my employee is always distracted by her phone

A reader writes:

One of my employees, Robin, is a good employee, but she seems tethered to her cell phone. I’ve noticed her on it in small meetings and larger ones. Meetings are not my favorite place to be either, but I find it extremely rude and distracting when she does this. Having her do this in a very small meeting I was leading while she was right beside me was the last straw. I know her mother is not in great health and she’s dealing with some things personally, so I’m reluctant to speak with her about this. I don’t have an issue with someone checking the time or weather on their phone during a meeting, or even excusing themselves if it’s an urgent call or text, but it’s coming across poorly. She has even talked about going into withdrawals without her phone. Should I address this?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How to enforce high standards while still treating employees like adults
  • Are executives coaches worth it?
  • When an employee can’t attend a mandatory meeting

{ 198 comments… read them below }

  1. rolly*

    OP4 set up an impossible situation if they want the person to work. They either have to change the rules or accept that the worker cannot work this quarter. That’s it.

      1. Meow*

        Or at the very least just give a bunch of advance notice. My job in college, on the rare occasion that we had mandatory all staff meetings, scheduled them for Sunday mornings and gave us a month’s notice. Some people showed up in the PJs, but otherwise most people were able to work out their extracurriculars, childcare, family engagements, etc, given that much notice.

        1. Asenath*

          Even with a month’s notice, I wouldn’t be attending a Sunday morning meeting since I don’t work Sundays and always have another commitment. But then, I don’t think I ever worked anywhere that had a meeting that everyone had to attend. They sometimes (rarely) had multiple sessions of a given meeting to ensure that as many people as possible could attend, but I don’t know if they got or expected 100% attendance even for those.

          1. Mimi*

            Even our beginning-of-semester meeting to schedule shifts usually had at least one person whose schedule was being chosen by a manager proxy with a list of conflicts and preferred times.

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Notice would not matter for quite a lot of extracurricular activities. You could give three month’s notice and that wouldn’t matter if it’s the same date as their intermural softball finals or opening night of a play they are in. It’s best to accept that if you have a meeting outside of the hours a person is usually scheduled to work then they might not be able to work around that, and plan accordingly (like by holding multiple sessions as Alison mentioned).

        3. AM*

          Even with this, though, what’s the plan if someone… gets sick? They really just can’t work the rest of the quarter? It’s just so short-sighted.

        4. Evan Þ*

          In addition to all the other problems, a Sunday morning meeting would conflict with many people’s religious observances. And, of course, a Saturday morning meeting would conflict with other people’s.

      2. Curmudgeon in California*


        Especially if you have different shifts, you need to run multiple sessions of “mandatory meetings”.

        I would be looking for a different job if my employer scheduled mandatory meetings during hours that they knew I had hard conflicts like classes, sports meets or standing medical appointments.

      3. Lunar Caustic*

        Yes, this. I was a lab assistant in college and a safety training session was mandatory in order to work (for obvious reasons). I was unable to make the primary scheduled session, so the trainer had to do a separate session with me. Annoying for her? Undoubtedly. Necessary? Absolutely–it was a small school and no one else had the desire or necessary experience to TA for organic chemistry lab.

    1. Le Sigh*

      Yeah, OP4’s wording sounds like they manage some kind of on-campus job situation or something similar? As much as possible in college, I specifically tried to only get jobs that were either work study or campus jobs. Off-campus employers were much less likely to be flexible or accommodating of school schedules. If you’re going to manage students (or even just part-time staff), you have to be somewhat flexible.

      1. Cobol*

        I may be reading too much into a word choice, but LW used the term extracurricular, which makes me think high school, not college. That just makes Alison’s advice even more spit on in my mind.

        1. Le Sigh*

          Could be, yeah. And you’re right, either way if a huge chunk of your staff is students, this is your reality! And frankly I’ve been in office jobs for years and there’s still some flexibility with stuff like this.

      2. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Although the nursing home I worked at (in a college town) asked for our schedules so they could figure out our shifts. The break room looked like the campus library during finals.

    2. Underrated Pear*

      Yes, and as Alison mentioned in her response, this is especially true when you are working with students, whose schedules are all over the place. I have managed teams of undergrads multiple times; each time, I asked them to send me their schedules before the start of the semester so I could plan a time for our weekly meeting. It was ALMOST impossible to find a time that worked for everyone, but I somehow managed to pull it off each semester!

      1. Underrated Pear*

        Oh, and I should also add that I also understood if people couldn’t make the meeting, and either recorded it (if it was on Zoom) or shared meeting notes afterward because… sometimes people just have to miss a meeting. I’m curious – if an employee stated ahead of time they could make the meeting but then got really sick the day before and couldn’t attend, would you fire them because they would no longer be able to do the job properly? If the answer is no (and I certainly hope it is), then it seems like it’s possible to find a workaround.

      2. KatieP*

        I’ve been managing a team of students for 4 years (not the same people, but they do tend to stay until they graduate), and even if I get their schedules at the start of the semester, by week 2, it’s out the window because of add/drops! We just accept that the first 2-3 weeks of a semester will be wishy-washy on time while our team figures out which classes they need to be in.

    3. RagingADHD*

      Yeah, it kind of sounds like the LW set an ultimatum and the student said, “Okay, see you next quarter.”

      The LW created a problem for themselves by making the meeting mandatory and inflexible. Now they have to solve it for themselves. If you want someone to work, don’t tell them they can’t.

    4. Sara without an H*

      OP4 really needs to be more flexible in managing student employees, who often have to juggle class schedules, sports, extracurricular commitments, off-campus jobs, and child care. (Not all students are young and unattached, btw.)

      If this meeting is a start-of-semester-schedule-&-information session, it might help to set up some of the information in an online format that students have to complete before starting. My last circulation manager did this and it helped a lot. It was a lot more effective than trying to get 20+ students into the same room at the same time.

    5. Cheap Ass Rolex*

      If you know you’re employing students and/or the role is designed for them, you should realize the job comes second. Otherwise, just hire full-time staff.

    6. CommanderBanana*

      Ugh, the mandatory meeting bullshit. I worked full-time and part-timed at a coffeeshop that desperately, desperately needed staff (they were the only coffeeshop in their neighborhood and were ALWAYS busy). Most of the employees were also working two jobs or in school/college.

      They scheduled a mandatory all-staff meeting at 8 am on a Saturday morning. Saturday mornings were literally the ONLY time I didn’t work. Employers will do stuff like this and then be like wHy iS eVeRyOnE So MaD?

    7. Nanani*

      You’d think on-campus student jobs, of all jobs in the universe, would understand that they are not the employee’s priority. School is! and often extracurriculars are also more important than job (I’m picturing something with a lot of practice obligations like a student athlete, a music or theatre major with performances that are worked on all year, that sort of thing)

      Move the meeting, make it a document isntead of a session, hold multiple meetings, etc. There are ways around it and it is not your -student employee-‘s problem to find it.

    8. Loulou*

      Yes, this question seemed like it has a very obvious answer. No shade there — I think sometimes people write in wanting someone else to tell them the thing they already know they should do.

    9. Nonprofiteer*

      Really, I can’t imagine a scenario where you need a mandatory meeting for student employees. Have a couple of options, or make it virtual and record it. They are students first, and the best workers are usually busy with other stuff.

      1. Rolly*

        I can understand mandatory meetings – around safety, privacy, etc. But they’d have to be offered at multiple times as you suggest.

    10. Falling Diphthong*

      It sounds like, say, managing a bunch of part-time students who between them cover all the library’s open hours. So of course some of them are not going to be able to do Thursday at 6 or whatever–they never work that time because they have other commitments.

      Also, and I say this without snark: Could the meeting be an email? What’s the point of setting up this hurdle for part-timers?

    11. Zennish*

      It sounds like OP, for whatever reason, backed themselves into a corner with an unnecessary ultimatum. It’s usually counterproductive to go all “this is mandatory no matter what” unless a situation actually warrants it (i.e. you can’t get student aid if you don’t attend one specific meeting, or some legal requirement or whatever).

      A possible solution for the present situation is to just address everyone and say something like “I’ve realized that there are some legitimate scheduling conflicts for this meeting, so I’m adding x number of additional sessions at y times. You must attend one of those.”

