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Dealing with the cell phone abusers, the smokers, and the too-jolly staffer

Here are three people questions. They cover the cell phone and Internet users, the smokers, and the staffer who wastes time entertaining everybody.

They are answered by Jonna Contacos-Sawyer, SPHR, CCP, CMC, president and consulting principal of HR Consultants, a management and human resources firm in Johnstown, PA.

• What’s the most effective way to limit personal use of cell phones, e-mail, and the Internet?

Set up a policy that covers all electronic communication, Contacos-Sawyer says.

A policy is a necessity, not just to save the manager the aggravation of having to be the cell phone police but to ensure the survival of the office. Studies show that every year employers lose as much as 25 percent of productivity because of electronic communication abuse. “That’s something a small employer can’t afford,” she says.

Don’t try to forbid personal communication entirely. Employees are adults, and they need access to personal electronic communication. What the policy should do is limit it enough that it doesn’t affect productivity.

She recommends just a brief statement:

Email, instant messaging, Internet use, and voice mail are provided for office business use. While occasional personal non-business use of those services is accepted, employees must demonstrate a sense of responsibility and not abuse the privilege. That includes the use of personal cell phones.

Continuous abuse of electronic communication privileges will result in discipline up to and including discharge.

Because electronic communication is so prevalent, however, don’t expect to be able to send out a one-time notice about the policy and have people follow it, she says.

Make a to-do about it. Meet with staff and explain that they are paid a salary and benefits in exchange for their productivity. Tell them the office is setting the policy because electronic communication can severely limit productivity.

What if productivity has already nose-dived because of it? Say so and, if possible, give examples of what’s happened.

Hand out the policy and require that everybody sign and date it. Also tell staff the signed document will be kept in their individual personnel files. When all that’s done, add the policy to the handbook.

Keeping the signed policy in the personnel files is proof enough that the doctors take the matter seriously and expect everybody to use personal electronic communication appropriately.

Then if abuse appears, the policy is there to support disciplinary action.

What’s difficult about managing electronic communication, she says, is that it’s not possible to put specific limits on it, and neither is it possible to monitor the exact time people spend with it.

The only thing the manager can do is keep track of productivity. The staffers who abuse the policy will be less productive than those who don’t. Approach it as a productivity issue.

• How can the office keep the smokers from taking extra time for smoke breaks?

Again the answer is a policy.

Spell out what break times staff can take, perhaps a 15-minute break in the morning, one hour for lunch, and another 15-minute break in the afternoon.

With the minutes set, she says nobody can slip out every so often for a smoke break “because that’s seven to 10 minutes each time.” That’s in violation of the policy and warrants discipline.

Many offices want to go beyond that and get rid of the hassle – and the odor – of tobacco altogether.

Don’t go so far as to forbid smoking, she says. Do that and the office may lose a lot of staff.

Instead, she recommends that the office set up restrictions “that make it miserable” for people to smoke. The easiest way is to designate a smoking area that’s inconvenient. Many hospitals, for example, prohibit smoking on the entire campus. Employees have to walk a block away to smoke, and she points out that “there’s nothing to protect them from the environment.”

Some employers also ask job applicants if they smoke and then hire only the nonsmokers.

And some offices require smokers to pay higher health insurance premiums and copayments.

Smoking time is nonproductive time, she says, and to allow it “is unfair to the nonsmokers.”

• How should the office discipline a staffer who spends time entertaining everybody? The rest of the office likes the individual and the humor does help morale, but constantly being on stage cuts into the staffer’s productivity.

The real problem is that the loss of productivity isn’t limited to the entertainer, Contacos-Sawyer says.

Everybody may like the staffer and enjoy the entertainment, but people soon realize that person isn’t doing much work, and they start thinking “we can slack off too.” It erodes everybody’s productivity.

The short answer is that the manager has to deal with the entertainer as somebody who is not doing the job. Make it clear the performance needs improvement, and if improvement doesn’t happen, it’s time for discipline.

The long answer, however, is that entertainers don’t always realize their performance is unacceptable. They think the job is fun because the people around them are laughing and happy.

She recommends approaching the staffer with recognition of the strengths: “you have strong interpersonal skills.” Point out that because of those skills, the staffer can have a positive impact on everybody else’s performance.

Then say,“I don’t want to curb your personality. I want you to concentrate more on your work.” Explain that productivity is suffering and that there has to be improvement.

Ask for suggestions on how that person can change. Ask too “how can I help you?”

But from there, proceed as usual. And if there’s no change, deal with it as a performance issue. Discipline and, if necessary, fire.









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