8 new etiquette rules for using gadgets in the office

You love to use “reply all” when you respond to email messages.

You email and phone with the same message.

You leave your cell phone ringer on, then leave your phone behind when you leave your desk.

You are rude!

As the use of personal technology increases at work, not everyone is observing new etiquette rules about how to use it. Here are eight of the most important rules to follow at work when it comes to cell phones, email, and other technology at work.

1. Using speaker phone when others can hear you. Playing back your voicemail messages on speaker phone or conducting an entire call on speaker phone is distracting to people trying to work around you. Even if you’re in an office with the door closed, speakerphone noises tend to travel. Don’t value your hands-free convenience over the ability of others to focus on their work.

2. Keeping your cell phone out so you can glance at it during meetings. Glancing down at your phone while you’re supposed to be focused on a meeting signals that you’re bored, not fully engaged, or don’t respect the time of the people you’re meeting with. If you must keep your phone out because you’re expecting an important call or text, explain that at the start of the meeting so that people don’t assume you’re just being rude.

3. Don’t over-use “reply all.” When multiple people are included on an email chain, they don’t all need to see your reply of “thanks” or “will do.” Only use “reply all” if everyone included truly needs to see your response; otherwise, stick with “reply” so your response goes only to the sender and doesn’t clutter multiple in-boxes.

4. Don’t email and phone with the same message; pick one or the other.Nothing is more annoying than starting to read an email, only to have the email’s sender pop his head in your office to repeat the same message.

5. Turn off your cell phone’s ringer if you leave it behind while you’re away from your desk. Ask any office worker, and you’ll hear stories about the annoying guy who leaves his phone behind with his ringer on full-volume while he goes to meetings … leaving his coworkers forced to hear repeated renditions of “Who Let the Dogs Out” or whatever else he’s chosen for his ring tone.

6. Placing calls from a noisy location. If you make a call, ensure you’re somewhere where you and the person you’re speaking with will be able to hear each other – and where you can give your full focus. It’s irritating to get a call from someone who immediately puts you on hold to order coffee because she just reached the front of the line.

7. Keep religious and political messages out of your email signature. Including religious or political messages is likely to offend or at least irritate some of your recipients, and introduces topics that don’t belong in a professional setting. Keep your sign-off neutral and professional.

8. Don’t use your work email as your personal email. In most offices, sending occasional personal emails from your work account is fine, but you should use your personal account for most personal things. If you treat your work email as your default personal account, chances are good that when you leave your job and your in-box and sent folder are full of personal messages, one of your coworkers will be stuck reading through all of them, as they clean out your account for your replacement. In the best case scenario, that’s merely a nuisance for a coworker – but in the worst case scenario, it could lead to embarrassing revelations.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly O*

    I have to chime in. We have some that reply all to messages that go to the whole company. Say someone sends out a “Congratulations to the new manager” email, they will send this overly-glowing missive to the whole company. And then someone else replies all to them. Next thing I know there are a dozen “you too!” messages I have to delete.

    (Can you tell that is a HUGE peeve of mine?)

    1. Mike*

      Luckily we use Google Apps for Business which has a “Mute” option that takes care of these rather nicely

      1. Long Time Admin*

        I want that!

        I also want a portable “Cone of Silence” to drop over people who use their speaker phones (we’re in a cube farm, guys), and people who leave their cells phones on their desks while they go to meetings.

    2. Anonymous*

      In my office someone will send out a notification to a distribution list that everyone in the company belongs to (usually an IT related thing) that the majority won’t understand or really need to know. Then someone will reply all to ask why they got that email, followed by 20 others replying all with the same question and asking to be removed from the list, then 2 or 3 people replying all to tell people to stop replying all.

    3. Ellie H.*

      I have to set meetings every couple months – if I write “Please reply directly to me with which of the following times you can make it” there are inevitably some people who reply all with their response. I generally think it’s funny-irritating (and I usually do Doodle polls now for that kind of thing) but that’s just because I’m the person who actually needs the information – if I were an unnecessary recipient I’m sure I’d be annoyed.