    12. KatieP*

      If the OP4 wasn’t the one who decided the meeting had to be mandatory, they need to push back on whoever did. I’ve had a team of 4 – 7 student workers for the last 4 years, and I can count on one finger how many times they were all able to attend the same meeting.

      If OP4 is the one who made the meeting mandatory, well, it’s in their power to set multiple meetings. It’s not fun to review the same material 3-4 times. It’s still preferable to having to get through a semester while being down an employee, or hiring and training a new one.

      When you decide to hire student workers, you have to accept that you’re the one that will have to give when they have a scheduling conflict. If you don’t give, you’re going to have to hire a new student worker and start training them all over again.

  2. River Otter*

    “ it’s coming across as if you’re not focused on the discussions we’re there to have”

    It might come across as though she is unfocused, but one question to ask yourself is whether or not she really is unfocused. Does she contribute during the meetings? Does she take actions after the meetings that demonstrate that she was paying attention, such as, if you discuss the campaign to introduce a new shade of llama paint, do you later see her rolling out the new shade of llama paint? Because you really have to separate what your perceptions are from what is actually happening. Part of managing distractions is not telling other people to change what they do but you learn to change your own reaction to what is happening. If you can point to ways that her phone use impacts her work then say something about how hurtful this is impacting homework. If all you can point to is your own perceptions and distraction, then the solution lies with changing yourself.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      Even if she is focused and takes actions that show she was — that doesn’t change other people’s perceptions (who won’t see the later outcome of the work, they just see her ‘not paying attention’ in the meeting). LW needs to be (and is I think) aware of how others see this, as well as LW herself.

    2. Batgirl*

      I think this is an observation that should be made, and raised during the discussion: either “I can/can’t tell that you took in the substance of the meeting where you were seemingly distracted”, but I don’t think an ability to listen and multitask completely eclipses the need for “I am listening” optics during a meeting. If the employee listens better while her hands are occupied, there are other things to do that will serve her reputation better.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        “I am listening” optics during a meeting.
        I think this is important–it’s derailing if someone is supposed to be engaged but appears obviously checked out. Hard on the person talking, hard on the other people listening. (Exception for “Okay, I’m going to turn to the Stinson Project now, say my name loudly if you need my input.”)

        Staring at your phone indicates your eyes and your attention are elsewhere. Fine when waiting for a bus, not when you are supposed to be attending to what is said. And “no, no, quiz me and you’ll see I was listening” isn’t the obvious comeback.

    3. CheeryO*

      It’s been proven that people can’t really multi-task. Even if the employee is getting the gist of the meeting, she could very well be missing important details or context. And even if she isn’t, it’s rude to be on your phone during a meeting, period.

      1. Quickbeam*

        At my last hospital job as an RN, I was orienting a new RN to the job. She was constantly on her phone, even in front of the patients. She felt this was a generational thing but I asked her how she would feel if she was a patient and her nurse missed a critical vital sign due to being on her phone. She ended up leaving the profession and I felt in part she could not envision a shift away from her phone.

    4. turquoisecow*

      I could see being on one’s phone during a large meeting where information is being given our an the individual doesn’t contribute much. Maybe she’s doing sudoku or something and that helps her concentrate on what’s being said. But in a small meeting with only a handful of people, it really makes it look like you’re not engaged. And if you’re not engaged, do you really need to be in the meeting?

      So if the employee isn’t participating and engaged, maybe OP needs to ask themselves if the employee needs to be there. In fact, maybe that’s a way to frame it for the discussion – it seems like you’re not focused, is this really a meeting that you benefit from, or that others benefit by your presence? Because it doesn’t seem like that to others.

      1. turquoisecow*

        Ugh, that should say: where information is being given OUT, AND the individual doesn’t contribute much.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        You can’t do a sudoku and take in information about teapot lids at the same time. It’s been proven scientifically.

    5. Grace Poole*

      One of my colleagues used to get dinged for being on her phone in a meeting, but she was taking notes in an app. But since it “looked bad” to our big boss, she bought herself a notebook.

      1. nozenfordaddy*

        Been in this situation. I regularly used to take notes in my phone – and got told I shouldn’t be on my phone. Now I use a notepad and pen, or my iPad occasionally (I used it just today) because I type way faster than I write, and its neater. I still use my phone in the field where no one cares as much as in sit down meetings, photos and notes are so much easier to email/share quickly when I don’t have to transcribe my own terrible handwriting first.

        1. Candi*

          That’s been bugging me in college. You can’t have your phone out -but taking notes on a tablet is fine.

          I set up my current tablet by copying over my phone’s setup. The only thing I can’t do on the tablet is text and call. (I could, but it requires scanning a QR code on the tablet with the phone’s QR scanning capability -and my phone doesn’t have it. It should, but it doesn’t.)

          Back to the subject, my point is that these days connecting phone = goofing off and tablet = being serious is SILLY.

          1. Spencer Hastings*

            I had one professor who was very strict about no devices at all in class. Which would have been all well and good, except that the textbook for the course was an e-textbook…

          2. Zennish*

            Considering the two things they don’t want you doing in class are texting and calling, it kind of makes sense to me. :-)

            1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              well that and surfing the net looking at shoes or rugby players or twitter or cat videos or….

        2. ceiswyn*

          Yes, exactly this.

          Even I can’t read my handwriting if I’m in a hurry. And notes I took on my phone or tablet can just be immediately saved fo sharing; and I have done that several times for others who weren’t at the meeting, or didn’t take notes and realised they needed them.

    6. Artemesia*

      Not having someone scrolling their phone during meetings is a very low ask. The phones ought to be put away. If there is truly an emergency situation where someone is awaiting a call that phone can be in their pocket on vibrate and they can excuse themselves. I am surprised a supervisor is unsure about requiring this.

    7. tessa*

      >Part of managing distractions is not telling other people to change what they do but you learn to change your own reaction to what is happening.

      Part of being a manager is you get to set the terms of engagement. Being on a phone without having given a heads-up beforehand that you have to monitor your phone at that time for a possible emergency is just plain rude and unprofessional. I mean, is it really that difficult to put down the phone for an hour? If so, there are much bigger problems going on.

      I really, really struggle with even the notion that hey, if you can’t handle your people constantly being on their phones, you’re problem.

    8. MCMonkeyBean*

      I have ADHD and I can’t agree with this. There are lots of things that should be accommodated, but spending most of a meeting looking at your phone is always going to come across as rude and I think it’s totally reasonable to ask that someone not do it. If they need to do something during the meeting to keep focused they need to try something else. At least if you bring a laptop or a notepad people it may look more like you are taking meeting notes rather than browsing online, that would probably be a better place to start.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        There’s something about the flick-flick-flick of someone scrolling through stuff on their phone that’s particularly distracting to sit next to – I think it’s the combination of the constant but irregular motion and the flickering lights. I find it’s way more distracting that someone being on a laptop during a meeting, or taking notes.

        I also have yet to meet someone who is actually able to scroll social media while paying full attention to a meeting. Partial attention, yes, but it’s more a matter of noticing when something comes up that needs their attention and asking for it to be repeated than actually tracking the details.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          oh yes, that drives me bonkers, they’re half listening and suddenly “wait what was that”? Wastes everyone else’s time.

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          oh yes, that drives me bonkers, they’re half listening and suddenly “wait what was that”? Wastes everyone else’s time.

    9. Anon Supervisor*

      I find it hard to believe that someone scrolling their phone throughout a meeting is effectively contributing to the discussion. Regardless of what the employee is retaining or hearing, she’s communicating (non-verbally) to others that this meeting (or speaker) isn’t as important as what’s on her phone. People are going to naturally assume she’s being rude and it’s much easier to put the phone away during meetings than to coach others to assume good intent about this.

    10. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Whatever happened to common courtesy? It is rude to be on your phone while people are talking to you!

      And don’t say “what if there’s an emergency with her mother?” It is possible to text someone “please call it’s URGENT” and of course that trumps the meeting. In that case the employee will excuse herself and give a short explanation when coming back after the call.

