I manage a habitual phone checker

A reader writes:

One of the people I supervise is a good, solid employee. He does his work on time and to deadline, juggles multiple projects, and supervises some temporary workers. I have no complaints! However, he has a terrible habit of being on his phone during larger presentations and trainings. On two recent occasions I clocked him looking down at his phone, scrolling, or reading on his phone more than half of the time. The most recent time, I even checked my watch and it was more than half the time. And this was in a fairly small room, about 30 people in total, in the front and center. (And just to note, he in no way has responsibilities that are vast or time-sensitive enough to not be able to take an hour or two to step away from their phone.)

Doing this in no way is impacting his work. But I think it’s rude and it’s not how I personally want to conduct myself at work. For people who might notice it, it looks bad and reflects badly on him. I’m not sure if it reflects badly on our team as a whole.

I am his supervisor but I don’t really take on much in way of “mentoring” for him. (I would consider this conversation to be more of a mentoring conversation because it’s not a performance conversation,) I think this person is very interested in advancing in his career, so there might be a way to frame it as, this might make you look bad and is easy to avoid. I don’t know if I should say something or keep my mouth shut.

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:

  • Employee keeps liking critical posts on LinkedIn
  • Can I invite people for networking lunches without paying for them?
  • People try to contact my husband through my social media

{ 192 comments… read them below }

  1. M2RB*

    How do we handle employees who claim they can pay attention to the meeting/presentation while scrolling on their phone/playing games on their phone? I’m thinking of this in the context of ADHD.

    My initial thought is that someone who’s using their phone as a fidget (for example, playing a mindless game) should not be treated the same as someone who’s texting/emailing/working on their phone during a meeting/presentation, but I am very willing to reconsider. (I do think either one doesn’t look great.)

    1. Yoyoyo*

      I had an employee with ADHD who scrolled through pictures on her phone in meetings. I did talk with her about how it looked and that I knew that she was in fact paying attention. We ended up brainstorming some other ways for her to fidget that would help her concentrate but not look like she wasn’t paying attention.

      1. Smithy*

        I do think that bringing this balance to the conversation is what’s most important.

        The reason the phone in particular reflects as rude is because so many people are on their phone for “not paying attention” reasons – answering texts, writing emails, etc. A quick text or a critical business need has a lot of leeway based on the context, but then it quickly gets into business norms and optics. Which can be harder to differentiate how much is too much, because there’s no one rule for every situation.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Yup. I’ve been listening to some relatively obnoxious videos on YouTube while heads down on a project this week, and I’m realising when I come up for air that I missed a lot of what was being said on the video. I’m glad it’s that way round (in that I’m not concentrating so much on the video that I’m not working) but actually, having had a Sudoku game on my phone while at reception as a fidget toy of sorts, it was WAY too easy to get engrossed in it and have someone standing outside the door.

          It was an ongoing battle but eventually I decided I needed to read stuff from my computer rather than look down at my phone. I was never directly taken to task for it (by that time in my reception job all of us crew on the Marie Celeste had lost the will to live anyway through sheer boredom), but it was so easy just to get absolutely lost in something. I am neurodivergent, but I’m autistic rather than ADHD, which means I’m prone to really intense concentration at times. I definitely do have to set an alarm for five minutes to work or whatever so I don’t just completely lose track of time when absorbed in a game or the internet or whatever.

          I think it’s also worth knowing that optics are important. People can have impulses that don’t match our own; my mum, who is very chaotic and tries to do too many things at once often feels to me like she’s not hearing what I’m saying, and while I generally know she’s probably listening, and she hopes she is, she also needs me to repeat myself a few times before she can absorb what she’s saying. Even though I know that’s just what she’s like, it can feel alienating — and humans are feeling creatures.

          I actually found those rubbery fidget toys very useful to wean myself off playing with my phone in a client-facing position. Now I’m WFH I have enough work to do and more fulfilling fidgets to use in my downtime (like I play 15 minutes of Animal Crossing on my lunch break on my Switch Lite or, like recently, make sure my Christmas presents for family are all present and correct), but all the same, I think it’s hard from the other person’s perspective not to start getting distracted by someone doing something that looks a bit off.

          So it’s one of those things that isn’t likely to change and you’ll struggle to justify.

      2. Ruby Ruby*

        I think you handled this well! I have ADHD, and my “fidget” is twirling my pen. I like to take hand written notes because it helps me remember things (especially in colored ink – it helps w visual memory). But I’ve had people mention that twirling my pen makes me look bored, disinterested, or that I’m above whatever is being taught/discussed. I don’t think many people notice it, but I do remind myself to keep it in check as much as possible, but sometimes I’d much rather pay attention to the subject matter and not what people think about what my stupid twirling pen means lol.

      3. Artemesia*

        FWIW. I used to bring my laptop to meetings and it was on the table in front of me; my screensaver was my photo albums and so it was shuffle through photos — I was not ‘doing anything’ like scrolling on a phone — they just automatically cycled. If your employee is using the photo scrolling as an attention boost, this might work for her.

        But having some people playing mindless games is going to be ugly in a meeting. If they don’t need to be engaged in the meeting maybe they shouldn’t be there. Repeated phone checking and especially playing games or answering email creates a really disengaged vibe in a meeting that affects everyone.

        1. Dina*

          If I’m allowed to play (simple, mindless) games on my phone during a meeting or presentation, I’m actually more engaged. My brain is weird.

          1. allathian*

            Thankfully I WFH most of the time and nearly all of our meetings are on Teams (except for two offsites every year) because we’re a distributed team. It’s perfectly acceptable to switch off your camera when you’re following a presentation. As long as I engage in the discussion afterwards nobody knows that I’m not staring at the screen when someone’s presenting.

            I think it also depends on the purpose of the meeting, if it’s just an informational meeting that could just as well have been an email, and probably should’ve been an email, the optics are just there to show the executives that they have the ability to command the attention of their employees. And I think that’s rather obnoxious behavior by the execs.

            If it’s a meeting where the employee’s engagement and input is expected and required, it’s a bit different. I don’t have any trouble focusing on the content of the meeting itself when it’s a 1:1 with my manager or a 2:1 with my coworker who has the same job description as I do and our manager. We’re generally in person for those, which makes it a lot easier for me to focus without looking at my phone. But the point is that we usually get action items in those meetings, and that never happens in town halls. If action items are given in team meetings, they’re written in the minutes, so even if I lose focus for a bit, I get to check the minutes later and it’s not the end of the world. No minutes are kept of the town halls.

            But I wouldn’t find it easier to focus in an in-person town hall, so I’m very glad that we’ve skipped those. When we had them, I always brought a notebook and pretended to take notes, when I was actually just noting a few keywords here and there and doodling most of the time.

        2. AnonHD*

          I doodle as a stim. Did it during lectures and classes. I do it during meetings. I do it during video interviews when they can’t see me me doing it. I do it when I am on video chat. I used to do it during downtime when I played online mmorpg games. I do it sometimes at work when I am waiting for stuff to finish running and I am in between tasks.

          It keeps my mind focused and engaged.

          I remembered things on my certification exam based on doodles ‘Oh, the question about Llama toe physiology was on the page with the drawing of the pink worm wearing a Sombrero’

          I have been called unprofessional before, but the meetings I did NOT stim doodle in I forgot everything even if I took notes at one job so they were like “Oh” and never said it again.

      4. GlitsyGus*

        I have a fidget pen for this reason. I pay attention much better while doing something else, but messing with my phone is too distracting to other people and doesn’t look good, so I found a few other ways, even doodling in a notebook looks better and bothers others less.

    2. WellRed*

      There are presumably other fidgets that look far less rude including the time honored doodling on a notepad.

      1. BubbleTea*

        For me, I need additional, quite specific input when the topic of the meeting/training isn’t engaging me enough or I entirely lose focus. Doodling would require too much of my brain. Looking up things people have mentioned or reading work-adjacent articles related to the meeting topic keeps my brain in the right zone.

        I can’t just receive information and sit passively for ages. I can just about manage an hour if it’s the first meeting of the day, I’m not too tired, and it’s not too boring. Half an hour is a more realistic threshold. Whenever I run workshops etc, I make sure there’s interactive activities as much as possible.