      That said sometimes I do genuinely find it nice to see “Congratulations” type emails sent reply-all. Sometimes funny-nice, sometimes just nice.

      1. Sharon*

        In the meeting situation, you can avoid clogging everyone else’s mailbox by sending the message to yourself and bcc-ing all the recipients. That way, you take “Reply All” off the table– recipients can ONLY reply to you because they can’t see anyone else.

  2. Anonymous*

    I would like to say that for the Reply All and CC that you should really be aware of your company culture.

    I was very much on the only cc or reply all when it will be something that is important for that person to know. I managed to make several coworkers unhappy by using the reply feature instead of reply all to make what I thought of as very simple comments. (Sure I’ll attend that meeting just put it on my calendar; I can take care of that; Thanks.)

    I’ve since started using the cc field a lot more and what I would consider less responsibly and people are much happier with it. So if your culture says use the CC then, you may need to use the CC. Or work to change the corporate culture. Because that’s always a super easy and quick fix.

    1. K*

      I have to say, I’ve had one to many people not reply all or CC me and then expect me to know something. I’d rather get a bunch of “will do” or “thanks” e-mails and be in the loop for the important stuff than to miss out on something I should know because people are worried about CCing or Reply Alling.

    2. KayDay*

      Yes! my company is big on cc’ing people (we’re small, so it’s an easy way to keep everyone in the loop). So I tend to CC people if I have any inkling that they might need it (but definitely not for things like “thanks” and “congrats” or “those cookies were tasty”).

      However, on more than one occasion, my boss thought she cc’ed me on an email that had something relevant to me, and then I felt like a complete flake when she asked me about it later….usually by the time I realized what happened, the situation was resolved and it was too late to point out that it was her in fact, who didn’t cc me.

  3. BW*

    1) Just last week someone in my office, where we all sit in cubes, actually had a personal call on speakerphone. I walked by her desk, and she was having a video call on her iPhone. Seriously? This is exactly why they make headsets! She doesn’t sit next to me either. She sits way at the other end of the room, 4 cubes down, and I could hear every word.

    I’ll also add to this list to please modulate your voice on any call where you are working in an open environment. One of my cube neighbors yells into her phone when she’s on it, and sometimes she is on back to back conference calls. She knows she is really loud and has apologized for the loudness, but hasn’t attempted to change it. :-/ Maybe I should be thankful she doesn’t put the call on speaker as well.

    1. ChristineH*

      Does your cube neighbor have any issues with her hearing, as far as you know? I also tend to speak too loud, and I’ve been told that can sometimes happen in people with hearing impairments since they likely can’t tell exactly how loud they are talking.

      1. Josh S*

        Ditto this. I’m often really loud without realizing it, and I’m pretty sure it’s as a result of minor childhood hearing loss that isn’t immediately obvious to anyone. (I can read lips really well to supplement what I hear from people–do it unconsciously too; I don’t have a problem hearing/understanding people in most cases either, unless there’s lots of background noise which can make things difficult for me; and when I have a cold/congestion, the first indicator to me is often that I have trouble hearing people correctly.)

        I usually just tell people that I have no volume control. As much as I try to be conscious of it, I oftentimes just can’t tell.

      2. BW*

        I really think it has something to do with using the phone or automatically thinking she has to yell into the headset to be heard or it’s bad or maybe having a phone to her ear makes it harder for her to hear herself. She talks at quiet to normal volume when she’s not on the phone.

    2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      Honestly, I think that a better solution is to go to another room and be loud. I *hate* when people call me and then are super quiet. If you can’t talk loud enough for me to hear you, then email me. I have to work at the front desk, so I don’t have the option of modulating the sound around me, and I tend to try to talk loudly into the phone because I’ve had more than one mistake be made by the person on the other end mishearing me.