      I’ve seen all too many youngsters playing on their phone instead of working, that was about the one instance where I actually agreed with my abusive boss that their behaviour was inacceptable.

  3. Littorally*

    #4: I told them that if they couldn’t make it to the meeting, they couldn’t work this quarter.

    Is this just something you decided on as a disciplinary method, or is there something that can only be covered at this one sole meeting that is dreadfully vital to their employment that quarter? From the tone of your letter, I’m guessing the former.

    What is the business case for this restriction? If you can’t make a strong one, you should probably not push forward with the requirement. Are you so entirely overstaffed with students that you’re willing to lose anyone who prioritizes being, you know, a student rather than an employee?

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*


      And in my experience of having high school/college students work for me, the ones who are the best workers are the ones who are more likely to be ambitious and have other commitments. If you are over-staffed, this is just going to drive away the good workers.

    2. HiHello*

      Also, people who work full time sometime can’t make mandatory meetings cause life happens. Either offer a few meetings or somehow record it. When I was a student, certain matters came first before work. But if something was important, there was usually at least two time slots to select from.

      1. Becky*

        Heck at my company nearly every company-wide meeting has two or three different timeslots to accommodate different time zones, different offices, client meetings etc. And they’re all recorded.

      2. Cheap Ass Rolex*

        Exactly. If your point is to make sure people have the info from the meeting, then do the work on your end to make sure it gets to them. If it’s some kind of power play to make sure your job is their top priority… that’s dumb and don’t do that.

      3. turquoisecow*

        Yeah, what if the employee had PTO scheduled already for a trip outside the country, or were out sick suddenly, or had a family emergency? Conflicts aren’t limited to students!

      4. SpaceySteph*

        Yes, for the love of god, record it. Its 2022, we do 99% of things by virtual meeting anyway, and all those platforms have a built-in record function. If its so important it needs to be heard by everyone and can only be said exactly one time, put it on Teams/Zoom/Meet/whatever and record it.

    3. Nanani*

      Unless this is critical safety training, I can’t think of a good reason for “make this one inflexible meeting or you’re fired” demands of a -student employee-.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Even if it is a critical safety training, is there really no other way to get them trained? You can’t hold two sessions, have them take an alternative training online, give them the training in a one-on-one, or have them sit in on one held for another department?

        To be clear, I have dealt with situations where there really was no other option… it’s just rare. Training was legally required to do the job and was only available at very limited times from external sources. But if that’s the situation LW is in, the answer is very straightforward: employees must attend the training or they can’t do the job. There’s no legal or practical way around it.

        1. Nanani*

          Oh absolutely. I was trying to think of a plausible good reason for a meeting being just that darn important, and safety training is all that came to mind.
          They really -should- have multiple schedule options and formats and such so that not being able to make a given one is a non-issue.

      2. introverted af*

        One of my student jobs was tutoring for the collegiate athletes through that organization, and we had mandatory meetings (for all staff, not just students) for different compliance topics on like gifts to student athletes and disclosure of information and gambling and all that stuff. So that’s just another possible example, but even then, there were two options and you had to check in in advance if you couldn’t make one of them to find another way to have a discussion with your supervisor.

    4. Rock Prof*

      Also, if it’s a student you’ve worked with before, is there actually anything presented at the meeting that they don’t know or that has changed over time?

    5. Jean*

      The subtext of this letter does indeed suggest that the “you can’t work this quarter” consequence was nothing more than a power play by OP, and now it’s backfiring on them. Good luck with that, OP.

      I may or may not have a strong bias against this kind of crap, due to my sister not being able to attend my baby shower because her part time after school job had a “mandatory” meeting that day. Either way, it’s BS.

    6. melonhead*

      Students’ scheduled are extremely unpredictable. If you can’t accommodate them, maybe don’t hire students.

  4. NYWeasel*

    Having had to deal with multiple parental health crises over the past year, I greatly appreciate the flexibility my manager gave me through the worst periods, some of which involved avalanches of “ANSWER NOW PLEASE” texts from my siblings etc. So to this manager, I’d like to know what specifically is irritating her more than “an occasional check of the weather” would. Is her employee missing the flow of the dialogue? Is it just the perception from you or others that she’s not engaged? My response will vary depending on the issue. If she’s losing track of the conversation then yes, she should step out to deal with it. But if you’re just frustrated bc it feels rude, maybe this is an area where she needs a little temporary grace to get through a rough patch. I wasn’t always at my most professional over the past year, but having a manager give me that slack helped me get through it to a better place faster.

    1. yllis*


      When my dad was slowly declining due to Parkinson’s, I had my phone on me and glanced at everything all the time. His Dr. Appoinments, if he fell, could they find adequate assisted living, my mom’s burnout at being a caretaker, etc. That phone was a lifeline

      1. JelloStapler*

        Just an internet nod as someone whose dad also had a similar slow (then rather rapid) decline from Parkinson’s (passed a few years ago). All you said, I really relate.

        1. LavaLamp(she/her)*

          When my mom was transferred to end of life care; I spent an entire week commandeering my boss’s office for private phone calls. Not a single person begrudged me not being at my desk. My boss was on vacation at the time and left her office unlocked so we could have a private space if needed without booking a conference room.

        2. yllis*

          Yeah. It was about 2.5 years from diagnosis till he couldnt be at home anymore. Covid hit, home health care workers went elsewhere (dont blame them, lots more money other places), then a scramble for assisted living hospice. Found a great place with activities, my mom could be there all day, etc and about 6-7K a month out of pocket. Then covid lockdown and one visitor, one hour per day. It was less than 2 months after he went there that he died.

          1. SpaceySteph*

            Wow, really?! My FIL has recently been diagnosed with Parkinsons and I honestly didn’t imagine the decline would be that swift.

            1. yllis*

              I honestly don’t know how much of it was Parkinson’s and how much was just…..sadness?

              If I think too much about it, I will start to cry but we were able to keep him at home until Sept 2020. They moved to a single floor home, hired home health care, modified the bathrooms, etc. In about July, the owner of the home health care place started saying that it was getting to be too much. To be fair, she ran more of a “light housework/spongebath/make meals” kind of place and did far more for far longer. So in Sept, she cut my parents off and quit. To them it seemed sudden but well, it was coming. My dad couldnt even bend at the waist anymore. This was a man who climbed Machu Picchu in his late 60s. He was slowly just getting more imprisoned in his body.

              So we scrambled and looking for full nursing. And that was in the middle of covid. No one was really taking people. We found a workaround with an assisted living center close by that also allowed hospice. In September, it seemed like it was fine. He was mentally 100%, the speaking was hard but if you were patient you could understand. He moved in and then the next week….lockdown. This great place that had activities, liberal visitation policy, etc just shut. One visitor per day for one hour max. No activities, crappy meals delivered sporadically and he needed help eating (which my mom would do but she couldnt stay for every meal) I admit I overstayed since he was in his own room. I drove 130 miles once a week and well, they let me.

              And when that happened, the lockdown…the decline was so swift. He passed in Dec 2020. The last few visits were so different. No interest in eating (and this was a man who loved his food), no interest in talking, etc. I always had a special bond and got further than most but that last visit was like he was a child again. I think he had decided it was time. He died 2 days later.

              Left my mom devestated because she promised to keep him at home and she did longer than was humanly possible. That combined with 3 years of caretaking and over 2 years of never a full nights sleep (one ear open to hear for falls) and it’s taken her a long time.

              Left me so so angry at anti vaxxers. I literally would have cut off my hand for a vaccine sooner so there could have been more time.

              Anyway, this turned into quite a thing….sorry about that. I guess it was just there ready to come out

              1. Another Cat Lady*

                I don’t have much to say, but offer internet hugs if you want them. You and your mom have been through hell and no one deserves what happened to your family. Your dad sounds like he was a great guy and your love for him comes through in what you’ve written here. Sending good thoughts and kind wishes your way.

              2. SpaceySteph*

                I’m so sorry for your loss. This kind of information will be helpful if/when I have to support my husband through a similar circumstance so I appreciate your sharing.