        1. fidget spinner*

          Doodling/note-taking does work for me, but nothing works as well as playing a mindless game! When I doodle or note-take, I can end up distracting myself with my own thoughts. Tetris, though? It helps every time. Except that I don’t even try anymore because of the “optics.”

          1. Christi*

            Same here! Something like candy crush is just the right amount of stimulation to keep me listening. I feel like I can only get away with it on zoom calls, which luckily make up most of my meetings. In person is a lot harder.

          2. Lanlan*

            The problem of “optics” needs to just stop being a problem. ND people should not have to justify the ways in which we tweak the working environment to make sure we can do our jobs.

            This is why I appreciate Zoom meetings, incidentally. I look very much like I’m staring at the presenter… but I have a digital puzzle open in the background. If I’m in a presentation space where there’s nothing else to do for enough time, ADD boredom-drowsiness kicks in and I legitimately have trouble staying awake.

            1. Siobahn*

              But optics are a problem if people don’t know whether there are people in the meeting who are ND, ADD, etc. That’s the reality, and it’s up to those who experience situations differently to find a way to participate.

            2. fhqwhgads*

              It’s not just “optics” tho. Seeing someone on their phone isn’t necessarily just a judgey moment. It can be actively distracting to the others who are in the meeting, trying to pay attention, and not otherwise fidgeting/on their phone/whatever. If the tweak to help you focus takes away someone else’s, it’s not an acceptable tweak.

              1. Jennifer Strange*

                This. I may focus better by putting my feet up on the chair in front of me, but the person sitting in that chair still gets a say.

            3. amoeba*

              But the problem is that for a majority of people, phones are actually a distraction. Yes, I have a lot of issues that are similar to ADHD myself and I am aware that mindless games can actually help with focus! But I can also very, very quickly go down a social media rabbit hole if I’m not careful. And honestly, hoofbeats, zebras, etc., most people probably will indeed be distracted while scrolling.
              So honestly, if you’re the person using a mindless game for better focus, I’d say it’s on you to actively bring it up – “sorry if I look distracted, this actually helps me listen better!” (and then also clearly, actively contribute – that makes it look much better imho.) But I’d definitely also look into other options like note taking, doodling, fidget toys, maybe even something like knitting (but clear it first in this case, as well).
              Smartphones are notoriously horrible for attention, in general, and I don’t think we can ask people to just forget about that part and automatically assume somebody uses them as a focus help.

        2. Smithy*

          I do think that what makes any kind of feedback about optics the most actionable is including as much black and white context around what is the most “visually” important compared to when actually learning/work product is more important or also balances out visual cues that might indicate a lack of paying attention.

          While I think that it can be easy to know that a speech by the CEO to the whole office may not have information of super detailed importance – appearing like you’re paying attention (and that the CEO may not know that you actually are paying attention while using a fidget) is more important, who are the other people or functions like that at work is good mentoring. It can just be about education of who is actually part of the Senior team, who has actual power vs perceived power, or who’s ego is fussy and benefits from a little extra. All of this can help someone balance when they need to use their most “norm core” fidgets, vs when they can rely on their overall performance to balance out how they’re perceived at work.

          1. GythaOgden*

            Unfortunately sometimes you just can’t tell what will be relevant later on. This is often how companies end up with ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ and keeping tabs on information is really important.

            My ex-Navy manager told us a story. She said that she was once out on training manoeuvres and in charge of radio communications. They all had specific team names, so in order to cut down on what she needed to do, she listened out for her own team name Red, and ignored messages for Blue, Green and Yellow.

            She led her patrol back to what she’d heard was base camp. Except it wasn’t — she’d led her team into territory that their dummy enemy had just captured. You see, messages for Blue and Green had come in alerting them to the captured camp, asking Yellow to set up a new base somewhere safe, and asking them to try and retake it. Since she had ignored the messages she didn’t think we’re relevant to her, she had missed vital information as to the change in circumstances and failed the exercise.

            This was a preamble to a complicated lecture on how to calculate rentable area in a property and how it got subdivided into individual units. It was complicated and some of it went right over my head, but as team admin I’m looking at lots of different spreadsheets and needing to distill them down into something I can then use to prod various team members about important issues. I need to juggle a lot of different things — over the last two days I’ve been in a HR meeting and a building users group as a minute-taker, been working on building continuity plans in between times and had a handful of purchase orders to raise and some to file along with a snottogram from a (rightfully) anxious vendor needing paid. (All without leaving my dining room.) So I’m being employed to receive and filter a lot of different pieces of information all at once and to try and assemble them into one coherent whole, and so I can’t just switch off.

            I know this can be information overload at times but it’s basically what I’ve been hired for so there’s no such thing as irrelevant information that I can just tune out. I am figuring out the best way to organise all these information sets, but I’ve been good at that in the past when it’s come to electronic filing, so I’m doing my best to put good practices in place now and not just assume I’m too junior to need to pay attention.

        3. GythaOgden*

          Not many of us can — we had a seminar on wellbeing recently which, while pretty good during the workshop parts (the trainers said they’d never seen such a cohesive team, so we’re evidently doing something right!), there were parts where concepts were being gone over and I’d left my notebook and pen back in the office.

          But sometimes we have to be out of our comfort zone for a while. It’s a skill that needs to be honed sometimes and I’m not sure we’re ever going to get to a point where everyone can be in a room fiddling with a phone or whatever without poking other people’s thought processes in that manner. We’re not rational beings and so sometimes we have to meet others halfway. (As neurodivergent I totally sympathise — but most people, ND or NT struggle with some aspect of their personality or behaviour, and this has been mine.)

      2. penandpaper*

        Was just about to comment the same thing! Note taking and doodling are key to getting through meetings!

    3. Merry and Bright*

      I love camera free meetings because I can play mindless games on my phone without having to worry about optics. I just have a hard time concentrating in meetings without a fidget, and I’m not ADHD. But I am definitely not paying attention when I am reading Facebook or work emails.

        1. Danish*

          Kami (& Kami 2) are calm color fill games with neat paper folding effects that make the gameplay very satisfying. Basically you start with a certain number of colored areas all touching one another and have a certain amount of turns to turn the board all one color.

          I love Hue is another color game where you must unscramble a mix of tiles to put colors in the correct order along a gradient

          Good for the hands and takes a little bit of focus, but is very easy to do while listening.

        2. Daisy-dog*

          I rotate through many games: Tangle Rope, Ball Sort, Workscapes (not as mindless), Woodoku, BlockPuz (can’t be played on Airplane mode, so you have to watch ads), 3 Tiles, and Bubble Shooter (I have played probably 15K levels of this one).

        3. Lisa*

          0hn0.com (that’s two zeros) and its cousin 0hh1.com (that’s a zero and a one). Quick little logic games that keep my lizard brain busy.

          1. Haps*

            Lumosity has a couple of games I play again and again. In particular Train of Thought and Word Bubbles.

        4. Merry and Bright*

          Jewel Slider, Water Sort, Bubble Pop, and Phase 10 are my current games I rotate through. I like that they aren’t timed, so I can set my phone down immediately if I need to answer a question or take notes.

        5. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Woodoku is good, I play the Daily game er, every day. Fit little puzzle pieces together and eliminate lines and sparkly boxes.

    4. Rue*

      Say up front that you need them to find a new way to engage with meetings because the optics of them staring at their phone the entire time aren’t good. You don’t need to address the possible disability aspect.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          I think perception can be a factor. I am not saying it should be, but the reality is that it IS. And if someone thinks they aren’t paying attention in meetings it may affect future collaboration.

          And, honestly, if he makes a mistake (because he’s a human) people will likely say “Well, if he was paying attention in the meeting it wouldn’t have happened.” whether that’s the truth or not.

          Does it suck? Yes. Does it need to be addressed? Also yes.

          1. JustaTech*

            Yes to this!
            In college I had a classmate who would sit next to me in probability and statistics and work on her Chinese homework or reading War and Peace in Russian, ie, things that are obviously, demonstrably, not the subject at hand.

            In general she did this because she knew the subject well, but when she did have a question (especially when the professor had just finished talking about that specific thing) the professor was visibly irritated with her because she obviously wasn’t paying attention. (This was a maybe 20 person class.)

