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Home No. 67: Can I control excessive texting and “tweeting” by staff members?

Mar 07

No. 67: Can I control excessive texting and “tweeting” by staff members?

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Can I control excessive texting and “tweeting” by staff members?

Reader question: The younger staff seems to be inordinately drawn to heavy use of the newer communication channels like texting and tweeting. Even in the middle of our weekly meeting, I see them furtively glancing at new messages. There’s no telling how much salaried time they waste on these activities when I’m not in the lab to oversee. Could I require all personal communication devices be put in a locked drawer during research activities?

Expert comments: As in initial step, inform your staff on their first day exactly what you expect of them. Tell them they cannot spend working time on personal communications or on iPads, iPhones, cell phones or personal computers. Communications during work hours must be work-related.

Similarly, faculty frequently experience this situation in the classroom. You hope that students are taking notes on their laptops and not checking e-mail, shopping or surfing the Internet. But that’s not always the case.

Of course, an employee will occasionally need a cell phone handy because he’s waiting for a call from a doctor or similar situation. In that case, your best bet is to be flexible.

The bottom line is that you should set your expectations from the beginning:

  • Clearly verbalize what those expectations are and then put them in writing, making sure everyone receives a copy of the document. This will prevent potential offenders from saying they didn’t know about them.
  • Periodically review and renew the policy. This will benefit new people who come into the lab and serve as a refresher for your staff.

If that doesn’t work, and you think someone is abusing the policy, approach them. Explain that he appears to be spending work time attending to personal business. Give him the chance to explain because sometimes appearances are not accurate. If you still feel he is using work time for personal purposes and if there are repeated infractions, you should make a disciplinary move. That could range from a letter in his file to suspending him.

At our institution, we have several labor unions, and there are often specific contracted procedures regarding discipline. If you have labor unions at your institution, determine if the offending staff member is in a bargaining unit and whether there is anything in his contract pertaining to discipline. Your human resources or labor relations office can help you with this.

For those not in a bargaining unit, an institution often has procedures or guidelines regarding “progressive discipline.” This involves speaking with the individual about the infraction and giving him a reasonable chance to correct the problem. Explain what you believe he needs to do for you to consider it resolved.

On the other hand, if you’ve given him a few opportunities to stop and there’s still no improvement, you may want to act. Depending on their employment status, the actions could include:

  • withholding a pay increase
  • suspending him without pay for a fixed number of days, or
  • termination.

All of these options depend upon your institution’s policies and labor agreements, so consult with your human resources office before you take any of these actions.

Expert Comments by Dr. Karen R. Stubaus, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ

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Comments (7)
written by Victor, February 28, 2011
This is a very distressing topic, together with the last week's question about dressing inappropriately. One would expect that these issues may be addressed by using just a combination of common sense and reasonable enforcement, however, it looks like it is more akin drug addiction or alcoholism, and maybe needs similar approaches. Suffices to say that not only almost all young scientists (postdocs and below), but also much of the middle-aged technical staff and a lot of faculty (mostly younger, but often gray-haired too) are often dressed unprofessionally (piercings, athletic outfits such as biking or track and field, or just ostensibly untidy), heavily involved in private text/email exchanges during the meetings, even during the small informal three-person brainstorms, and spend much of their paid time facebooking or navigating the web. When commuting, have a glance at other drivers: very many of them are obviously texting. At this point, it becomes difficult to consider the socializing craze any differenly than irrational addiction.
written by greybeard, February 28, 2011
Don't we all wish one could regulate this sort of distraction and pollution of the work culture. Sigh - good luck!

One might as well have asked even about the inordinate amounts of time spent staring at laptop computers to no good end (or computer-gaming thereon when there were urgent writing activities hanging fire).

One can certainly make appropriate rules (e.g., ground-rules for one's lab, signed by member at time of joining), but enforcement is the key and that is feasible only to the extent that the project continuity would not be unduly disrupted by kicking the individual(s) out of the lab [thereby also setting a salutary example] PLUS a sufficient robust pipeline of well-trained individuals to pick up the baton promptly (i.e., having all of the practical expertise needed, or able to pick up the techniques in very short order].

At times I have fantasized about retrofitting labs and conference rooms as Faraday cages, and putting "opt-in" filters on the EtherNet connections so that only job-related WWW sites could be accessed. One also looks forward to the day when work-focused vs idling / distracted brain activity can be monitored, e.g., with a cap people have to wear where a red warning light goes on whenever they lose focus. But the bottom line is that people lacking sufficient discipline (e.g., texting addicted, gaming addicts, etc) or self-motivation to focus on the science etc cannot with present technology be constrained.
written by Econicon, March 04, 2011
I suggest a $1 "fine" every time one is caught texting, tweeting,etc in the midst of lab work of meetings (except in bona fide emergency situation). the money collected goes into a fund, which is used for monthly or quarterly lab pizza party.
written by Desparate, March 04, 2011
Can't some of our electrical engineering colleagues come up with a simple module we can plug in the wall that sends out "jamming" signals for about , say, 50 feet around. That will crimp some of this excessive social media. PS: The CIA or NSA may be interested too.
A critical response
written by DR NOGO, March 07, 2011
I am shocked to read what I read here. Presumably people high up in hierarchy or PIs and Experts stating the need for such measures without considering the root causes. However I am some what unsurprised to find critical thinking applied to the small project area or research field and not to the rest of society and life. In a sane society monitoring people without their explicit consent and access to their data would be regarded socially offensive. Just like racism is viewed today as socially offensive, or Christians that were fed to lions during the Roman empire. It is often the Expert of the time which resists or opposes change due to their in depth indoctrination, like when the first flying machine was build. Its called thinking within our frame of reference, or cultural frame of reference respectively. So I ask you to update your frame of reference, taking into consideration our understanding that human beings cannot be controlled/manipulated i.e reward/punishment AND be infinitely creative and innovative in research. It is these kind of management/leadership styles that hold us back, and ultimately make us (as scientists) inefficient.
written by David E. Harrison, March 07, 2011
IF you consider punishment based on the expert comments, do and say nothing until you have checked the rules with your personnel (human resources) department.
If possible, talk with your employee with a person from that department present so you have a witness. Most certainly put nothing in writing without having it approved by your personnel department.
Also, be certain that everyone is treated the same way.

I know it is frustrating when you are really busy and pressed to see someone loafing (light reading, phoning, playing with computer, texting, etc), but the critical thing is the person's productivity. Personally, I try to monitor what people accomplish, not how they look. If my employee or postdoc is accomplishing everything I expect and more, they can be pierced, wear gym suits, and text a lot, and I still value them.

And Dr Nogo - I believe (and hope) that the prior comments (filters, caps, jamming, etc) were jokes.
written by Victor, March 08, 2011
Did you guys notice, in this and in the previous discussions on this site, that the letters defending obnoxious behaviors at the workplace in the disguise of "liberties" are always full of poor grammar? This is a good illustration of the problem: some people work and study hard, try their best, and other people spend their life socializing and playing games, and demand from the society.

To David Harrison: "If my employee or postdoc is accomplishing everything I expect and more, they can be pierced, wear gym suits, and text a lot, and I still value them" - it theory, it always was my creed too, but in real life it just never happens (and there are good reasons for this too).

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