                My grandfather passed in March 2021 and I think a lot of it was sadness as well. He was in independent and then assisted living. His partner (not my grandmother) experienced a swift mental decline and ended up going to assisted living first, then he really was just so lonely without her and very limited visitation otherwise. Its really hard to be alone especially at the end of your life.

            2. anon for this*

              I am not a doctor, and my heart absolutely goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one to Parkinson’s. But as a counterpoint, my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 80, and lived to be 92 at a reasonable quality of life, though she complained about some side effects from her medication and some difficulty getting around. She ultimately passed from an unrelated cancer.

              I only say this to offer a counterpoint for SpaceySteph; the decline is not always rapid, and different individuals will have different experiences with this awful condition.

            3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              Parkinson’s doesn’t kill you, it only makes your life a misery.
              There are illnesses related to it that can kill you. My mother died of pneumonia. My father felt bad because he never saw any signs of infection, but then the doctor explained that people with Parkinson’s tend to have “silent” or asymptomatic versions of such illnesses.

      2. Bugalugs*

        I was in the same position with my dad with his Parkinson’s and dementia and there’s definitely more paying attention to alerts and that type of thing so you can respond as needed and quickly depending on the situation. On the flip side though if you regularly can’t go to a half hour or hour meeting without being able to put down your phone at all are you actually paying enough attention in the meeting to be getting what you need out of it. Should you have just excused yourself from the meeting rather then being distracted the entire time. As flexible as work places can be or try to be sometimes it’s not possible to both be at work and doing what you need to do there and taking care of someone or someone’s affairs while they’re home ill.

        It’s a tough position to be in while working and not one I’d want to put on anyone but there are still minimum things you need to do and being able to not be on your phone constantly during a meeting is one of them.

    2. CB212*

      I took it more as ‘I know this person needs access to their phone and I wouldn’t make a rule of no phones on the table/phones left at the door/etc’, but not that any of the person’s phone usage is actually evidently about the family issue. If they need to be able to get and respond to urgent messages but they’re browsing the web or doing flashcards or whatever, that’s probably not appropriate.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        LW doesn’t say. It’s not at all clear whether it’s Facebook/sudoku/NYT longreads on the one hand, or remote glucose monitoring/nannycam/ email with blood test results on the other.

        I like Alison’s wording because it means “a glance is fine given your situation, but if it needs more than a glance then please step out”. Nobody reasonable would think it appropriate to step out of a meeting to count their retweets or groupchat about the upcoming bachelorette weekend.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          Yes on the remote glucose monitoring. My 7 yo was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last fall, and I definitely paid much more attention to my phone alerts for a while, had them audible, and sometimes stepped out to text his teacher or call the school nurse. We’re a few months in and now I trust that the right systems are in place at school, but if I get a low blood sugar alert I still keep an eye on it in the background until I’m sure it’s been addressed properly.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      My guess: If employee hadn’t started pre-crisis at “Ha ha I am addicted to my phone, need to always be checking it” then the current surge in checking would feel like a temporary uptick for understandable, time limited reasons. And instead it’s landing more as a slide into “Okay that one wasn’t from my mom but was an interesting FB comment…” territory.

      OP, do you feel like her legit reason to check often is slowly oozing out to encompass a lot of could-have-waited checking? Or is this uptick something that has only gone on a few weeks, corresponding to mom’s health?

    4. Cold Fish*

      It doesn’t just “feel rude” it IS rude and disrespectful. There is no getting away from it reflecting poorly on you (and the company if outside companies are present). Exceptions can be made for emergency situations but if you can’t put the phone down for a minimal length of time (enough to look up and show that you are paying attention) then perhaps it is time to talk to your manager about accommodations (FMLA, having a coworker fill in for you during meetings, etc.)

        1. NYWeasel*

          The point is that the OP noted that the employee had multiple issues going on in her personal life at that moment. So yes, *in general* it’s perceived as rude to be staring at your phone and not at the person speaking. But in a moment of crisis for the employee, overlooking the rudeness at a certain level can be a kindness.

          (Although I would also point out in a world of zoom that some of us need zero visual stimulation to fully listen to others, so sometimes we look unfocused when we are focusing on the words more intently…but I recognize in this case the manager saw the phone being accessed)

          1. allathian*

            Yes, I’m eternally grateful to my employer in that we don’t need to be looking at the camera all the time even when they’re on. One of my coworkers often knits in meetings, both in person and virtual ones, and nobody minds because she’s always very focused on what’s happening in the meeting anyway.

            When I went back to work after maternity leave, and my son was sick what seemed like every other week, I had explicit permission from my then-manager to keep my phone on the table in meetings, in case daycare called to tell me he was sick again. (I was working 6-hour days for a while and that’s why I was mainly responsible for caring for our son when he was sick.) I definitely had to step out a few times to take a call during meetings. She made it clear that she didn’t like it, no doubt because she was a very task and process oriented person with almost no empathy or understanding for human frailties, but even she recognized that her meetings were lower on my priority list than my son’s health.

    5. kiri*

      YES to this. In the last month or so of my dad’s life, when his illness was getting worse and he had constant health crises, was the only time in my life I actually put my phone’s notification sounds on – LOUD. I took it with me every single place I went. I wanted to be woken up if something happened in the middle of the night, and hear it if it rang while I was doing something at work or around the house. I think I silenced it for actual meetings, but it was still right in front of me at all times. I can empathize with not wanting someone tethered to their phone, but I agree that this might be a time where some temporary grace is required.

  5. Jane*

    Re #1, my first thought is that you’re probably holding far more meetings than are necessary, or inviting her to meetings she doesn’t actually need to attend.

    If a meeting has someone whose job is mostly or entirely to listen, that meeting could probably be an email, and I would also be sorely tempted to be on my phone.

    If she’s supposed to be participating in the meeting, but she’s using her phone instead of sharing useful information/opinions/context, that absolutely needs to be tackled, but the focus of the conversation can be on what she should be doing, instead of phone use.

    1. truesaer*

      Wow, I feel this right here. I started on a new program at the beginning of the year and we’re in like 6 hours of repetitive WebExes a day. It’s been 5 weeks and I feel like we’re going in circles and haven’t started doing any work. My attention level is pathetic, though thankfully it’s all remote so no one can see me doing anything else but paying attention!

    2. Unkempt Flatware*

      If I went into a meeting with nothing to distract my hands, I wouldn’t be able to pay attention at all. My brain seeks distractions in order to pay attention. I know that sounds odd but it’s true.

      1. Usagi*

        I’m the same. I need something to play with. I keep a hairtie or rubber band on my wrist for that purpose, and sometimes will bring a (silent) fidget toy if it’s with people that know me well enough that they wouldn’t be put off by it.

      2. allathian*

        It’s more common than some people may realize, and that’s why fidget toys are so popular.

        When I attend informational meetings where I’m not expected to participate, I’d tune it out completely if I couldn’t play simple puzzle games on my phone. I’m so glad we’re doing those on Teams, and will continue to do so even when we go back to the office, but with the option for hybrid working. Nobody can see if I’m playing on my phone as I’m listening.

        It’s different in small meetings where I’m expected to contribute, I usually have no problems focusing on the meeting itself.

    3. Curmudgeon in California*

      I used to try to take notes on my phone, but gave up and switched back to a paper notebook.

  6. After 33 years ...*

    #1: Saying something is necessary, but you may have to do it several times and in several ways, as kindly as possible. Pre-Covid, I would have to remind students of this before and during many classes, to reduce both their distraction and those of their adjacent colleagues. It has been an uphill battle.
    Caveat: I may be the only person on this campus who does not carry a cellphone.

  7. Chairman of the Bored*

    Is Robin participating in the meetings, retaining the information discussed, and otherwise getting her work done?

    LW doesn’t mention any specific work issues arising from this phone usage and says Robin is a good employee, so she’s likely doing her job just fine.

    If that’s the case, why make a thing of it?

    If it’s a customer or VIP meeting that’s a different story, but at a small internal meeting about TPS reports or whatever who cares?

    1. Anononon*

      It’s rude, especially if it’s a small meeting. It’s a clear signal that whatever you’re doing on your phone is more important to you than the meeting. (This isn’t like doodling or a fidget toy, which can be done mindlessly. I don’t know anyone who can be engaged in a meeting and on their phone at the same time.)