            However, when I asked a question, even if it was a follow up to what the professor had just said that I hadn’t understood, the prof was perfectly happy to answer because it was clear that I *had* been paying attention, I just didn’t understand.

            In the end she probably understood the subject better, but the professor’s perception of the two of us was that I was the better student because I was clearly paying attention (even though I am still terrible at probability).

    5. learnedthehardway*

      Honestly, I would say that as long as it is not obvious, let it go as long as the employee is participating and on track with what is happening. If they aren’t, that’s another thing entirely, of course.

      but then – I am on a conference call right now and am posting on AAM, so perhaps I am not one to talk….

    6. ecnaseener*

      Yeah, it’s still rude to the presenter and they need to find another fidget. The presenter can’t tell what exactly you’re doing on your phone, they don’t know if you’re doing a puzzle to help you listen or reading emails.

      1. Venus*

        I often take notes on my phone. I don’t want to carry around a laptop, and typing them into my phone saves me having to write them down then type them out later.

        In those cases I will often make a comment at the start about how much more efficient it is to type notes with the phone, so it’s clear what I’m doing. And if I happen to do something more than take notes (like play sudoku) to help me focus… no one needs to know.

      2. ceiswyn*

        Or taking notes.

        I once had a presenter be irritated with me for an entire two week training course because I was using my phone to take notes on her training, and she just assumed I was playing around on it; with the result that she got annoyed at me and then looked silly in front of the group when I showed her what I was actually doing.

        She actually got *more* annoyed when I used those notes to do well in later activities. Sometimes it’s not about what you’re actually doing at all, it’s all about other people’s biases.

    7. fidget spinner*

      I have ADHD and I HAVE to do something with my hands in order to pay attention. In college and grad school, before I knew I had ADHD, I learned to “take notes,” which does involve writing down what is said, but it also involves doodling and writing down whatever pops into my head.

      But a mindless game works so well. I remember being absolutely EXHAUSTED during a lecture once, to the point where I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open. They were closing, lol. I pulled up Tetris on my computer and it worked like a charm. I got called out, though! I started doing the note-taking trick after that, but it’s not as helpful for excessive sleepiness.

        1. fidget spinner*

          It was always embarrassing when people asked to copy my notes in college! like, uh, sure, but please ignore the inside jokes I have with myself in the margin….

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        I was in a meeting like that (arrghhh budgets) and I was a low level person and not supposed to say anything anyway. It was on a resort, so I got to go out and hug one of the resident Clydesdales, what a sweetie!

    8. Ink*

      Personally, I try to keep some sort of non-phone fidget worth me. Phones are too easy to get judged for and/or unintentionally actually get distracted and stop paying attention. I’d suggest he get a fidget toy/small notebook to doodle in/etc instead, on the basis that no matter why he’s actually on the phone or what he’s doing, it’ll impact how at least some coworkers see him pretty negatively

      1. Deborah*

        As someone with ADHD, I very much sympathize with the need for a fidget object, but as someone with ADHD, I also find it incredibly distracting if someone near me is scrolling through their phone, especially if there’s lots of light and motion. I try to be careful about when I mention it, recognizing that it’s not always appropriate for me to, and that sometimes someone might be using their screen for something related to the meeting or event. Long way of saying that if I were sitting near this person in a meeting, I would definitely find their scrolling distracting and appreciate if their manager brought it up with them in a non-punitive and constructive way.

        1. Ink*

          Phone games can be super distracting, a very backseat driver vibe if I can see someone playing X’D In classes where being a warm body in the lecture hall was more important than retaining information, I used to turn my screen brightness as low as I could to minimize that effect for three people behind me lol

        2. The Prettiest Curse*

          I totally sympathise with people who need to be doing something else in a meeting to be able to focus, but unfortunately I find it really difficult to tune out visual distractions. So if someone is doing something on their phone or knitting during a meeting, I’ll have to move or look away from them to maintain my own ability to focus.

          I would usually default to assuming the other person was doing the activity to maintain their own focus, so that’s why I would be the one to move – though since we both deserve to be able to focus, there may not always be an easy solution if seating is limited.

        3. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

          Yeah, I find moving images very distracting, so someone else with a screen open in my line of sight means I have a hard time paying attention. (I spend a lot of my online time either in my RSS reader or using reader mode in Firefox, since any video or motion on a page makes it hard for me to read. When neither of those is an option, if I really want to read something on the site I’ll put sticky notes on my physical monitor to block the movement, bu I do most of my online time in places that I can read.)

          It’s the hardest when I’m supposed to be listening to audio without much visual content, such as a person lecturing without slides, a discussion panel, or a concert of the no-special-effect variety such as classical or folk. My brain is going to prioritize motion, then text, then audio, and it’s very hard for me to get it to focus on something lower-priority. This is particularly frustrating in a lecture or concert when I specifically chose to be there and so did (presumably) everyone else, and where I can’t easily get up and change my seat if I’m seated behind someone who scrolls their phone or plays a game the whole time. I then end up watching some rando play Tetris rather than listen to the thing I paid money for.

          1. JustaTech*

            YES! Oh my goodness yes me too!

            The worst is when I’m on a plane and watching my own program but someone in front of me is watching a movie on their own screen and I just can’t stop looking at their screen even though I have my own show (with sound!). It’s so frustrating!

          2. GythaOgden*

            Same here.

            It drives me crazy both ways round in non-work situations — if someone else is knitting, say, on the train, I have to fight the urge to say how nice it looks or ask them about it, because it also drives me crazy to be crafting in public and be asked the same torrent of questions. At least I know I’m not the only one.

            I also hate being in a room or bar etc with a TV on mute. It’s almost impossible not to get drawn to it and I end up having to sit with my back to it.

            At work, though, it would be good to do it unobtrusively if at all — a lot of us neurodivergent people understand the need to focus…but the repetitive motion in my peripheral vision is distracting /me/, and there are ways of fidgeting that can be less distracting to others than some things other people mention here.

      2. Sandangel*

        Having an appropriate fidget was a struggle for me that last time I had jury duty. Normally I knit or crochet, but I was sitting in full view, so I had to find something else to distract me without seeming rude.

    9. Ms. Murchison*

      There has got to be another fidget option for them. Just the presence of a lit-up screen in your coworkers’ line of sight will distract other people from the presentation, even if the person using the phone can follow the presentation. I fidget a lot, but if I was in a room with others instead of remote, I would find one that is screen-free. (And doesn’t click.)
      Try knitting, doodling on a notepad, or something like a Rubik’s cube. Sometimes I take nearly verbatim notes that I’ll never look at again, because it keeps my hands moving and my mind on the speaker.

      1. Willow Pillow*

        Replacement stims can be really difficult – It’s not just a matter of picking up a poppit. I have dermatillomania issues, for instance, and there are multiple senses* involved that a replacement stim needs to be addressed to be effective. Also see the top-level comment from “Prefer my pets”.

        *”Senses” in a more technical sense, such as pain, vestibular, proprioception, etc.

      2. Not doodling*

        I used to have to go to meetings for a job that were so boring but it would have been so obvious if I wasn’t paying attention. So I would print out puzzles like crosswords and sudoku and tape them into a notebook and keep it up on my leg or arm so I looked like I was taking notes or maybe doodling.

    10. JF*

      I’m ADHD as all get out – at least for me, scrolling and reading things would absolutely distract me, I’d focus on the phone/article/my emails that are coming in. Effective fidgets/distractions are ones that don’t require brainpower but are physical distractions – Merry and Bright’s phone game example would be kind of in between for me. If I were this employee from the post, the solution would be a different fidget, most likely.

    11. lurkyloo*

      My son is ADHA/Aspbergers/Spectrum and has been called out on phone usage too. For him when his brain starts running away, this is how he gets it back under control. Optics are definitely bad, but he has to have a way to get back on track and this is it. Some managers get it and some don’t.

    12. Anon Despite Having Defensible opinions*

      I would like to go even further with the idea of framing this as an accommodation issue, and suggest that this is an area where societal norms place an undue burden on the neurodivergent, and that maybe we should consider trying to solve the problem by realigning our expectations.

