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When ring tones are jarring

Cell phones may boost worker effectiveness, but they also lead to legal risks, less productivity and plain irritation.

Steve Evans is a cell phone user some people may find annoying.

Evans, vice president of information systems at the PGA Tour, admits that he uses his cell phone in elevators. But he says his calls aren't likely to be a long-term nuisance to other people, who may be hoping for a bit of stillness in the midst of their workday.

"I'm rarely in an elevator that's more than four stories," said Evans, whose professional-golf group is based near Jacksonville, Fla.

"I just think (cell phone chat is) very uncomfortable for the other people in the elevator."
--Jaqueline Whitmore
Director, The Protocol
School of Palm Beach

For better and for worse, cell phones are becoming a bigger part of the workplace. The latest example: More than 8,000 employees of Ford Motor will be getting mobile phones in place of desk phones through an agreement with Sprint.

Wireless phones can let workers be more effective and less chained to desks. But they also raise potential liability concerns for companies, threaten to eat into employee productivity and annoy others.

Jaqueline Whitmore, the cell phone "etiquette spokesperson" for Sprint and director of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, says many more personal calls are now being taken on the job. That's a problem in an office setting full of cubicles, she said. "Then all of your co-workers hear what you have to say," Whitmore said. "That can be distracting to other people."

Elevators are not a nice place for cell phone gabbing, given the way people tend to raise their voices for mobile calls, Whitmore argues. "I just think it's very uncomfortable for the other people in the elevator."

London-based CC Consulting recommends using the vibrating-alarm feature of cell phones in office settings. Taking a call during a meeting is generally a no-no, according to the firm: "When in a meeting or even in a public place, it is best to have your voice mail set to receive your calls--unless you are looking for an important call."

At Microsoft, not surprisingly, a higher-tech issue related to cell phones has surfaced. Given wireless connectivity at the software giant and newer cell phones with e-mail capabilities, employees are apt to be checking their e-mail during meetings, Microsoft software developer Adam Barr said.

What's more, one person putting a cell phone on a table at the start of a gathering can touch off a discussion of phone features among the company's geeky employees, Barr said. "Everyone whips out their phone and says, 'I've got this one.'"

Companies have begun setting rules for how employees use phones. A survey last April by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 40 percent of organizations had put written policies in place regarding regular cell phones and that 12 percent more planned to have such a policy within six months. Just 7 percent had written policies for camera cell phones, though another 15 percent planned to do so within six months.

"Everyone whips out their phone (in a meeting) and says, 'I've got this one.'"
--Adam Barr
Developer, Microsoft

One reason policies may be important: A little cell phone could lead to a big headache. Camera phones could be used to snap photos of secret corporate information. And there's the prospect of lawsuits stemming from employees involved in car accidents while talking on cell phones.

"Fear of rising lawsuits and concern for safety of employees and the public has lead many employers to prohibit employees from using cell phones while driving," The Ison Law Group wrote in a report last year. The Sacramento, Calif., group, which focuses on workplace issues, cited a number of cases, including a $30 million lawsuit filed against a law firm when an associate on a cell phone fatally ran over a 15-year-old girl in 2000.

"An official written policy on cell phone use is highly recommended, especially in those businesses where employees spend a substantial amount of time commuting or traveling on business," Ison said in its report.

Despite concerns, the cell phone is the right call for companies, suggested Jen Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management. "It's definitely something that's been instrumental in expanding the walls of the workplace," she said.

Barry Strasnick, chief information officer of financial-services company CitiStreet, says cell phones are replacing pagers for his information technology staff. The shift hasn't been costly, in terms of having to buy new devices, Strasnick indicated. "The vast majority of our staff just give us their private numbers," he said.

Evans of the PGA Tour also sees mobile phones as productive tools and is experimenting with a remote e-mail system using Treo phones.

Evans may be an elevator caller, but he sees a limit to cell phone use in another possible business setting. He's against allowing wireless phone chatting on airplane flights. "It's one thing to have a conversation with something sitting next to you," he said. "It's another to hear two to three conversations, and you may be trying to get some work done."