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Same, albeit with the coda upthread about whether the meeting could be an email. Is she just supposed to be physically present and nod occasionally, or is she supposed to be actively presenting information, asking useful questions, etc?

      1. El l*

        That’s right. Having your phone out says, “This is what I’m doing right now. Not listening.” That’s at least a little rude to anyone, but it’s especially rude to your boss.

        Because while you don’t/shouldn’t agree with your boss all the time, you do always have to listen to what they have to say.

      2. Lucious*

        >>It’s rude, especially if it’s a small meeting.

        I disagree with this assessment. People in meetings are frequently doing other things like checking email, answering IMs, and whatnot. It’s not a display of rudeness or an insult to the presenter- those tools are how people interact with the world.

        Expecting 100% phone/computer off attention is not realistic, especially when the attendees are senior leaders with multiple tasks on their plate. If an operations VP can check their phone for 60% of the meeting and still contribute and pay attention to the agenda, so can Robin. If she’s checking her phone but still pays attention to the meeting substance, where’s the concern ?

        1. Grits McGee*

          Eh, even if you’re doing other work stuff, I’d still argue that it’s counter-productive at best (because why even bother having a meeting if attendees are focusing on other tasks), and rude at worst. If you’re a senior person who’s putting out fires, that’s understandable but still not ideal; if you’re a junior staffer who doesn’t have those responsibilities, you’re not going to come off well.

        2. Batgirl*

          I’m not sure the same rules do apply to completely different roles to be honest. Whenever I’ve had senior people who need to be on their phones they usually explain/apologize or at least try to be as engaged as possible. If a junior person has to keep their eye on a work situation during a meeting, their boss usually (or should) knows about it.

        3. just another bureaucrat*

          I despise the expectation and I hate that I do it and I hate when other people do it because it’s contributing to this everything must be done right now and if you need to stop and have a thoughtful conversation it’s going to be drowned out by the screaming noise of pingpingpingpingping of email and messages demanding attention and work.

          It is absolutely a display of disengagement. I’m not saying I don’t do it all the time. I’m not saying I’m not doing it right now. But the expectation that we should all always do this. And then if I do put my stuff down someone else is going to be distracted so we are doing the things slower and responding only to the pingpingping bs.

          I desperately want a meeting room with no cell phone access again. I want other people to KNOW I’m in a meeting room with no cell phone access. This is not rude, this is driving people mad.

          1. Oakenfield*

            It is driving people mad.
            I feel like there are a lot of phone apologists in this thread, who can’t imagine attending a meeting without their phone, but they don’t see the problem, they’re so addicted.

        4. turquoisecow*

          If I’m talking and someone else is typing away on their phone, or even just looking at it, that says to me that they’re not listening to me, or not listening as closely as they could be. Is that perception correct, I don’t know, but it is a common perception, and I think a reasonable expectation that people be listening or appearing to listen to me when I talk.

          If I’m presenting in a meeting and the Senior VP is on her phone I can’t do much about it and I will probably give her the benefit of the doubt that she’s on some urgent work matter several levels above me. But if the senior VP is talking and I’m on my phone it would 100% be perceived as rude and I could be expected to be talked about it afterward by either the VP herself or my direct boss after she said something to my boss.

        5. new*

          Lucious, no. Folks can interact with the world after the meeting is over. Not paying attention is rude regardless of the context. If I was presenting I would stop and say I’m waiting for whoever to finish the task at hand.

          Now with respect to the OPs situation, I feel differently because of the parental situation. I’ve been through that. Fortunately for me I haven’t worked in an office for years, but I know how distressing it is to have a serious ill parent or one that is deteriorating. I would ask this person if they would rather call into the meeting, even from their desk. But I wouldn’t come down too hard on them, perhaps just letting them know it’s ok if they step out for a moment if necessary, or even take FMLA leave or something to care for their parent.

          1. Lucious*

            >>Not paying attention is rude regardless of context.

            Hmmn. In my last in-person meeting, I had two VPs, two director level developers and myself + another Project Manager. Everyone attending had at least two direct reports except myself and the other PM- in one VPs case he oversees an area of over 50 people. Expecting everyone at my org to drop what they’re doing and pay exclusive attention to the speaker may be courteous, but it’s not practical. There’s too much going on in the organization for that to be possible, and I don’t view it as a slight when those people are on their phones or computers answering messages.

        6. Eat Dirt, Jim*

          I’m wondering if you have run a meeting before? Having someone looking at their phone regularly – and some people do it throughout the whole meeting – definitely signals to the presenter and everyone else there that this person isn’t paying attention. Same with typing away at a laptop while someone is speaking, unless you’re clearly taking notes. It’s really obvious when someone is just answering emails or doing other stuff. Even the Operations VP in your example is likely missing stuff if they’re doing something else 60% of the time.

        7. Anon Supervisor*

          >People in meetings are frequently doing other things like checking email, answering IMs, and whatnot. It’s not a display of rudeness or an insult to the presenter- those tools are how people interact with the world.

          I think this is still rude, TBH. I get that some meetings are pointless, but being obvious about not paying attention is rude.

      3. Former Llama Herder*

        I agree, and it does baffle how many people are in meetings where they’re visibly on their computer working. My job is less meeting intense so maybe I have a different perspective, but if it’s common in your office for people to be in meetings and multitasking, then it seems like something should change and maybe those meetings aren’t strictly necessary. While I agree that the LW should try to focus their discussion on the impact it’s having on the employee’s work and give grace where they can, it isn’t an unreasonable request.

        1. Le Sigh*

          Staying off your phone/email is generally the norm in my office, but it’s not uncommon to have to multitask. It’s usually a combo of a few things, namely directors and higher-level people being overscheduled and the fact that a bunch of our work requires us to be highly responsive, so you might suddenly have to approve something or respond to an email chain. (Or, secret option #3, you’re in a meeting that’s not really relevant to you but you have to attend so why not clean out your inbox since you’re WFH anyway?)

        2. Leilah*

          A lot of people have jobs where they may need to do urgent things. When I unplug from my email for more than 30 minutes I have to have an out-of-office on and coverage assigned — so it especially doesn’t work at the many meetings that are specifically for my department because we are all in that situation. It’s just not practical at all to do that for every single meeting I’m in all day. Instead, I watch my email while I’m in the meeting and address anything urgent or at least reply to folks with an estimate of when I will be free to help them. I’m also just one of those people that does much better if they are able to multitask a bit.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            But just how urgent is it? Unless you’re an emergency or hospital worker, it’s very rarely a matter of life and death. People simply expect faster turnaround nowadays. Last century I could tell a client “I’ll send that to you next week”. Now the client tells me they need it for 9am on Tuesday. That sounds like it’s more efficient, but in fact it simply means that things get shunted to the last minute, instead of making sure to finalise the document by the 10th so that Rebel gets a full week to translate it.

        3. NYWeasel*

          It’s totally position and meeting dependent. There are meetings where I must be 100% attentive to the discussion, and then there are meetings where I’m asked to be on hand to “weigh in as needed”. In the latter type of meeting, it’s expected that you’ll multitask a bit so that you get the benefits of the full team being gathered (right people on hand to identify and solve issues immediately) with a lesser overall impact to the general productivity.

      4. CB212*

        This. I’ve been in team meetings where it’s clear that one group is chatting each other on slack throughout, where one designer is obviously looking for project inspiration on a browser (not for what we’re meeting about), where people are scrolling instagram… Honestly even if you can’t muster full attention to the job, it’s discourteous to be half-checked-out, when you’re around a table with other people who are trying to engage with you.

    2. Marie*

      I’ll admit I’m more addicted to my phone than I would like to be (as I type this on my phone, at work…but not in a meeting at least!).

      Being on your phone in a meeting, on a date, etc. is incredibly rude, and therefore Robin is in the wrong. But this is one of those things that feels ironic to complain about in a post-covid working world. Have any of us not been in a zoom call with our cameras turned off, doing something else while we listen? Or even cameras on and looking at a different screen?