      The fundamental issue is that there’s a bandwidth mismatch between those of us who are checking our phones and the rest of y’all. In other words, I listen at about 90 mph, and you only talk at about 30. You only get part of my attention because that’s all that following along uses up. To paraphrase A Few Good Men, “You want my full attention? You can’t handle my full attention!”

      I can’t slow down my listening. I can’t voluntarily step down the speed at which my brain processes input. Which gives us only a few options: you can talk faster (a LOT faster), I can give myself extra input (stimming, checking my phone, “working” on my laptop), or I can focus on performing attentiveness instead of actually paying even partial attention (and thus not absorbing anything).

      So here’s where it becomes a problem: option 1 is out because most people are already talking as fast as they comfortably can and because it’s unfair to the people aren’t fast listeners. Option 3 is out if the reason I’m in the meeting is because you want me to get something out of it. (Although if this is all about appearances, that’s fine, I’ll just dissociate for a while.) Which leaves option 2. And here the “problem” seems to be, frankly, the neurotypical response to accommodating disability.

      “That’s distracting” is absolutely a legitimate concern, and it’s an area where us high-bandwidth people need to be considerate. Silent fidget cubes instead of clicking pens, etc.
      That’s cool — I’m happy to sit in back where nobody has to see things over my shoulder; you just need to leave a seat open for me.

      But the main complaint seems to be “it’s rude”, which is to say, “I feel bad when I perceive that people aren’t as focused on me as I like/deserve.” And if I can be a bit challenging: why is that a me problem and not a you problem?

      Speakers aren’t going to be able to enthrall everyone in the audience. That’s not something to feel bad about, that’s just a fact. You have to balance going fast enough to keep the fast listeners engaged but not so fast that you lose the slow listeners, and if the audience is diverse enough, you can’t satisfy everyone. That’s life. A little disappointing, sure, but is it unreasonable to expect people to be strong enough to accept that?

      Likewise, not everyone in a meeting is going to be as invested in it as the person convening it. The person for whom only 10% of the agenda is relevant is probably going to zone out, and if that bothers you… maybe they don’t belong in that meeting? Maybe you need shorter, smaller, more focused meetings. Would it be bad to expect people to be comfortable with the limits of their importance?

      I’m just saying, managing our expectations seems to be one of the few areas where we have leverage on this problem, and neurotypicals who want to be allies could do a lot of good by recognizing that sometimes the way rudeness is defined prioritizes the emotional comfort of the privileged at the expense of the minoritized.

      1. GythaOgden*

        Neurodivergence isn’t one-size-fits-all (we are also disproportionately distracted by people using disruptive fidgets), and plenty of other neurotypical people have their own issues to contend with.

        So while yes, in a vacuum it might be better to learn to accept it, in practice, social norms are there for other reasons and assuming that all ND people are incapable of learning either to swallow their needs from time to time or find a fidget that compromises with other people’s needs, that can be infantilising in a different direction.

        I’m 44, and yeah, I totally get why it’s an issue and I am autistic. However, society doesn’t exist purely for my benefit, so I also have a responsibility to keep my fidgeting somewhat in check to reduce the burdens of it (e.g. anxiety on the part of the presenter who is worried she’s boring people, irritation to those with heightened perception of repetitive movements) on other people. I couldn’t type on my phone in bed while my husband was alive because the movement of my hand and arm jogged the bed. Particularly when he was ill, it was on me to get up or play a game which didn’t require rapid fire movement because he was equally entitled to a comfortable situation. (When he was ill what had been a minor annoyance became heightened in his own way, and as a human being with needs himself, he had a right to ask that I didn’t turn our bed into a bouncy castle for him.)

        We all live in the same world. We all have to make compromises to get along in it and not unnecessarily upset other people. Neurodivergent people are as equally capable of regulating their needs as neurotypicals and it always frustrates me that this angle is pursued so hard, because it’s actually not helping us be seen as fellow adult colleagues.

        1. Anon Despite Having Defensible opinions*

          I’m not suggesting that being ND is a free pass to do whatever you want and to hell with everybody else. That’s why I said you have an obligation to be considerate with your fidgeting / stimming / whatever. Absolutely, compromises need to be made. If OP’s employee needs to check his phone so he doesn’t die of boredom, he should put himself someplace where it won’t distract people.

          But OP’s answer and Alison’s response both assume as a given the social norm that everyone in a meeting should perform attentiveness all the time, and that if they don’t, it’s a sign that they’re not paying attention. And I want to push back on that.

          “Doing X impedes other people’s participation in the meeting” is 100% a legitimate concern. We should all be doing our best to create an environment that works for everyone. The issue is that the existing norms don’t do that; they work real well for some people and are hell for others. We need new and better social norms that are more equitable, like, I dunno, maybe seats in the back are reserved for people who need to fidget and seats in the front are reserved for people who are easily distracted.

          The problem is not that ND people are less capable of regulating their needs. The problem is that they get asked to do it far more often. I have no problem at all with swallowing my needs from time to time for the benefit of others. I have a big problem with swallowing them all the time because there’s an assumption that it’s always the ND person’s responsibility to do that, and that NT people should be protected from ever needing to feel less than fully comfortable.

          The fact that some people perceive accommodations as a sign that you’re less than adult IS exactly the problem here, and you don’t solve a problem like that by giving in and catering to that viewpoint. What I’m saying is that if people think that accommodations “look bad” or are “rude” or “immature”, the onus should be on them to change their attitudes, not on the people who need the accommodations to make their use of them invisible.

      2. Willow Pillow*

        Yes, all of this. One thing I didn’t read in this comment is that the typical stigmatizing responses often have the opposite effect – being criticized for a necessary behaviour tends to make people more anxious. Those repetitive actions help to re-regulate us, however, so a harsh response could actually result in more of the same.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Yeah, but you also have to consider other people around you as well. You might be the centre of your world, but you’re not the only one with issues in the room. Learning to make compromises with your surroundings is really important, because /everyone else in the room/ is doing so as well.

    13. M2RB*

      Coming back to thank everyone who commented below my initial comment – I really appreciated reading all the different perspectives. I had an unexpectedly hectic day so I did not get to engage much.

      I am a fidgeter, definitely. I remember that in a meeting with my boss at my first post-college job, he grabbed the pen out of my hand – I wasn’t aware that I was clicking it and that the noise was annoying him. (Yes, he was a jerk.) When I was in a WFH position, I would knit off-camera during long multi-department meetings because I couldn’t maintain attention. Now that I am in a fully in-office job, I have a fidget spinner and a squishy ball that I can fidget with under my desk when I need to pay attention and am at my desk. I also wear a ring on my right hand that I can silently fidget with if I’m in a meeting away from my desk. For me, I know that looking at my phone during a work meeting spells Doom, so I don’t. BUT I have people in my life who do use their phone as a fidget, and who can repeat back the conversation/training/announcements, so I was curious to hear perspectives in case it’s useful for them.

  2. BellyButton*

    Managing and mentoring are not an either or. Mentoring is about professional development. In this case, he needs to know that being on his phone so much could be perceived as being rude, as if he isn’t engaged, and that he is unprofessional. That perception, correct or not, could negatively impact his relationship and opportunities.

    I will also say, times have changed, people do look at their phones a lot. As long as someone knows what is going on in the room and still participates- I don’t really care anymore, unless it is a 1:1 conversation.

  3. Danish*

    Yeah, as someone who does often scroll on my phone as an ADHD focus thing, no amount of “I am listening and I can repeat back all the things you just said, I promise” will dissuade someone who has decided you looking at your phone means you aren’t paying attention. Safest is to find some other method.

    (In some workplaces it was more important that I “looked” engaged, so I would just mentally check out while staring at the presentation or whatever. Like, not great, but they made it very clear what the priority was)

    1. Amber Rose*

      I have taken to popping my phone in and out of it’s case on one corner. The shape/feel of my phone in my hand is basically the only “worry stone” that works, and the popping is quiet and gives me something to do with my hands that isn’t playing a game and upsetting people.

