What To Do When an Employee Spends Too Much Time on Their Cell Phone

Kathy Simpson

Cell phones are driving many of us to distraction—and taking a toll on productivity in the workplace. Nineteen percent of employers think their workers are productive for less than five hours a day, and more than half believe that cell phones are to blame.

Indeed, every beep, buzz and glow emanating from our personal devices are designed to lure us in while hijacking our time and disrupting our concentration. A short call or text message here or there may not harm productivity in a noticeable way, but excessive use can become a big problem.

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How to Deal with Overuse of Personal Cell Phones in the Workplace

Due to the habit-forming, ubiquitous nature of cell phones, small business owners must address their inevitable presence and intervene when employees are loath to put their devices aside — just as they must take action with the employee who always calls in sick. Below are a few tactics to help you exert some measure of control over cell phones in your workplace.

Face the Reality

Cell phones are here to stay. Although a device-less environment may be your workplace ideal, it is no longer a realistic expectation. Ninety-five percent of Americans now own a cell phone of some kind, and family-friendly employers know that even though work comes first and foremost, personal devices are vital for employees who need to check in with their children and attend to important personal matters during the day.

Unless there are safety concerns, banning cell phones from the workplace can be perceived as punitive and lead to morale problems. And although blocking cellular signals within your workplace may be a tempting solution, it’s not practical. Disabling Wi-Fi can impede your own business communications, and a cell phone jammer, which can effectively shut down signals throughout your business area, is not only dangerous, it is also illegal in the U.S.

Better to accept cell phones as a part of modern-day work life and establish policies for their use. As long as you enforce the policies you put in place, you should see usage settle at levels that are reasonable for your business.

Set Limits

You may choose to set limits on cell phone use that depend on the nature of your business, each employee’s job and the types of issues you’ve experienced. For example, cell phone use is typically prohibited under the following circumstances:

  • During meetings, training sessions and conferences
  • When employees are interacting with customers
  • In production areas and kitchens or while operating heavy equipment as a cell phone can present a safety hazard
  • While driving, except when a Bluetooth connection is available or when the driver is pulled over to the side of the road. (This is a requirement enforced by OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for which you are legally responsible as an employer.)

Your cell phone policy could also define:

  • When it’s acceptable to use a cell phone during the work day, such as during breaks and lunchtime
  • The frequency and length of calls permitted during working hours
  • If headsets are permitted
  • Where to store personal devices. Keeping phones out of sight, such as in a desk drawer, is an effective way to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Appropriate use during business hours. For example, business calls and brief conversations or texts with family members may be okay, but playing games or downloading music is not.

Just make sure that the limits you establish are fair and flexible. You can always tighten up your policies if necessary.

Define Cell Phone Etiquette

Not only do cell phones distract their owners, but calls can be especially annoying to the employees sitting close to the talker. These guidelines can minimize disruptions and help keep the peace, even when employees are on their phones:

  • Set cell phones to vibrate and ringtones to silent
  • Speak quietly
  • Keep calls short
  • Take personal calls in private
  • Avoid offensive language
  • Use texting as a quick and quiet alternative to talking on the phone
  • Do not use cell phone cameras (to protect everyone’s privacy)

Put Your Cell Phone Policy In Writing

To ensure that your policy for appropriate cell phone conduct is understood and followed, put it in writing. Spell out your terms in clear, unambiguous language,along with the rationale for each, such as to ensure safety or maintain productivity. Include the disciplinary actions that will follow if policy terms are violated. This could include multiple stages (verbal warning, written warning, and final warning) and may include a cell phone ban if usage interferes with business operations and the possibility of termination if use causes an accident or violates the company’s confidentiality policy.

Require all employees to review and sign the policy, indicating that they understand the policy terms and the consequences of violations.

Lead by Example

If you want your employees to adopt new cell phone habits, you must be impeccable in modeling the behavior you wish to cultivate. If you’re taking personal calls or texting during meetings, your employees won’t take your cell phone policy very seriously. Be a stellar role model, and your employees will be more likely to follow suit.

Enforce Your Policy

Enforce your policy consistently and uniformly. Simply walking around the workplace can be an effective way of curbing cell phone use, but beware of overdoing it. Hovering can be perceived as micromanagement, breeding resentment among employees and ultimately backfiring.

You may need to issue daily reminders at first. If problems persist after a provisional period of time and cause workplace disruptions or a decline in productivity, it may be time for a more serious conversation with those employees whose cell phone habits are more entrenched.

Take Disciplinary Action

When taking disciplinary action, follow the standard progression of issuing a verbal warning, written warning and final warning before terminating an employee. Document your discussions thoroughly, and be as fair as possible in order to reduce the risk of legal repercussions. The Hartford’s Small Business Owner’s Playbook shares some professional HR best practices you might consider if termination becomes necessary.