      If Robin’s work isn’t being impacted and she was WFH, OP1 would literally have no idea she was on her phone, and this would be a non-issue. I get they’re in person so it’s visible, and therefore different…but I can’t ignore what seems like a contradiction.

  8. Amy*

    I have young kids and have dealt with numerous last minute school cancellations this year due to Covid, other illnesses and the weather.

    I have mute exceptions for numbers such as the school, the babysitter, my spouse and any number that tries me twice.

    But otherwise, unless I know there’s something specific that might happen that day, it’s put away and muted.

    1. Silencio!*

      Yes. This. Exactly!

      Make the technology work for you. Mute everything that is not critical so you only get distracted by those that are.

      As a +1, tell those who are marked as priority contacts that they should contact you during work only if it is an emergency as their numbers are not muted due to relative’s health condition/childcare/etc.

      You will be amazed at how much more relaxing the day is without all the buzzing!

  9. Heffalump*

    OP2: Holding an employee responsible for their poor attendance is treating them like an adult.

    1. El l*

      That’s right. Flexibility best follows the classic Bob Dylan lyric:

      “To live outside the law, you must always be honest.”

      To live without rules, you must demonstrate that you can self-regulate.

      1. Heffalump*

        I always like a good, pertinent rock and roll quote. Sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time is fine if it isn’t company time.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      This, exactly.

      Other people aren’t getting this pushback because they’ve already demonstrated they can handle their jobs like adults while enjoying flexible hours. Late Long Lunch Guy has not, so he hasn’t demonstrated the requisite adult-ness yet.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        And those other employees will so appreciate being treated as adults, and not having the “Second grade class was loud for substitute, so everyone has to sit with your head on your desk” group punishment for one person’s problem.

    3. Orange You Glad*

      It’s also possible to have basic structure/rules while still being flexible. Where I work, we all have the flexibility to set our own schedules, but there is still an underlying expectation that core business hours are covered (9-5 est). We also have to work a minimum of 40 hours a week.

      Flexibility is staying an hour late to make up for the hour your train was delayed commuting in the morning. It’s realizing working 9:15-6:15 is a more manageable schedule for one employee than the 8-5 another prefers. It’s not coming and going whenever you choose.

  10. JelloStapler*

    LW4, you also need to honor prior commitments THEY have made. As Alison suggests, have a few options for them and don’t hold not attending due to a reasonable conflict over their head.

  11. Eponin*

    OP1: I’d also like to add that for many of us in the neurodivergent community, in order to be able to focus, we need to be doing something with our hands. For example, whenever I needed to focus during grad school, especially when the lecture was only audio with no visual or interactive component, I would play on my phone with a coloring app and it greatly improved my ability to actually retain the information.

    1. not feeling like i wanna get lit*

      I have to play dumb coloring or matching games on my phone when I watch TV or I will have nooooo idea what’s happening. Even if I’m watching the screen, my attention wanders constantly. It’s not so bad in meetings, but there are absolutely times when I’ve looked 100% engaged while someone was speaking and then had no idea what they said afterwards because my brain didn’t have anything to ground my thoughts.

    2. Neko*

      Also, sometimes we are undiagnosed but still need something to do with our hands. I never realized why I would feel the need to move in my chair or click my pen during a meeting, or that there were better options out there that were less distracting to others. All I knew is if I didn’t do something active while sitting and listening, I couldn’t follow the meeting well and my brain would find something active to do, whether it was deemed acceptable by others or not.

      The phone is a very easy outlet for this. Add in the extra stress that can make these impulses worse and you can wind up in a situation like this, especially with the pressure to be available at all times.

      I wouldn’t diagnose Robin, and I would doubt she is doing this to be rude on purpose. Asking for her to try something that is a more “acceptable” outlet for her “nervous energy” (that’s what I used to call my fidgeting) might be a way to help, while allowing her to keep her phone nearby in case she needs to respond to it. Fidget cubes are my current go to during meetings and phone conferences.

      1. tangerineRose*

        I found that it is *much* easier for me to take notes and focus if I’m also doodling during the parts where I don’t need to take notes. Without doodling during the “off” moments, I start feeling stressed.

    3. It's hot chocolate season*

      Yeah, this. If it wasn’t fidgeting on the phone, it was doing other work in the meeting, or reading emails, or flicking through the presentation slides. Getting a couple of fidget tools (including some phone charms, so I would always have one on me) makes sure my hands are occupied while my eyes and face are free to look attentive.

      And I think this applies to neurotypical people too (though it’s probably much more obvious and necessary for neurodivergent people). I remember someone had a story where their office bought a bunch of fidget tools for the office meeting room to be inclusive, and it turned out everyone found them useful.

    4. Dorothea Vincy*

      I think this is the kind of situation where you would need to check that the person is retaining the information. I have worked with people who insisted their phones helped them concentrate, only for them to come to me after the meeting/discussion and ask all sorts of questions that proved they hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on. One of them would actually start playing with her phone again while I was trying to explain what had happened! If it doesn’t work, then no, they need to put the damn phone away, especially if they then waste their coworkers’ time with more questions.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yeah I had a colleague who listened to music while working. I saw that she was very slow, and suggested not listening to music. She insisted that it helped her concentrate. Then the boss noticed and told her not to listen to music. Her productivity improved just enough for me to not have to tell the boss that she was too slow.

    5. allathian*

      Yes. I don’t have a diagnosis, although my ability to focus has really deteriorated during Covid. I can only focus on listening to a presentation if I do something that doesn’t involve text, like playing simple puzzle games on my phone, and glancing at the Teams screen occasionally. If I had to care about the optics, my ability to focus would disappear. I’m actually happy that my employer’s VPN is so crap that they’re only allowing those who are speaking to have their cameras on in big meetings. That leaves presenters speaking to the void, but people who do a lot of this have become used to it.

    6. Lizcase*

      I’ve used knitting for this. For a simple pattern (e.g. knit all the things) I don’t need to look at it, and can hold my hands in my lap under the table to avoid distracting others. I call it my fidget toy.
      It’s amazing how much more I retain if I’m doing something with my hands.

  12. Clefairy*

    ooooooh. I used to be Robyn. I have a genuine cell phone addiction. What’s worked for me is putting really strict restrictions on my phone during business hours, so all I can do essentially is call, text, check my bank balance, use my GPS, and listing to Spotify, and then for the rest of the day I have really strict limits on how long I can use certain apps before they are completely blocked from use. It’s helped a TON. Apple has a great functionality (Settings>>>Screen Time) to help you really kick/manage your phone addiction. BUT, I don’t think advice to do this could ever come from a manager. Phone addiction can be debilitating, I hope Robyn is able to find a system that works for her to help her limit her screen time.

    1. Clefairy*

      Also, just to add, it sounds like people are really latching on to her mother’s health concerns in regards to her excessive phone use…but the fact that the OP uses the phrase “tethered to her phone” and the fact that the employee herself has joked about phone withdrawals leads me to think that the excessive phone use and her mother’s health aren’t mutually exclusive. If Robin wasn’t mindlessly scrolling social media, texting friends, checking her personal email, etc, I’m sure her boss wouldn’t be concerned by her keeping a constant eye on her phone for emergency communication. When I was in the height of my phone addiction, I didn’t think it was obvious that I was wasting a ton of time doing personal stuff on my phone. I’ve since learned that it’s VERY obvious, and that the OP has picked up on it, but is hesitating to bring down the hammer because the employee ALSO has an actually important reason to need to have access to her phone outside of the all of the fluffy stuff that’s happening too.

      1. Orange You Glad*

        Yea I was thinking about the difference between needing access for emergencies and being attached to the phone. If someone told me they needed access to their phone in case of an emergency, I would interpret that as meaning the ringtone/notifications are on and/or the phone may be sitting out on the desk where the user can see it in case they get an urgent message. I would also assume if they received an emergency message, they would step out of the meeting to handle it. I would not assume they would have their phone in their hand 24/7 and be actively responding while in the meeting.

        I think a lot of responses are also focusing on the “meetings can be boring” angle but the LW’s concerns seem to be more about small meetings. I assume small meetings are just among the team – those usually tend to be more collaborative so if someone were on their phone all time it would be insulting and distracting.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      I got the galaxy flip 3 recently hoping it would help. It does a little bit. I still pick it up a lot but now there is like an extra half-second in the process that sometimes lets my brain say “do I really need to check Facebook right now?”