      It doesn’t help that my hearing isn’t great. I have the volume as high as it will go on every phone I interact with, and it’s still usually quieter than I’d like it. Talking to someone on the other end who is intentionally being quiet is just counterproductive to the point (to verbally communicate).

    3. Vicki*

      At my previous job, we had a lot of people who would do conference calls from their cubicles on speaker phone. The worst case was when someone two cubes to my laft and someone else, 4 cubes to my right, were on the same long-distance call to India, both on speaker.

      We had many discussions of this on internal email lists. The simplest response was to walk over ands say “can you please go to a meeting room or use a headset? IT will give you a headset if you ask.” (IT did not publicize that they gave out headsets).

      The most amusing were the people who suggested just joining the conversation “Well, I figured since I can hear it, I might as well chime in.”

      1. Flynn*

        In the library, I’ve found a simple and friendly ‘would you like to borrow some headphones, just bring your card to the desk’ usually has them scrambling to come get one (or just saying it’s okay, and turning the sound off).

        It points out that they were loud enough to be a nuisance AND offers an easy solution in one go. I very very rarely have to follow up with anything else).

      2. BW*

        We have a meeting room shortage now since more people were brought into the building, which means sometimes there is a bunch of people sitting next to each other on the same call and more people on conference calls from their desks. We all have headsets, but it’s just really weird when we’re all dialing into the same call and can hear each other talking in person and over the phone at the same time.

  4. Anonymoose*

    Re: #8: “…but in the worst case scenario, it could lead to embarrassing revelations.”

    This is actually how I found out my departed manager had been cheating on her husband.

    1. BW*

      This is reminds me of going through my mom’s email when she died. Apparently she would be having racy IM conversations at work, and then emailing herself the logs from her work address to her personal address, and yes, that is also how I found out about her cheating. It also gave new meaning to the conversation I had had with some of the folks in IT around the time she was working there where they expressed disbelief at some of the really personal stuff between people in a relationship that would pass through work email. They claimed to notice a pattern related to educational level, but didn’t say which way it went.

  5. A Bug!*

    My boss makes me e-mail, and then follow it up with a phone call to tell them I sent an e-mail. Rarely, I can see the logic behind it – if the contents of the e-mail are urgent and the matter couldn’t have been taken care of solely by telephone.

    But usually, it’s just a painful, unnecessary experience and sometimes I don’t think my boss understands how some of this stuff really hurts our working relationship with other offices.

  6. Mike*

    Re: #8?
    ” chances are good that when you leave your job and your inbox and sent folder are full of personal messages, one of your co-workers will be stuck reading through all of them, as they clean out your account for your replacement.”

    What? There is no need to “clean out” an account for the replacement. You delete it or archive it and create a new one for the new person.

    At my previous employer we would suspend the account and keep it there for a year or so so that we could get into it if the need arises. But no one actively goes through them unless there is a need for a specific piece of information. That would just be dumb.

    That said, when I left I made sure to raze my digital footprint. Made it easier for the other IT guys as they didn’t have to do any work to archive my stuff.

    1. -X-*

      Agreed. It seems very strange to have someone go through an email account like that. And as Mike said, the only reason to look at it would be for specific info, which would begin with a search such as for a donor or client’s name, not by browsing through everything.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It varies by job. I’ve gone through many former employee’s email accounts to extract messages that the replacement would need. If the job is one where much of the work is done in email and email contains the histories of ongoing projects and relationships, or if projects are ongoing and someone needs to determine where they stand, the new person sometimes needs it (particularly when the person left without warning, such as because they were fired and didn’t have a chance to put things in order).

      1. Mike*

        Ok, that sounds different from what I interpreted your message as saying. It sounded like “We need to clear out these messages so the account is clean for the next person” like you would do for a physical office.