      1. Danish*

        Oh that’s clever. My new phone case has a pleasant kind of jelly-cube texture to it that makes it pleasant to fiddle with as well, I may try cultivating that

      2. JustaTech*

        I know a surprising number of guys with ADHD who use fountain pens as their fidget because they’re something that 1) is a useful tool for a meeting, 2) can be taken apart and reassembled over and over, 3) needs a certain amount of maintenance, 4) looks fancy/business/serious.

        The only time I’ve seen it be an issue was when a boss was fiddling with his pen in a meeting and it exploded ink everywhere and we had to stop for a minute to find napkins to clean it up.

        1. PensCanBeProblemsToo*

          I’ve gotten so many glares for taking pens apart it’s not even funny. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was doing it until I got the glare.

    2. Ruby Ruby*

      So true! I’ve been accused of being distracted and not listening. Then I’ll repeat the last few sentences back almost verbatim. So yeah, I’m listening. But it usually just annoys the person who thinks they’re being ignored, for some reason. Kind of a no-win.

      1. Who Am I*

        When I was in school (elementary through high school – I didn’t usually do it in college because classes were more engaging) I used to read a book hidden under my desk or I side my text book. If teachers caught me they’d usually ask me what they just said or read the next paragraph out loud. I always could and that would annoy them more than if I actually hadn’t been paying attention. (I’ve suspected for several years that I have ADHD but haven’t sought a diagnosis. I’m 60 – not sure if it’s worth the effort now. They thought girls never had ADHD back in the day. it would explain so much of my life!)

      2. hohumdrum*

        I mean…as someone with ADHD I can also often repeat sentences back even though I wasn’t listening.

        It’s actually a skill I honed BECAUSE of how often I was called out for not paying attention, I got good at faking. For me repeating the sentence back has no bearing on whether I am actually *internalizing* the information being given, so I wouldn’t use that as my standard for assessing good listening.

      3. ceiswyn*

        I suspect it’s because by the time the person actually says something, they’ve worked up a whole head of frustration, and when you demonstrate that you were listening all along they’ve got nowhere to put that.

        So then they still feel frustrated and also now a bit embarrassed, and it’s easier to take that out on the existing target than to deal with it in an emotionally mature fashion.

  4. Prefer my pets*

    I hate so much that playing on your phone reads as disengaged while for so many of us it is the only way to keep from completely & totally tuning out of a meeting/class. I’ve tried it all…I have spinner rings, meds, doodles, note-taking, etc. I *know* that playing on my phone gets judged in-person so I don’t do it and just try to get by. Still the best part about most meetings remaining hybrid for me is that no one can see me playing BubbleShooter on my phone while they speak so slowly my brain cannot slow that much to process without having a piece of it on something else.

    In an ideal world, poor performers using their phones to avoid doing work would be treated & viewed differently than good performers doing what works best for them.

      1. learnedthehardway*

        I REALLY wish I could do this, but generally, I have to take notes or I won’t remember anything. Sadly.

        At least I can look at pictures while trying to stay engaged in long meetings…..

    1. Rachel*

      I think this comments section assumes the difference between poor performers avoiding work and good performers using a fidget is clear and obvious.

      It is not.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Or the really tricky in between: a poor performer who might do better if they started fidgeting, but don’t have the reputation to defend doing it.

        It would be great to be able to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but these things exist in shades of gray. And honestly even with a medium to high performer with formal accommodations “phone scrolling” is going to be a hard get as a reasonable allowance. I hope the “professional but discreet fidget market” continues to develop.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        I think the point is not that it’s obvious from looking, but should be obvious to your supervisor.

        1. Rachel*

          I am going to separate performance from “avoiding work and “fidget.”

          Performance: a good supervisor absolutely should know where their direct reports fall in their performance. Agree.

          Avoiding work vs fidget: I think a good supervisor couldn’t see where this falls. Especially if the fidget is phone use.

    2. Angry socialist*

      Someone in a meeting playing on their phone distracts me. If I can see their screen, I can’t pay attention to anything else! Someone else’s repetetive motion in the corner of my eye is also hugely distracting. A fidgeting person grabs all of my attention for the whole meeting.

      I should just wear blinders everywhere like a carriage horse.

  5. Whyamihere*

    I can like an article without it having relevance right now in my life. Also maybe the writers said “like and subscribe” and the employee is liking and because they are already subscribed.

    1. lilsheba*

      Frankly I like things on LinkedIn that are relative to ME or that I just like. I figure if others don’t like it too bad. Don’t worry about what I’m “liking” on there.

    2. I Have RBF*


      I have had some really, really horrible managers. I “like” articles about bad managers, coping with bad managers, spotting bad managers, etc. It does not mean that I think my manager sucks. It means that I have had bad managers in the past, and that reading those articles helps me cope.

      The LW is reading far too much into the fact that he likes articles about bad managers. MYOB.

  6. ecnaseener*

    Re #2 (employee liking articles about bad managers etc.) – I wouldn’t even read anything into him liking the articles. I for one enjoy reading AAM posts about bad management, even though my manager is great! I suspect this site’s readership is full of people who can say the same.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      If the OP is feeling personally commented upon, I would consider whether there was an issue with my management, but if I had generally good performance reviews of my management skills, I wouldn’t take it personally. Perhaps the person is looking to develop their own future management skills. Or maybe they have had really bad managers in the past.

    2. Ink*

      If they were friends, I’d say bring up how it might look to the connected higher ups (linkedin likes feel more “serious” than enjoying an advice column, probably bc people use it much less “socially” than most other platforms), but since they aren’t, I think this is the idea to focus on. LW doesn’t manage them, so they’re less likely to be the bad manager the coworker is thinking about, they aren’t close enough to bring it up super casually… so the coworker’s linkedin is the coworker’s business, and the LW doesn’t need to make it their problem

    3. fidget spinner*

      Yeah, not gonna lie, I enjoy reading about other peoples’ drama. I don’t want any of my own but I’m interested in how other people respond to things… even if they don’t relate to me.

  7. BecauseHigherEd*

    I think a big part of this also is whether this person is “just scrolling” through a non-work-related page or if they’re reading work emails. It’s possible that the person has important deadlines/pressing emails coming in that need to be answered right away (or emails that need to evaluated to see if they’re urgent) which may affect how the manager should proceed.

  8. BellyButton*

    I sometimes use AAM stories or traits of bad managers from articles to prompt discussions in some of the leadership development programs I facilitate. They can help with reflection and self awareness and their own development if they have goals to be move into leadership.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I was speaking on a panel for our leadership development program recently (I completed the program myself three years ago) and absolutely recommended AAM as a way to consider different viewpoints and reflection on tricky situations. :)

  9. Maggie*

    Totally agree with the comments about using phones as a fidget to support focus, but – especially if that’s not what’s going on here – I’d also give some deep thought to whether the list of attendees for these meetings is put together thoughtfully. It may just be that he’s maxed out on his ability to absorb things that aren’t relevant to his work and he may find it easier to “present” himself as engaged if the excess meetings are minimized.

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      I think this is heading down the excessive speculation route. Whenever meetings are brought up in letters, there are always comments that are “are the meetings really necessary?” We really just have to trust OP that they are because otherwise we’re straying so far from the question asked.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        Yes, thank you. I feel like instead of getting solutions to existing problems some letters get solutions in search of a problem.

      2. Observer*

        I think this is heading down the excessive speculation route.</I.

        I disagree. Sure, it sometimes gets out of hand. But it's not all that speculative to ask about the necessity of so many meetings.

        Whenever meetings are brought up in letters, there are always comments that are “are the meetings really necessary?”

        True. But one of the reasons is that excessive meetings are an extraordinarily common issue. And that happens even with otherwise competent management and an otherwise reasonable culture. So, it makes sense to ask.

        We really just have to trust OP that they are because otherwise we’re straying so far from the question asked.

        Well, no, we don’t. I’m not talking about a situation where the OP says “These are meetings that really need to happen and Emp really needs to be there.” In those cases we should absolutely take the OP’s word for it absent other real evidence that they are making a mistake. (Like they say that the employee’s schedule is such that they do not need to be checking their phone, so we should believe that.) But if they simply have not thought about that as part of their approach to the problem? It’s far more useful to provide a suggestion that might be helpful and that *is* relevant to the question that to not bring it up.