      Sometimes I open it anyway. But sometimes I manager to put the phone back down lol.

      (I recognize this is a very expensive way to address this, but I was interested in the phone for other reasons as well and this is an extra benefit I am enjoying from it)

  13. Trawna*

    #2…. but she doesn’t care if her reports are on time. She cares that the work is stellar. She needs to remind staffer that time flexibility is contingent on producing stellar work.

  14. NynaeveAlMeara*

    I was totally a Robin earlier in my career (alwsys on my phone or laptop in meetings), and it never occurred to me how it looked to others. After my manager brought it up with me, when I got over my embarrassment afterwards I was able to be a lot more aware which has helped me a lot in my career. It’s a kindness to speak up!

  15. Lorelai*

    I think in meetings where people are on phones, I would just stop talking until they look up and ask if they were done. Then pause again if they picked up their phone again. Let the other attendees get a little miffed that they are trapped in a meeting longer because of them. But that could be me being testy today.

  16. Nea*

    LW #4 needs to do some serious thinking about why the meeting is mandatory and why there is only one every 3 months. LW has already fallen into the trap that such rigidity will inevitably set; losing a good worker.

    Can the meeting be held more often? Can the meeting topics be turned into a training class? Can the meeting be one on one sessions?

    Otherwise, “you must be here on this arbitrary day at this arbitrary time Because Reasons” comes across as inflexible and incomprehensible as “One of our employees only gets birthday perks on Leap Year.”

  17. Alexis Rosay*

    “Don’t schedule mandatory meetings for people who don’t work for you full-time.”
    Life would be so much better for so many people if employers followed this simple rule.

    1. JelloStapler*

      “Don’t schedule mandatory meetings that don’t really apply to the people you’re inviting” is also a good one that would make things better.

    2. Nanani*

      There’s a text exchange going around various social media sites where some overstuffed manager tried to enforce mandatory morning meetings, on a contractor, who works remotely in another time zone, and whose contract definitely doesn’t include any such meetings.

      It is a delight to see the contractor just go “no” and the manager’s tone rapidly shift from overinflated to damage control.

    3. Middle Name Danger*

      This. I work for a company with mostly part time employees. Most everyone has another job or school. Mandatory meetings are always held during the hours we’d usually be available for work and either there’s boatloads of notice or there’s at least two meetings.

  18. ceiswyn*

    Is OP1’s employee playing games and checking FB, or is she actually using her phone for work-related stuff?

    There is an assumption that a smartphone means goofing off, but it’s not always true. When I was in tedious all-hands meetings, I used to use my phone to take notes on what the speakers were saying to make sure I stayed focused. I once had a trainer tell me to ‘put that phone away’ in great irritation, only to have to step it back when I showed her all the notes I’d made on her training so far – and which I referred to for the rest of the course.

    So, OP1, I’d definitely make sure your employee IS actually being distracted by her phone before you make decisions based on that premise.

    1. Tea and Cake*


      Context is important. The only example given for Robin being “tethered” to her phone is in meetings where she may well be the type of person that takes notes to review later.

      1. WellRed*

        Robin made a joke about how much she’s on her phone. I feel like a lot of comments are overlooking that.

    2. STG*

      The optics on it are bad regardless though. Even if her boss knows they are being productive with the phone, everyone else in the meeting doesn’t.

  19. Workfromhome*

    #4 The most important question is it “mandatory” to attend in order to be able to work or is the meeting (and its content) “required” ?

    Mandatory means “required by law or rules; compulsory” meeting can be mandatory for arbitrary reasons.
    Something that is required in order preform the job is based on a need.

    If they can get whats required o do their job without attending the meeting (for good reason) then why not let them work? If the issue is that people will opt not to attend the meting and get the information elsewhere then maybe the issue is that the meeting is nt useful or the right thin to do then masking mandatory isn’t going to sole the problem.

    Was being able to attend a mandatory meeting a condition of employment when hired them? If its going to contine to be an issue better to raise it in the interview and let people self select out.

  20. Merrie*

    I figured out eventually that a mandatory meeting at my job means you’re responsible for the content of it, so if you can’t attend, you’d better go back and review the recording or otherwise get the information. There was a lot of “this is a mandatory meeting” and “if you can’t attend contact Sue ahead of time”.

  21. LondonLady*

    I have work email on my work mobile phone and sometimes use it to access relevant documents for the meeting or to take notes etc. However in those cases, I would always say at the start, “I’m going to be taking notes of key points on my phone, so if it’s not that I’m ignoring you, quite the opposite”. I certainly wouldn’t be using it for unrelated stuff and I think you are right to clamp down on that.

  22. So Tired*

    OP1, I’d recommend continuing to grant your employee grace as she’s dealing with this. You know her mother is having health issues, if and when things come up, they aren’t likely to be at convenient times and will likely conflict with work. Life and family stuff comes up, and since you didn’t mention any issues with her work, she’s more than likely performing well, which is a testament to how good she is at her job if she’s performing well while trying to deal with her mom’s health issues.

    Also, it’s entirely possible that she’s using her phone in those meetings *for work*. I have so many notes pages open on my phone where I’ve typed out quick notes for everything from work deadlines to a reminder to check out a new show or movie. Just because her phone is out doesn’t mean she’s not paying attention–she could be taking notes or marking deadlines on her calendar or any other number of things related to work!

  23. Miss Muffet*

    I had an employee that would come to 1:1s with earbuds in. When I asked them to take them out, they said, they are off/nothing’s playing. I had to literally spell out to an adult that it just comes across as disrespectful to keep them in when we’re having a 1:1 and I’d like to make sure I have their full attention.

    1. River Otter*

      This really sounds like a problem of you managing your perceptions, not an employee managing their ear buds. If nothing is playing, then you have their full attention.

      1. I heart Paul Buchman*

        No. I don’t agree. Earbuds in for a conversation is rude. Would it be alright for me to cover my ears with my hands as long as I could still hear?

      2. Anon Supervisor*

        I think it’s ridiculous that an employee would push back on a completely reasonable request to not have earbuds in during a meeting. This is a pretty minor ask from a manager to a direct report (even if the direct report disagrees). I mean, it’s not like Miss Muffet asked the employee to commit corporate espionage so she shouldn’t have to negotiate basis expectations of mutual courtesy.

      3. WellRed*

        Perhaps the employee should manage their perception that they look engaged to others? Super not hard to remove earbuds.

      4. Anony*

        This is pretty ridiculous. Not wearing headphones while having a conversation with someone is very, very basic courtesy.

  24. Critical Rolls*

    If LW1’s employee is using her phone for work during these meetings, that needs to get communicated. Otherwise it just looks like she can’t stop messing with her phone, which is rude in large meetings and very rude in small meetings. Her mother’s health doesn’t really explain it, either, since it’s unlikely that she’s getting important updates on that in *every* meeting, and isn’t excusing herself to deal with it. And of course, Robin herself is making jokes about phone “withdrawals,” which doesn’t say business use or serious family matters to me.

    This needs to get addressed directly, and if more information comes out that calls for some grace, no problem. But right now it isn’t clear that Robin is doing anything but habitually, constantly checking her phone when she should be engaged with the matter at hand.

  25. Former Retail Lifer*

    OP #4: I’ve held lots of meetings over the years that were deemed mandatory by a corporate office or other higher-ups, and I’ve always had a staff of mostly part-time, mostly student workers. Students have school, extracurricular activities, internships, second jobs…they’re, for the most part, REALLY BUSY. I’d schedule mandatory meetings on a day and time when most people could usually make it, with the rule that they had to let me know in advance if they couldn’t make it. For the handful that couldn’t, we’d get together and find an alternate time where we could host a second meeting that they could all attend. It’s one thing to have a staff of full-time employees that all work the same shift. You can easily have a meeting during work hours when everyone is there. It’s another consideration entirely to manage a bunch of part-time shift workers that have a full life outside of their varied work schedules. Be kind and find another time that you can both mutually agree to.