Next Steps: Are you interested in learning additional ways to manage your employees more effectively but don’t have time to keep up with the latest research and trends in talent management? We’ve got you covered with the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter. Sign up today and start receiving tools, insights and resources to help you run a successful business.

30 Responses to "What To Do When an Employee Spends Too Much Time on Their Cell Phone"

    • David Carson | November 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm

      There is an alternative. This product allows “whitelisting” of authorized cell phones and treats all other cell phones as unauthorized. The unauthorized cell phones will not work/connect while they are inside the control zone. Once they exit that zone (say, the mfg building) the cell phones are once again operational. Only cell phones are affected. Available everywhere except the USA due to FCC not yet approved.

    • STEPHANIE LAWRENCE | July 31, 2018 at 3:26 pm

      We have a NO CELL ZONE office in our CLIENT FIRST office. Reasons? Productivity, yes. Total focus on important work for clients, yes. And most importantly, SAFETY AND SECURITY OF OUR CLIENTS’ INFORMATION. We have every piece of our clients’ personal information in our files and we will not risk someone taking and sending photos, for example, of that info to anyone outside of our business.
      This hard-and-fast rule is explained during interviews, as well as it’s in the Employee Manual. It is strictly forbidden to use a personal electronic device in the office. To avoid temptation to text or call or email or tweet, employees put cell phones, laptops and iPads in their lockers before work, and we enforce this rule: No personal calls, texts or emails on company time in this office. Grounds for immediate suspension or termination.
      People will abide by the rules, if they know them, if they are applied equally and if they are enforced equally.

    • Rachel Simon | August 3, 2018 at 7:27 am

      I have a small manufacturing business. We noticed that the streaming of our employees on their devices was overloading our internet.
      It was also impossible to supervise usage.
      We now have a cell phone dock next to the time clock. Everyone has their own slot with their name. There are available cell phone chargers. All workers, including management, put their phones where all can see. We can take our phones for breaks only.
      This has simplified the supervision and illuminated the annoyance of tattletales. Although one employee tried bringing 2 phones. It was explained quickly that that kind of subterfuge was too easy to spot.

    • Tom payne | August 7, 2018 at 12:20 pm

      On the cell phone talking is one thing….
      But video games are another as well as on the web.
      This is one of those problems that will not go away.
      Remember cell phone calls in the car???
      Nobody gets tickets for this!!!!!

    • John Fisher | October 24, 2018 at 5:38 am

      Well written, rather than banning cell phones from workplace, it’s better to implement a solution that allows managers or IT admin to control and set limits on cell phones using a “lockdown solution” which allows employees to access websites, apps or content that are approved by IT admin or managers. Lockdown solution does more than just managing apps or websites, users can even track the devices and set peripheral settings to use the devices in kiosk mode.

      • Hannah Sullivan | October 24, 2018 at 9:38 am

        Great feedback, John!

    • Paul Doyle | December 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

      Thanks so much for this article as it provides great data and real life experiences about the problems with cell phone use in the workplace. In 2018, during our team discussions I hinted at a no cell phone policy and this article will be the reference I use for implementing it in 2019.

      • Hannah Sullivan | January 2, 2019 at 7:07 am

        Hi Paul, we appreciate your feedback. Be sure to check out some of our other articles on how to deal with certain problems in the workplace. Happy New Year!

    • Lee Lane | December 28, 2018 at 11:31 am

      So frustrating, I agree.
      I’m a small business in USA. So many errors from my employees on their phones, and they are unacceptable time and time again so they get to pay for their mistakes after the third strike. No matter if I bring this up I can see on camera, texting and talking on their personal lines for personal stuff.

      And the mistakes are dumb, due to them texting or talking is more important than $15/hr. I need a cell zone blocker for sure!

    • Al MIchael Gallucci | December 28, 2018 at 1:14 pm

      That’s great advice if your employees are in sight at all times. I have a service business and 90 percent of the time my employees are in the field. I have one who I know from other employees is getting calls from his wife every 15 minutes. There is no way to track this or no how much of my time is being stolen. All I can do is pass the cost on to my customers like all the other service companies.

    • DONALD WILLIAMS | December 28, 2018 at 3:30 pm

      There is no need for Cell Phones in any Office or plant by Production Personnel, (or any office/plant)
      “the I need to get a hold of Mom Dad or little boby or sally” DOES not hold any value.

      I maintain a landline for that purpose!