      3. Maggie*

        I do think the fidget thing is the mostly likely explanation, as I mentioned, but if he really isn’t paying attention and he is doing fine at his job, it *may* be something to consider in terms of actually solving the problem at hand. The OP didn’t say they are definitely urgent meetings, of course they don’t need to put in any additional thought if they already have eliminated the possibility.

    2. Prefer my pets*

      Totally agree with this as well. I’m trying to think of meetings I’ve attended in my 25 yr career with 30ish attendees that couldn’t have just been an email with the relevant information and coming up pretty blank with the exception of conferences. I do a *lot* of meeting for my job and pretty much anything over 15-20 people (which is the size of our interdisciplinary project teams) is just conveying information so people can ask questions in real time and could instead have been emailed out.

      1. nnn*

        Really? My career has been very different so you’ll have to take it on faith that meetings are necessary and useful in many jobs.

        1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          They didn’t eat that meetings aren’t necessary. They said that large meetings are usually presentations rather than interactive discussions, and many presentations really can be sent in email.

      2. Someone Online*

        People also learn differently. I know because I just witnessed a meeting where fully half of the attendees didn’t know what was going on because they hadn’t read the three emails with instructions that had been sent out previously. Part of being a worksite that works with a variety of people is realizing some people learn better hearing information or working with information than reading an email.

        1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          Yes, but! Learning styles research shows us that just hearing something, lecture-style, is the worst approach for most people.

          1. A Nonny Mouse*

            Yes, learning research says that (and that people in the lectures often say they learned more but performed more poorly than interactive classes). But not learning style research. There is no research supporting learning styles, even though they are used heavily in schools and industry. Signed, an education researcher

          2. GythaOgden*

            Studies can tell us what an ideal looks like if you’re controlling variables. However, in real life, we often have to trade some of the perfect set up for one group or person for the needs of another group or person.

            This is what’s behind the spherical cow issue, in that pure research is not often directly applicable to a real situation because your cows are not going to be spherical; they have rough bits, pointy bits and knobbly bits and exist in time and space and will have costs associated with their existence.

            Take, for instance, the example of a large lecture hall full of 50-100 students where it would be impractical to hold an actual class with the lecturer or professor taking time to work with individual students. At the LSE twenty years ago (London School of Economics), they solved that by having non-mandatory lectures with the professor but compulsory classes for each module held by what were effectively adjuncts (PhD students), meaning that you had one large lecture with the entire cohort for the class and then went to a class of a handful of people for direct tutorial. (At Oxford and Cambridge this is actually one on one with a teacher and student, but not at other universities in the UK.) Or take my husband’s cancer consultant; hubby didn’t always see him every month, and often had a registrar instead, because the consultant just had too many patients on his books to be able to devote a session to them every month. (It felt to hubby at first that if the consultant appeared, it was bad news, because obviously they wouldn’t dump it on him from a junior doctor, but actually the consultant was good about checking in on him from time to time when there wasn’t a problem and, away from his check up appointments fought VERY hard for him behind the scenes getting him the best treatment the UK could offer him, like radical new treatments just to try to save a young man’s life.)

            So while studies might show that it would be ideal not to simply lecture people from the front of a room, it doesn’t mean we can dispense with them, since it might be a more efficient format to impart understanding to a larger group of people. You probably have to find the point where the efficiency for the teacher meets the effectiveness for the student, but you would need to take the presenter’s perspective into consideration as well.

            At both extremes, what’s efficient for the teacher — teaching an entire stadium full of people — is terrible for the student, but what’s best for the student — one on one tuition — is probably not useful for the teacher, since they would be having to give that lecture or tutorial over and over for each individual. In effect, you’re dealing with economies of scale here, and whatever a study does or does not say, common ground needs to be found in a real situation.

        2. Siobahn*

          “…fully half of the attendees didn’t know what was going on because they hadn’t read the three emails with instructions that had been sent out previously.”

          Then they should have read the emails like the other half did. Doesn’t mean they had to commit things to memory, but those emails were sent for a reason.

    1. Phones anonymous*

      This exactly! Paper notes aren’t that useful to me, I’ll just have to enter them into my phone later tbh. I worry about the optics of taking notes or entering calendar dates on my phone during the meeting, though it’s actually productive. I agree that it looks rude though. If I’m giving a presentation and see someone tapping away on their phone, it might take the wind out of my sails. It’s a tough one.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I find most people who do this with success announce it casually at the beginning. “I’m just going to take some notes on my phone, don’t worry if I’m looking down you have my full attention”. The catch is you actually do have to be taking notes, because if someone sees your screen and you’re scrolling instagram then you’re rude and also a liar.

      2. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        Would it work for you to use an external keyboard with your phone for note-taking? I may just be of the Compaq Portable Generation of computer use and not understand how usability works for other people, but if I’m going to be doing any substantial amount of typing on my phone I tend to put it on a little easel and get out a Bluetooth keyboard. I suspect typing on a keyboard with occasional screen-touching would look more “notes-like” to most people, or at least like your phone use was intentional rather than something you just absentmindedly started doing,

    2. ClairePBear*

      This! I was at a mandatory in-office day at my last job and they scheduled a meeting for my team about something not really related to our focus. I had been hired at the beginning of the pandemic, so I wasn’t familiar with where different supplies were and management could get a bit shirty if you weren’t at your desk every second of the day, so I also didn’t want to go wandering trying to find a pad and pen. My solution was to take my phone so I could take notes. I should have said something at the beginning of the meeting, but I tend to think note-taking looks the same whatever medium you’re using: focused attention on the presentation with either writing or typing as it continues. Well, afterwards my new supervisor came to our cubicle area and made an announcement that we absolutely should NOT be on our phones during a meeting (the very idea! gasp!). Despite not liking to draw attention to myself, I knew this was about me, so I piped up that I had been taking notes (while showing her my screen). Then she mumbled something about requesting a pad next time. I could have written in several times about that manager. She was a piece of work, though definitely not as bad as some we read about here!

    3. Dinwar*

      I VERY frequently IM with people during meetings. Mostly for work purposes–if something comes up that Jane needs to know about, or if I have a question that Rachel can answer via a quick IM, it’s better to get the answer now than to wait. I use my laptop for it, but a lot of coworkers use phones. The difference between someone IMing with a work question and someone IMing for personal reasons is not entirely cut and dried, even if you can identify it visually, which you can’t.

      I’ll admit it looks bad when you’re starting out, but once you answer someone’s “We should ask Jane about this” with “I already did, she’s on board” a few times everyone tends to accept that this is a net gain for the group.

  10. Sled dog mama*

    LW#3, not only is coffee lower stakes than a meal, Some people may have food issues that make eating a meal with a stranger a complete no go. Issues can cover anything from severe allergies to fear of being judged for what they choose to eat (thank you judgemental relatives who policed my snacks as a child).
    Coffee is generally a much more limited menu that is pretty similar from place to place and is less likely to trigger some of those issues.

    1. Ink*

      This is an excellent suggestion. Good shot of taking a lot of restrictions from becoming issues, since there are commonly things like pastries, non-coffee beverages, milk substitutes, and so on. Just don’t lose that advantage by getting overly pushy about telling them they can/should order more/different than they did! (I laugh lest I cry instead…)

  11. E*

    I take notes on my phone and fidget because it’s uncomfortable sitting across from people in long meetings that have nothing to do with me.

      1. E*

        I mean a lot of bosses and managers have the problem of inviting people to meetings that are completely unnecessary.

  12. I mean really*

    “Please put your phone away during meetings. I know you are paying attention but it looks rude to the person presenting. Thanks.”

          1. Rachel*

            You have every right to make that choice.

            But you don’t have every right to complain if there are consequences from that choice.

            1. pope suburban*

              I would hope that a manager would not fire a high performer over something this small. At the end of the day, someone’s reputation is their own to manage, and the fallout from that is theirs to bear. If the employee decides that this is worth the potential risk and continues to perform well, then I think it would be wise for the manager to let it go. Employees aren’t children, and I suspect this person is aware that perception is a factor in the workplace. They’re doing well so I would really not make this my hill to die on.