        1. -X-*

          Understood, but a generally better practice is not to let email be a filing system, and require important messages be stored like you store any other organization info.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s not always practical, depending on the nature of the work. (Nor do people always follow it when you do require it, as you will often discover upon reviewing their files when they’re gone.)

        2. aname*

          No, I refer back to emails that were written and sent 3 years before I got the job (so some of them are now 5 years old)!

          Therefore I totally emptied my predecessors account into mine and filed the emails by client for ease in the future, and as part of filling in my knowledge of the clients.

          (Yes, there were some personal ones. Nothing icky thank goodness).

    3. BW*

      At one place where I worked there were some circumstances, where other employees would be given access to the former employees mailbox for a period of time. This would happen if the person’s departure was sudden, not usually in the case where someone gave notice and was expected to transition everything before they left. When you’re searching for work-related information you might need, the personal stuff sticks out like a sore thumb.

      In any circumstance, assume people in IT can and do read your email. It may be that they are too busy to be bothered, but they could do it if they wanted to do it. In the case of the company where both my mother and I worked, they had filters in place that would hold mail with certain keywords, and someone in IT would have to manually go in and release them for delivery or sending. That’s how IT ended up seeing all the spicy messages being exchanged between employees and their SOs and/or flings.

  7. ChristineH*

    #6 – On a somewhat related note: In one job, my organization was holding an Open House. I don’t remember what time it started, but it did go past the end of normal office hours, during which people looking for resources sometimes call. So during the Open House, a call came in. Imagine my annoyance when I’m trying to handle the call all the while a crowd of people were chatting it up behind me! Maybe it was unavoidable given our office wasn’t super-large, but I probably would’ve preferred they kept the crowd towards non-work areas, such as the conference room or the room that held our resource library.

  8. Lizabeth*

    #5 we have a “clueless” in my office that does this all the time. Whenever she’s away from her desk and her phone goes off, we usually will turn the ringer to silent. Then she can’t figure out why she doesn’t hear the phone. And yes, she’s been talked to about the problem. Then there’s her problem of using her cell phone for business calls and end up shouting because of the not so great reception in the office. Sigh…

  9. Anonymous*

    “we usually will turn the ringer to silent. ”

    This is both obnoxious and doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If it’s just a simple switch on the side of the phone (like an iphone), and doesn’t require going in and looking around her phone, I don’t think it’s obnoxious. I think it’s a reasonable solution when someone leaves their ringer on and abandons their phone!

      1. Anonymous*

        Did they tell her they reset the ringer? If they did, not a big deal. If they didn’t, it’s mean because she may not know that happened and miss calls.

        1. Lizabeth*

          She’s been told several times which is why we turn the sound
          off now. And no we don’t need to look around on her phone to do it. Basically, she doesn’t “get” it no matter how many times something is said to her. We’ve tried, believe me…

      2. BW*

        I’ve done this when I know someone is in a meeting and won’t be back for a while. It’s no more obnoxious than leaving your ringer on unattended. You just tell the person when they get back to their desk, that their phone kept ringing while they were gone, so you switched it to silent.

  10. Mike C.*

    Abuse of Reply All is considered an HR issue where I am. Doesn’t Outlook have an option to disable “Reply All” without an admin password?

    1. Mike*

      Funny enough, I have the Google lab that sets the default to reply all :D I just know when to not do it.

    2. K*

      That sounds like a horrible idea. So if you have four people discussing something relevant to all of them everyone of them has to go through on each message and make sure they enter the right names each time? Really?

        1. K*

          Yes, but that only works if the e-mails either (a) show up as e-mails in the address block, or (b) the names are saved in your computer. Often with external people, that’s not going to be the case and you’re going to have to individually copy and paste each e-mail. Avoiding that is the reason Reply All was invented.

          Yes, I suppose if there’s a habitual abuser it could become worth blocking them. Honestly, I’ve always worked at small enough places that nobody causes that level of trouble with Reply All.