      If it it THAT important for you to be contacted they are MOST welcome to reach you on our landline.
      I am more than family friendly for those purposes, which can be monitored. Not for invasion of privacy purposes but just to verify it was a necessary emergency.
      But when Bobby texts “Mom what’s for dinner or we have no food” then Mommy replies and we have lost 10 minutes in a mundane argument back in forth.

    • Denise Hayes-Ward | December 28, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      I have a small family restaurant,with family members working for me,how can I cut their cell phone use,its like they have no respect for the job,help anyone please,p.s. I never use my cell at work,thanks Denise.

    • Mel berry | January 3, 2019 at 10:41 pm

      This article was written by an inexperienced manager or owner, or other. The only valid way of fixing the cell problem is to outlaw cell phones in the workplace – have them leave the phones in the car, and use company phones and emails for wasting company time.

    • Ginger | January 18, 2019 at 12:15 pm

      Unfortunately the majority of websites/secure portals require SMS authorization to complete log in. This opens a whole new set of problems when you need your staff to be able to access highly confidential websites/portals during the workday. Employees don’t want to use their phones for the authentication through SMS….but if a family member is texting…they jump all over their phones to respond promptly.
      This issue is a double edged sword. How do you address this issue?

    • annon | January 23, 2019 at 3:35 pm

      My employer uses the walk around method, but over does it and it has created resentment in me. This happened because “one” person made a mistake. Never mind the rest of us who have been here for years with no issues. Every job is not the same. Some people work constantly with customers while others like me do not interact with customers, but rather facts and figures. I did not pay thousands of dollars on my education to bring value to a company that treats me like a burger flipper. Solution – resume up. But wait nobody here knows what to do can you train before you go? Umm, no.

    • Nate | February 1, 2019 at 1:44 am

      Speaking as an employee, some of the comments here seem Stalinistic and overbearing to me. My employment has taken from call center jobs, to upper management, to manufacturing, and all of these places had a reasonable use policy – whether official or unofficial. If you don’t want to pay for employee downtime, you better pony up and pay for automation; humans aren’t robots, and shouldn’t be treated like industrial-era dogs.

      I’ve personally never had a major problem keeping my phone separate from my work, and doing so isn’t a major feat for me per se. What alarms me, were I to sit in an interview and be informed of a strict no tolerance phone policy, is what this speaks about your company’s culture. No thanks, good luck retaining talent with a hard approach like that. I know very talented professionals in fields that have waived better pay in lieu of better work culture, and with the rise of the millennial working class you had all better keep up with the times – or get used to spending a quarter of your year training new-hires. Sorry guys, the article has it correct. You need to reevaluate your cro-magnon ways.

      P.S.: I currently work for an employer that requires government security clearance. We deal with sensitive documentation daily. And guess what? We’ve still got our phones. And guess what else? We get our work done.

      • Hannah Sullivan | February 1, 2019 at 2:25 pm

        Thanks for sharing, Nate!

    • Rachel Simon | February 1, 2019 at 4:28 pm

      Lucky you-
      You are not responsible for Workmen’s Disability Ins.
      When an employee is talking on their call phone while climbing a ladder and falls- guess who covers the accident claim. The Employer.

      • Hannah Sullivan | February 1, 2019 at 6:15 pm

        Great point, Rachel. Thank you for sharing.

    • Nate | February 4, 2019 at 5:43 am

      To be fair Rachel, Darwinism always finds a way. If it weren’t phones, it’d be a sandwich, shooting rubber bands at co-workers, not tying shoelaces correctly, etc.

      With a draconian policy toward modern lifestyle, you’re employee retention is going to get the kind of employee that can’t make a reasonable judgment call about ladder safety. I think the onus here is more on hiring quality employees that have solid judgment, and systematically minimizing the ability to get claims in the first place.

      Slips trips and falls? Consider taking better care of your surfaces, implementing a safety shoe policy, and regularly doing safety stand-downs to look for an eliminate common sense safety concerns. Ladder safety? Try reducing or eliminating the need for ladders. There are probably far greater perils to your company’s insurance liability and bottom line than the existence of handsets. For the record, I’m an employee now, but I’ve held management roles at low, mid, and upper level for small and medium businesses in the past as well, so I’m not blind or unsympathetic to your words.

      Either way, good luck to you all (and everybody for that matter). The times they are a-changin’.

      • Hannah Sullivan | February 4, 2019 at 8:00 am

        Thanks for sharing, Nate!

    • Rachel Simon | February 4, 2019 at 11:17 am

      Hahaha-
      but, we have a workable cell phone policy here. Employees, who are primarily on machines, ladders etc etc get annoyed when they see a team member on a cell phone instead of focusing on the job at hand.