              1. Jennifer Strange*

                I don’t think they would fire them over looking at their phone, but if they (or the presenter) asked people to put away their phones and someone simply said “No thank you” (not “I need something to focus” or “I use it to take notes”) I think it would justifiably call in serious questions about their judgement.

              2. Eldritch Office Worker*

                Over the phone, I would absolutely not fire someone. Someone who Bartleby’s directives from their manager? I’d at least be having a conversation and looking at their work behavior very closely.

                1. Observer*


                  At this point, you’ve gone from being rude, intentionally or not, to showing really bad judgement at best.

              3. Daisy-dog*

                If we have learned anything from update season, the small problem can be a sign of a much bigger one.

              4. Statler von Waldorf*

                Refusing to follow the direct instructions of a manger isn’t “something this small.” It’s called insubordination, and in Canada is is considered just cause to fire an employee without paying notice or severance.

                This isn’t speculation on my part either. I fired someone when they refused to do something I ordered them to do back in 2017, and we easily won when they filed a complaint against me and my boss for unjust dismissal with the Employment Standards Branch.

                Flat out refusing to do what your boss tells you to do is not a good idea if you want to keep your job. You can push back and you can negotiate if you have sufficient capital that you’re willing to spend, but you can almost never just say “No” without unpleasant consequences.

              5. GythaOgden*

                Adults also learn how to make compromises with their own needs so that they can serve others effectively.

          2. nnn*

            Um, no, that’s not a thing. Your boss has the prerogative to tell you to stop. If you need a medical accommodation, you’d need to explain that.

          3. Ellis Bell*

            I’m not sure it is. It’s reasonable to enter into a respectful conversation; like to explain you need it as an ADHD accommodation but even then you have to be open to alternative solutions if your boss thinks it looks rude. You can’t just say “no thanks” to instructions of how to proceed in meetings from your boss.

            1. E*

              You actually don’t have to tell them what your condition is. In Canada they aren’t allowed to pry. Bring in an accommodation note from your doctor if a boss tries to claim insubordination.

              1. Statler von Waldorf*

                I have over 20 years of HR experience in multiple provinces in Canada. I am unfamiliar with any laws that back up your claim. What law do you think prevents an employer from prying?

                I’m honestly curious, because I fired someone once who believed the same thing and they blew off their own ESB hearing so I never found out why they believed it.

              1. Observer*

                Which is not quite the mic drop moment you seem to think it is.

                There are employers who think that showing up unannounced on the wrong day for an interview is “gumption” and something to be accommodated. There are employers who allow staff to talk inappropriately to other people. There are employers who allow staff to be disrespectful and insubordinate to their managers. etc. That doesn’t make those things reasonable behavior in the workplace.

                The fact that you have been able to just say “no” to your manager is not a sign that it’s reasonable to expect to keep your job in a functional organization if that’s a common pattern.

      1. Pierrot*

        That would be very out of touch with work norms. Managers don’t just assign work– it is well within their role to address behavior based issues in the office and maintain an environment and team where colleagues and external stakeholders are treated with basic respect. It might bother other team members if they are trying to share something during a meeting and they see that their colleague is looking at his phone. It’s even more of an issue of LW’s boss or a client attends the meeting and sees that this is happening. Frankly, the perceptions could impact the employee and it’s a kindness to tell him that he is distracting people and it looks unprofessional.

  13. Rachel*

    Whenever fidgets come up I read, multiple times, “it’s the only way I can focus.”

    I believe that to be true.

    But you are not the only person in the meeting. And other people might, completely legitimately, find your fidget distracting. I do not waste work capital on this but I find knitting and phone use to be distracting during meetings.

    I cope with it because I realize this is just how meetings are, but a bit of acknowledgment that fidgets are not distracting-neutral would benefit this conversation.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Absolutely true. I think that’s why doodling is so popular – people may notice but it’s rarely as distracting as someone pulling out a whole bag of yarn.

      It’s a hard topic. You can’t make everyone perfectly comfortable.

      1. Rachel*

        It’s your last sentence for me.

        I also think it’s really hard to discuss the difference between preferences and needs.

      2. Kathy*

        interesting – as an ADHDer myself, I find someone else doodling *way* more distracting than someone else knitting – with the doodler I’m in suspense about what they will draw next!

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      Not to mention the person presenting is also entitled to feel comfortable and undistracted. Seeing someone appearing to ignore you has effects. If someone absolutely needs to be on their phone (taking notes, keeping an eye on emergency issues, etc) then it’s a kindness to either let the presenter know or go out of your way to be as inconspicuous as possible.

      1. HonorBox*

        This is a great point. I’ve presented to groups and had someone clearly doing something else, and I keep wondering if it is something about me.

      2. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

        Especially as a junior/ inexperienced presenter may already be nervous.
        Seeing people on their phone could make them panic “oh god I’m boring people”

      3. Angstrom*

        Yes! As a presenter/trainer, if someone doesn’t show signs of being engaged I’ve got to assume they’re not following along. Someone staring at their phone and never making eye contact reads as rude from the front of the room.

      4. DistractingTheSpeaker*

        In college I was forced to take a genetics for dummies class that I could have taught in my sleep because it was the only genetics class I could fit into my schedule. It was between my two physics classes and I used to sit there fairly discreetly either finishing my homework for the next class or starting the homework from the class I just left. A couple of weeks in the professor asked to see me after class. More than 30 years later I still remember exactly what he said to me: “I realize this class is beyond boring and your physics problems are much more interesting, but that’s the problem. It’s much more interesting so my brain wants to pay attention to it instead of what I need to teach. Kindly refrain from doing anything interesting in my class so I can get through teaching what I’m supposed to teach.”

        So the stuff I was doing to keep my brain engaged and not appear bored out of my skull was very much a distraction.

    3. GythaOgden*

      This. Neurodivergence is not a one-size-fits-all experience either — some of us ND folks have issues on the other side of the aisle as well. (Just like I know a lot of ND people here prefer private spaces, but having worked in the UK and Ireland, open offices are pretty ubiquitous and I actually find smaller spaces claustrophobic — and very few of those smaller spaces are totally private; very often people double or triple up. The room the size of my bedroom at one site I was at a week or so ago had four workstations set up and at one point another one or two had to perch in between. It’s probably a factor of simple adaptation to a fact of life over here, but I did suddenly start to feel claustrophobic just after I turned 18 and stopped going to crowded pubs, and I find I’m really panicky in crowded places like shopping centres before Christmas, so it’s not ALL just adjusting to reality.)

      So even as a accommodation thing it’s no guarantee that other neurodivergent people are going to share the same needs or feel the same way. I think it would also be hard to justify a direct accommodation that you could be on your phone — you’d probably be asked to try something like a quiet fidget toy or notebook first. Insisting on a specific thing like phone with the potential for other issues to emerge would probably require the interactive process to work through quite thoroughly and I’d expect people to be very sceptical and need convincing, possibly with medical proof.

      I mean, sure, totally, I get where everyone is coming from. A week or two ago before I got my first major assignment I was having to discreetly fiddle with my phone since the reactive parts of my job that I could do with very little training weren’t coming in fast enough and I was just waiting around for stuff to come in before a group training session due after lunch. The guy who helped my boss pick me out mentioned the fidget toy (a rainbow koosh ball sold at a theme park during Pride month) he saw me using on reception in an approving manner during my interview. People understand, but that’s not to say they will always give us complete freedom to use our first choice of fidget.

      Even with a lot more awareness of neurodivergence out there, it would take a lot to get others to respect that choice and be comfortable with it, and the more you take their issues into account and work with them rather than against them, the more it’s likely to be ok to genuinely look for something to use up your spare brain cycles more stimulating than a koosh ball (cool and squishy as they are!).

      I just don’t think it’s a hill worth dying on if you want to successfully engage with colleagues and be engaged with in return.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      You seem to have misread the letter. Wanting to talk to someone about a behavior that can make them look unprofessional (and even hinder their career) isn’t wanting to control their every movement.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Um…”My employee is nearly perfect but as someone invested in their success I am perceiving actions that they may not realize could reflect badly on them”

  14. John Smith*

    I just can’t help think that, if employee is on his phone for most of these presentations and is a solid performer, then either he is paying attention to the presentations a well as his phone or there is no need for him to be at the presentations (or indeed, no need for the presentations themselves).

