"I love Your First Year of Work - A Survival Guide. Every college and university should have this book, in numbers, in their libraries, bookstores, and Career Centres.” - Prof Jonathan Jansen, Rector UFS


Sorry, I’m on the phone

When I was writing Your First Year of Work – A Survival Guide I asked employers which new-employee behaviours most bugged them. Cellphone and telephone usage topped the list.

I once joined a company at which there worked a recently appointed assistant by the name of Amy*. Amy’s job was, well, to assist myself and another, which she would do in a so-so fashion, when she wasn’t busy yakking on the phone.

Now Amy wasn’t a naturally devious person and she adhered to the company rule of not making personal calls during working hours. So she got her boyfriend, father, best mate to call her; either on her cellphone or the landline. Brilliant. But what Amy, and the company, forgot to factor in was the hidden cost.

I did a quick sum: if Amy was paid R7,500 per month and spent an estimated 60 minutes of her eight-hour day on personal calls, then she was flushing R937.50 of the company’s money down the toilet. This was money she was being paid, but was not earning.

As this was a small company and everyone reported directly to the CEO, I brought this to her attention and she suggested – quite reasonably – that I manage the situation. I suggested – equally reasonably – that such challenges might be avoided if she amended the company policy, but I’m not sure if that ever happened.

After another day of observing – and hearing – Amy’s behaviour I stopped practising conflict avoidance and recommended that she keep her personal calls for her lunch break. Her response? ‘I like to eat and read my book at lunch time.’ I then mentioned that she was wasting valuable work time; to which she responded that she was quite capable of talking and working. If this was the case I might have conceded the point, but her work wasn’t of a high standard and she needed all the help she could get to improve matters. She was most unhappy when I pointed this out, and spent the next twenty minutes outside, on her cellphone, telling her boyfriend what a monster I was. (I’m not making this up.)

Another matter I raised was that no one was able to talk to her while she was on the phone. I couldn’t ask for her assistance, and clients and colleagues were getting tired of leaving voice messages.

I was brought up to not interrupt people while they were on the phone – regardless of their age or position – so I found it extremely difficult to walk up to her and instruct her to terminate her call. I needn’t have worried about being rude: when I did attempt to do so, she turned her back and carried on talking. On one occasion I even resorted to emailing her a ‘please come and speak to me when you’ve finished talking to your dad’. Amy was furious; utterly indignant that I’d dare make such demands. What was I thinking?

If you’re now convinced that Amy was in fact the monster and I should have been a whole lot tougher, think on this: Amy truly believed she was entitled to jabber away on the phone – as long as she wasn’t the one running up the phone bill. She firmly believed that to suggest otherwise was unreasonable. And she firmly believed that grass would be softer on the other side, so she left to seek her fortune.

Sadly, unless Amy gets her act together, she won’t find her fortune. She’ll hop from job to job, leaving before she’s accumulated enough skills to move vertically rather than horizontally. She will continue to waste company resources and she will remain under-productive. As long as she refuses to accept that business rules are often not the same as her social rules, she will hold herself back.

When I tell students this story, I make it about them: what they can learn and how they can become more productive; how they can benefit from playing by the house rules. But managers and employees also have a responsibility to ensure that the rules make sense and are clearly communicated.