, it's even easier. In those cases, I've usually gotten the message across with a pointed look. Or you can simply say directly, "Can you put that away while we're meeting?"
By the way, I know this isn't your question, but I wonder if she was simply annoyed that she had to schedule an in-person meeting just to complete new-hire paperwork. That's not usually a two-person job, and she might have been irked that she couldn't just fill it out on her own and send it in. That's a different issue than rude phone behavior, but it's probably worth considering whether that practice should be revisited.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.