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      The optics can damage his reputation with those who don’t know his performance as well as his manager

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        This. If the LW’s boss (or another manager) notices it they may pass him over for an opportunity they may have otherwise considered him for.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Not everything comes back to a management issue. We’re all human and have human failings, and additionally, when you’re at work, you are being paid to be present rather than fiddle about.

          It’s not easy to directly control other people’s actions, but there is a minimum standard of presence in meetings, and no one is going to blame a manager for an employee’s unforced errors. It IS hard; I was on reception for ten years and even before the pandemic hit I was fingerwagged about my phone. And actually, during the depths of the pandemic when I was part of the building facilities skeleton crew, my boss allowed me to listen to YouTube and sketch/knit/crochet etc during the long, empty hours. It just got put away again when people started coming back in and it was actually easier to do than I thought it was — although we did have to make a few mistakes before we realised that people were coming in more often, because it was a subtle uptick and, by the time I left that job in October, hadn’t recovered and looked like it wasn’t ever going to fully recover. Which made reception a nightmare — not enough to do but not like the skeleton crew pandemic times when we were able to fill the empty hours with something a bit more personal — and I managed to find something else before effectively going on sick leave.

          The danger with blaming everything about employee behaviour on management is that sometimes it is just that employees are imperfect human beings like management are. It’s not on management really to make sure their employees are giving them their full attention and are participating; that should be a given at work, even in deathly tedious jobs like mine on Reception, where I did have to discard my sudoku app because I got sucked in to the point I wasn’t watching the door like I was being paid to do.

          The danger with this is that we actually get so wrapped up in how things should be that we forget how things really are, we get so wrapped up in the individual’s needs that we forget the needs of the wider group, and that actually, some of us do get engrossed in our fidgets to the detriment of our attention, and we’re not always self-aware enough to be able to parrot back what’s been said.

    2. Observer*

      That’s possibly true. But it still can be rude, and that’s a problem on its own.

      Now, if this person does not need to be in these meetings, it would be a good idea not ho make him attend those meetings. But in the interim it’s not unreasonable to talk to him about changing this behavior.

  15. Ms. Murchison*

    I’m surprised that the advice on the social media letter didn’t mention blocking. Even if the LW can’t change their contact settings, they can at least prevent the people who have contacted them for this purpose from sending more messages.

  16. OrigCassandra*

    Ugh, the semi-famous spouse thing. My ex-husband was a legend in a certain extremely niche fandom area, and five whole years after we divorced I still get email and other pokes from randos trying to find him through me. (I don’t know where he is and don’t care. I have no immediate way to contact him, either.) It was way worse when we were still married, of course.

    Delete, block sender if possible. For email, I have a bozofilter that these jerks go into — every once in a while one would get mouthy or decide that spamming my inbox was the way to get what they wanted.

  17. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

    >>> And this was in a fairly small room, about 30 people in total, in the front and center.

    This is the thing that jumps out at me. Maybe just ask him to sit further back, so he’s not so much on display?

  18. HonorBox*

    If I received an invitation to lunch from someone, I’d assume they’re paying. Also, if I received an invitation to lunch from someone who was interested in networking, I’d probably find a way to decline. The suggestion of coffee (or a beer at the end of the day, if that’s your style) is much easier to accept. While you may end up having the same length of conversation over coffee, it feels like lunch is a higher-stakes invitation. And it can be relatively easy to have a 45 minute meeting over coffee for a lot of people.

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Yes, if you invite someone and you’re not paying, then you must say so in advance – which would be terrible when the invitation is because you want to network.

      Anyway, inviting for a coffee/tea is asking to take much less of their time, it’s easier to find a convenient location and it avoids most problems of food preferences or allergies.

  19. Yup!*

    I read #1 with 3 tabs open on ADHD, which we suspect 2 of my family members have. So that was the first thing I though of.

    I think the conversations about phone usage are changing, especially with so much coming to light about just how many people struggle with focus and ADHD. Although it is fair to say that phones are distracting, and maybe meetings aren’t the best place to use them, it’s also wrong to think paying attention looks like only one thing.

    I would definitely open up a conversation based on empathy and understanding to see what other ways this employee can cope in meetings–especially since they are such a good employee and presumably bring much value to the company. You need to praise the heck out of that! The old ways of saying X = RUDE need to change to allow much better understanding of what employees individually need to perform.

  20. Dinwar*

    #2: I haven’t read the INC article, but I can think of a few reasons to like critical articles on LinkedIn that aren’t “I hate my boss”. I read articles on bad managers occasionally, not because I think my manager is bad, but because I don’t want to be the bad manager and figure that it’s better to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Sometimes I’ll re-read articles because you learn different things from an article reading it again, especially if there’s a career/lifestyle change or you’re contemplating one.

    Without knowing a lot more context than we have here, all anyone can really say is “They liked an article.”

  21. Raida*

    Once my manager used their phone to send a Teams message to another person in a session:
    “Put your phone down. Yes I can see you, so can anyone else, certainly anyone presenting. We’ll discuss this afterwards.”

    And that’s not mentoring, that’s slapping someone upside of the head, hah.

  22. ProblematicInManyWays*

    Most places I’ve worked have had a laptops closed, phones down requirement for all onsite meetings unless you’re running the meeting. Too many people find them distracting, too many people legitimately aren’t paying attention, and it’s just problematic all around.

    For those looking at phone use as a potential accommodation, you may enter the space of dueling accommodations. People with light sensitivity, seizure disorders, migraines, or several other conditions might have serious problems with someone else flashing a bright screen, especially if the lights have been dimmed to make a screen easier to see.

    1. allathian*

      The need to dim the room to see the screen went out with the overhead projector in the 1990s. Modern projectors are bright enough to see the screen even with the lights on, never mind the standard flat television screens that are common in meeting rooms. Keep the lights on, people.

      I went to a two-day professional conference in October. The presentations were held in a movie theater, so the projector was really good. They didn’t switch off the lights, but they did dim them a bit, and I have to admit that I struggled to stay awake after lunch on the second day, and I wasn’t the only one. This in spite of them having scheduled some of the most interesting presentations for the second afternoon. Admittedly I’d had a glass of wine with dinner the previous night, and my introvert brain was getting tired of being surrounded by people all day for two days, but I would’ve been less tired in a well-lit room.

  23. Nikki*

    Is this employee being made to sit through meetings where only half of the meeting content is relative to his work?

  24. Rob*

    I suspect my opinion is in the minority here, but I’m curious if we’ll ultimately find there’s a generational divide or evolving norm around casual phone use in typical workplace situations. For context, I’m a younger millennial in a midlevel role on a team ranging mostly from their mid 20s to late 30s in the financial sector. I genuinely do not see being on your phone in a meeting in and of itself as a sign that you’re not paying attention, nor do I think most of my colleagues interpret it that way. Is that something unique to us? Is this something where norms are going to change over time? Who knows, but if I’m being completely honest OP’s concerns come off as an overreaction to something I’d barely even register in a colleague at my own office.

    There are people on their phones doing something in almost every context I might encounter someone in my day-to-day life. Heck, I do it myself at restaurants, when talking to friends, sitting in a hot tub, on a long call…and in business meetings. Not every time, not all the time, but frequently enough. Sometimes it even distracts me from what’s going on, but frankly that’s because I spend a lot of time in meetings that have very little relevance for my own narrow specialized role within the organization, where my input is only required once for a couple of minutes at most.

  25. JackInTheBox*

    I had a good relationship with a former coworker who I was connected with on LinkedIn. I saw a comment of hers that she had applied for a job on a LinkedIn post. The next day I brought it up in the context of light teasing “So you’re applying to be a Llama Groomer, huh? Your comment showed up in my newsfeed!” She was mortified and thanked me for letting her know that those types of things were public.

  26. Dee*

    Hi, it’s me, an employee w ADD who will literally go mad if I can’t do some sort of activity during a meeting. My phone is the only reason I know what’s going on.

    Also I am probably taking notes on my phone in between toggling through stimulus. My handwriting is illegible and garbled but my notes app is right there where my thumbs are.

    Leave your employee alone. Let them do the great job they’re doing.

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