      1. Mike C.*

        And really, the key word is “abuse”. If you decide to replay all to a message heading out to 30,000 people, you’re going to get nailed big time.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    Be careful what you choose as your ringtone. The sales manager at Exjob had chosen a song for his. So in the quiet of the afternoon, when everyone was working in the open cube farm, all of a sudden we would hear


  12. Scott M*

    #2 – Sometimes your only contribution in a hour-long meeting is a 5 minute status report. In that case, I think that glancing at your phone occasionally to answer an Email is ok. Staying on it through the whole meeting is not.
    #3 Using ‘Reply All’ – sometimes it’s ok, even required, to reply to all with “Will do”. If you are one of several people who can complete a task, answering “will do” will tell others on the email list that you got it, and they don’t have to do it. This might be lost on people who are also included in the ‘reply-all’ so take that into account if you get annoyed.
    #4- Phone and email the same message – I might phone someone, start to leave an voicemail, then say – “Oh heck, I’ll just email you with more details”. Or I’ll email someone, thinking they will read it on their phone, then realize they are at their desk. But yeah, it you do it all the time, that can get annoying.

      1. BW*

        I wish! That’s the upside to the conference room shortage at my work. If I have to take call into a meeting from my desk, I can give my 5 minute status report then just put myself on mute and start multitasking. :)

  13. Vicki*

    > You leave your cell phone ringer on, then leave your phone behind when you leave your desk.

    I came into work at 7am one morning to hear a constant beep beep beep beep sound. A co-worker, who used his cell phone as a morning alarm clock, had forgotten it on his desk overnight and it had started going off at 6:45.

    The phone was locked, no way to stop the alarm without the password. I put it in a bottom desk drawer and left a note.

    1. John Quincy Adding Machine*

      That happened at my old job once too, though it was a phone that the head teacher had confiscated from a student and locked in his desk overnight.

    2. mirror*

      oh God, this reminds me of my days living in a dorm on campus. It was guaranteed that one of my hall-mates would forget their alarm clock was set and it would BEEP BEEP BEEP all day long during the holidays. Since they locked their doors and our RA was gone, there was no way to shut it off.

  14. Victoria*

    The only one I’d argue with is the Reply-All; there are times when it’s inappropriate (company-wide mailing lists should almost never be replied to). I use Reply-All on at least 50% of the messages I reply to; generally the email goes to 3-10 people. Sometimes it is just an email saying “Will do” – that way nobody else on my team spends their time looking into a problem I’m already fixing.

    Also, if the person who emailed me felt a specific person needed to be copied with the request or piece of information, it’s best if that person sees my response – if I take anyone off, it may look like I’m not responding to questions, or the person who was copied may be working a related task and need the information I’m sending.

    1. aname*

      Thats fine when its relevant. I quite often have emails going round that have 5-10 people who are all involved so Reply All is default for those.

      The ones we are annoyed about are the company wide messages such as “flu jabs available” and someone uses Reply All and details their reasons not to have one. Or the ‘cakes in the kitchen’ Reply All complaining they are on a diet and therefore won’t be having one. Only the original sender needed to know that…. and even then half the time probably not!

  15. Anonymous*

    for rely all, the difference is context. If an email goes out to the whole company saying the cafeteria is now open an hour later, and you reply all with “Awesome!!!!, that is the bad kind of reply all.

    If you are emailing with several people about a project, reply all is necessary, otherwise people will not have information they need.

    Like almost everything else in life, moderation and common sense are the key. Email is a tool and like any tool, can be put to good use or bad use. It’s not inherently evil.

    Personally, I tell people to err on the side of inclusion when it comes to keeping me in the loop on things. I’d rather have a few extra emails to delete than not have info I need to do my job.

  16. Long Time Admin*

    Well, none of these are new, but they all should be posted in gigantic letters in every office I’ve ever worked in.

  17. Elizabeth*

    I hate voice mail and my message encourages people to email me instead of leaving a message. I will get it faster and don’t have to try to figure out names and copy numbers down.

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