    1. Jen K*

      Former Retail Lifer – agreed.
      OP#4 – I manage a lot of (college) student workers at an on-campus job. I’d make the meeting mandatory but set up an alternative for anyone who can’t attend. I also think it’s worth thinking about why you want to drop anyone who can’t make the meeting from the work schedule. If it’s because they have other performance issues (which is usually what happens with my student workers), then address those issues with them instead of using the meeting as an excuse.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      And if your business is 24/7, it’s prudent to have two or three sections of the mandatory meeting, to ensure everyone (including part-timers) is on the same page about whatever issues are being covered. It’s also prudent to have some documentation to aid the employees’ memories. Sometimes it’s possible, of course, for the memo/email to take the place of the meeting, but it’s often useful to supplement the memo with a meeting.

      It depends on the business need and the employees’ learning styles.

  26. Venus*

    I use my phone to take notes! Not in every meeting, just in the ones off-site (which never happens now), and it saves me from having to write notes by hand and then type it in later. It works because I’m taking my own notes and I’m only interested in specific parts of the conversations.

    I know that the perception can be negative so I often make a little joke at the start about the practice I’ve had with my thumbs in order to get good at taking notes that way.

    It is possible that the employee is truly distracted, but for some of us our occasional focus on our phone is a positive.

    1. Pennyworth*

      Note taking and scrolling look different – a note taker is engaged with the meeting, a scroller is totally absorbed with the screen.

  27. Mill*

    I manage Student Employees as well. My leads have a mandatory meeting at the start of the semester. I expect that they are there as they are in a leadership position. My mandatory meetings are on the weekend to not interfer with class. The real question is can you excuse the absence because it is for a good reason or is this an ongoing problem with someone who is overbooked and expects you to bend the rules repeatedly for them? Part of having Student Employees is to teach them work place norms and responsibilities that they can transfer to life later on. As a manager you have to make that call

  28. Curmudgeon in California*

    RE #2

    I have a problem with timekeeping. If I didn’t literally have alarms on my phone for getting up, going to meetings, etc, I would end up going down the rabbit hole on something I was researching and miss a day of Slack messages and meetings. So I set my alarms and pay attention to them.

    A long time ago when I had severe issues with depression I couldn’t get out of bed, and I even slept through alarms. Even now, if I have to drive somewhere it’s a struggle to plan enough time with traffic, etc., plus I’m very much not a day person. I manage, and I get my work done.

    But that’s probably not the case here. It sounds like your employee is not getting his work done and not being there when he needs to be. I like most of Alison’s language around hours, but…

    I would phrase it as “While I realize that life doesn’t fit into neat little time blocks and that’s why I allow flexibility, that flexibility is predicated on three things: 1. You complete all of your tasks, 2. You are available when other people need to meet with you or work with you, and 3. You put in your 40 hours during the regular work week. We tend to have core hours, and expect that everyone will be available during them unless using PTO.”

    Flexibility and not having to punch a time clock don’t mean that you can just flake out and not be available when other people are working and you have work to do. It’s called being an adult.

  29. Frog*

    Re: LW1

    I was guilty of this… because my boss scheduled one hour meetings every Monday to discuss what our goals were for the week, every week, and I was literally just there to answer phones and place orders. I didn’t have a weekly goal. But I still had to attend. And of course these meetings went over because we had to talk about what goals we made last week, how to make those goals, etc. When I mentioned it, my boss said “Well I still need you there”, except he didn’t and someone would speak over me whenever I was asked for/gave my two cents.

    Thankfully I left that job.

  30. OhNo*

    LW4: Why oh why are managers/employers like this? When working with students, it’s to be expected they have other responsibilities, like extracurricular activities. Even adult staff have other responsibilities. I’m a medical professional working in an office and even our meetings are flexible. I can’t imagine working for a manager that didn’t care/understand that I’m a human and have a life outside of work.

    If you’re unable or unwilling to either record these meetings, or offer some flexibility, maybe it makes more sense to not hire students. Reading these types of questions has really made me appreciate my manager/workplace.

    If it were my teen son who was stuck between a mandatory work meeting with an inflexible boss and attending his football practice (that can help him get into college), I would tell him to forget that job and just go to his football practice. Jobs for students are everywhere. OP, if you have the authority to do so (and I understand you may not have), be a bit more accommodating to your student workers. Show them the same caring and flexibility you would want shown to you. Set a good example to your young staff and show them what a healthy, flexible, accommodating workplace looks like.

  31. Lady Danbury*

    LW3: I’ve worked with an executive coach who was EXCELLENT! Worth every single penny and more! But she has almost 3 decades experience in HR, a masters in management/HR development, and a PHD in organizational leadership. I also worked with her in an HR capacity before she started her coaching business, so I had already experienced her expertise, integrity, etc. On the flip side, I see way too many people claiming to be coaches with little to no applicable experience/credentials. Obviously you don’t need a PHD to become an executive coach, but you do need a certain level of training and experience. Coaching of all types is rife with scammers because there are little to no barriers to entry and too many people can be swayed by an attractive website and a few testimonials. At the end of the day, it’s incredibly important to do your research.

  32. Elizabeth*

    I also supervise student employees, and we change our weekly meeting time every quarter. It’s annoying and I wish it weren’t the case, but it’s also just the nature of working with students. I send out a poll right after class registration happens for the following quarter, and we find a time that works for all of us.

  33. Former Nonprofit Admin*

    Re: having the phone out, I’m surprised no one has pointed out that many deaf and hard-of-hearing folks use transcription apps on their phone to pay attention to the meeting. Accessibility needs to be prioritized over so-called professional norms and/or minor irritations.

    1. WellRed*

      But there’s zero in this letter to think that’s the case here, we are asked not to speculate about things not included in letters and the point of comments isn’t to litigate ever umpteenth possible scenario, ad Infiniti’s, it’s to provide advice. Ps. If you need accommodations, don’t expect people to know that unless you request them.

    2. londonedit*

      I’m 99% certain that anyone who actually needed to use a transcription app would make sure they let everyone know that’s what they were doing, precisely so people wouldn’t think they were just playing on their phone all the time.

  34. WulfInTheForest*

    OP4: I recently attended a training for managers of student workers, and I met someone who also required their student workers to attend a mandatory meeting, but theirs was weekly. These student workers were in a “peer help” type of job role where they were helping other students deal with personal life issues and campus life strife. So, the meetings were vital to do their weekly reports, but they also served as a de-stressor for the students, as most meetings the manager would include something fun or a treat at the end of the meeting (pizza parties, donuts, and going out for ice cream were mentioned). It was in the job description that these students HAD to be available from 3pm-4pm every Friday (for context there are no Friday classes after 12pm), and they aren’t hired if they had a previous conflict, because it would constitute not being able to perform all aspects of the job. I think that if you were going to make certain meetings mandatory, I think this might the way to go about it.

  35. Kristin*

    I have ADHD and being on my phone frequently helps me reset my brain. I’m not spending hours on it, but every 30 min I need a 2 min “reset” to keep my attention sharp. In meetings this can look like I’m not paying attention, but if I don’t do it there’s no way I’ll retain a single thing from the meeting. If I am not allowed to do this I become visibly agitated and sometimes have anxiety attacks. While this may not apply to this particular situation, society as a whole has to be aware of neurodiversity. It exhausts me to continuously have to explain myself to people who don’t understand.

    I was fortunate enough to be on the board of directors at an organization that understands neurodiversity and the fact that some people cannot physically sit through an entire meeting without a phone or movement. I used to get up and do squats, stretches, wiggles, etc. during our 3 hours meetings and it made an amazing difference in my ability to retain information and participate.

  36. Don't create problems*

    OP4 – absolutely brilliant answer from Alison! Hear, hear!

    OP2 – is there actually a problem with this employee’s work? If you needed Alison to help you see the light on basic issues (that are not real problems) like “you must be on time” and “you have to work the full eight hours”, are you perhaps letting your pre-existing bias over tardiness or working 8 hours impact your opinion on this employee’s work?

    All you’ve said is, “This person’s work is not always as strong as I need either”. What does that mean? How does teir work compare to that of their peers? Is their work competent?

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