      I feel the same way- also at the dinner table, other drivers in cars, in the theater- there are so many places where cell phone use should be monitored. On trains, planes and buses..

      It’s sad that people feel it is their given right to be on a cell phone 24/7 with no regard for their surroundings.

      • Hannah Sullivan | February 6, 2019 at 8:25 am

        Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your experience at your own work.

    • Maggie | February 17, 2019 at 2:51 pm

      I am the manager and our company is growing at rapid rate. Up until now I have been okay with the usage of cell phones. We recently hired someone and the first day of training she was on her cell phone non stop. I really don’t think she even listened to what they were trying to teach her. Since she is new how can I be direct but be understanding since the rest of my staff is not the issue! Should I pull her aside directly or have brief team meeting about cell phones then follow up with email?

    • Gene Marks | February 19, 2019 at 10:52 am

      For Maggie,

      I think because you said your company is growing rapidly then it’s time to nail down a specific cell phone policy. I bet this won’t be the last time this issue will occur and you need to have something in writing to refer to. Once you have the policy written and documented then you should distribute to all employees – so going forward everyone is on notice. If the employee you mentioned keeps up the wrong behavior you can point to the policy as a reference. Hope this helps.

    • Jerry | March 6, 2019 at 12:57 pm

      Policies and manual enforcement is all good but what about the legal aspect of enforcing the policy? How about, as part of the policy we install an app on their phone that blocks usage of unwanted apps like games and Netflix during business hours? leave communications open for family and emergencies. Is it legal to apply and enforce the policy if the employee signs and agrees to an application like this? I’m researching but can’t find anything.

    • David | March 23, 2019 at 11:19 pm

      Unfortunately with my employees, it appears that zero tolerance will be the only effective solution. They are young and just can’t work productively with phones present. Now the issue becomes consequences. Immediate suspension seems harsh. I actually need them to work. What other options have been tried, and with what results?

    • Sabtain raza | April 8, 2019 at 8:39 am

      I am really happy to read this web site posts which includes tons of
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    • Concerned Employer | April 18, 2019 at 4:28 pm

      I’m concerned about young parents losing jobs due to cell phone culture running their lives. I grew up co-caring for 2 children (not walking distance) and somehow survived my own childhood with 2 working parents pre-cell phone era. Through it all, school and activity ‘pick-ups’, etc. were managed in advance on a calendar. ONCE I was ill and was picked up by my mom, ONCE one of the girls had a tummy ache (parents away on vacation) and my high school let me go for the day to take care of her.

      Here is a recent young parent job applicant interaction-

      EMPLOYER – I’m interested in an applicant who doesn’t use or check their phone except for breaks.
      APPLICANT -This may be an issue because I have 2 boys (in school) and need to have my phone on me and available.

      I was injured by the car of a distracted cell phone user, now disabled and require help with my house and limited personal care. Cell phones on the job distract workers, limit productivity and efficiency, promote poor employee relationships with employers and other employees. Cell noise and activity creates a frenetic energy in any workplace.

      I let go of an employee for losing around 1.5 hours out of 6 per day checking their phone, texting and going back and forth with family over minute details like ‘where did daddy put the cheetos?, ‘did you pay the electric bill honey? is grandma coming over tonight?’ also bringing internet to a crawl listening to podcasts.

      There are backups like employer landlines and a list of relatives or friends (working and non-working) for a school lock-down or other emergency.

      I understand how employers are unwilling to hand over 20-30% more pay to cell dependent employees who cannot use lunch time or breaks to manage their personal life.

      I feel for those who have grown up to insist that not having constant contact with friends, loved ones, tweets, e-mail and facebook notifications is detrimental to their well-being. Life is more rewarding if you run your electronic devices rather than letting them run you.

      I threw my cell phone away 14 years ago and have successfully managed a company, employees, travel and personal affairs well, even with a limiting disability.

      Educating others to think and act independently, in a healthy, non-addictive fashion is part of being a responsible person and parent.

    • Dennis Daughdrill | May 16, 2019 at 10:05 am

      I am from an age where cell phones didn’t exist . Don’t get me wrong, they can serve a good purpose but they are very often abused. In any kind production type of work where one person on a phone can stall the entire plant, they shouldn’t be allowed. I watch it all day long on my job and really irritates me, especially when someone hinders me from doing my job or creates extra work for me because they’re on the phone and not doing their job. There may not be anything on the market, I don’t know. If I had the electronic and computer knowledge I might try to develop an idea I have that would benefit employers. Things worked pretty well in the workplace before the existence of cell phones. In this spoiled, liberal world people no longer are willing to give 100% to their job. Apparently they applied for a check, not a job. Sure employees have rights, but employers also have the right to a days work for a days pay.

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