Properly Separate Business and Pleasure and Stay Out of Trouble
By Frank O’Hara
From using emoticons to texting late at night, your phone can get you in trouble if you’re not careful. Here are a few guidelines to help you properly separate business and pleasure.
Smartphones have officially taken over the planet, eliminating the idea of the 9-to-5 workday and allowing for better or for worse bosses and their employees to e-mail, IM, and text from anywhere at any time.
Unfortunately, the freedom presented by the latest mobile devices also provides opportunities for workaholic business owners, go-getter employees, and demanding clients to frequently cross the line between professional and way-too-personal behavior. Have you lost sight of professional smartphone etiquette? Here are some rules of engagement to keep in mind.
Rule No. 1: Be considerate.
Before you initiate a texting or instant messaging session, ask if the person on the other end is available. If the answer is “no,” ask when he or she will be free. Likewise, if a business contact sends you a message, and you can’t give the conversation your full attention, be honest. Then graciously provide the person with a better time to connect. “Don’t go off on a rant on a business matter without asking contacts first if they are free to talk,” says Kristen Ruby, founder and CEO of Ruby Media Group, a social media marketing and PR agency, says. And be patient. “You shouldn’t expect the same immediate response you get when texting or IMing with friends or family members. Give people the same response window you would with traditional e-mail correspondence.”
Rule No. 2: Remember the concept of “business hours.”
With so much access to so many different forms of communication, as a business owner you can easily forget that not everyone works 24/7. “I’ve definitely been guilty of e-mailing or text messaging someone back too quickly from my cell phone or trying to schedule a meeting for well after regular office hours,” Ruby says. “Not everyone wants to work beyond traditional business hours or on the weekends. It’s really not proper etiquette to contact business partners late at night or on weekends, but during the workday and until 7-9 p.m. is usually fine.”
Rule No. 3: Only contact the people you talk to regularly.
Emma Moore, interactive director at design and development firm Fundamental, stresses that instant communication feels the most efficient and natural with the clients and business contacts you frequently contact. “If you are with people all week long, e-mailing and texting become more regular,” she says. “There are more opportunities to gather information with co-workers, so communication will happen more frequently.” Still, she sees moderation as key. “Each time a text interrupts an important real-life conversation, my respect and willingness to engage with a person who texts me or who stops talking to me in order to answer a message decrease.”
Rule No. 4: Put your phone away during face-to-face meetings.
Thanks to technology, the in-person meeting has become a lost art but it’s still essential. Moore has witnessed inconsiderate texting and e-mailing and even phone call interruptions firsthand that have caused her not to sign contracts. “During the initial meetings about a possible project, a potential client checked his iPhone each time it buzzed,” she says. “One out of five messages, he would stop our conversation and respond, making it impossible for anyone to concentrate. His smartphone habits helped me know that working with him would probably be a nightmare. Texting is just not acceptable during meetings. However, right after a meeting is fine. If you are waiting for important information related to the meeting via text or e-mail, be transparent about it beforehand. But don’t make it a habit.”
Rule No. 5: Texts and IMs should be reserved for simple, non-critical topics.
Avoid the temptation to use instant communication as a way to immediately get in touch about an emergency. Real professional emergencies especially when they involve emotional or controversial topics require voice-to-voice and often even face-to-face communication. Communications expert and public speaker Lisa B. Marshall says a text message “is a short message, not an e-mail or a meeting. If the message you want to deliver is important or lengthy, you must call, meet in person, or video chat.” If the topic you’re texting about could produce a complicated discussion, schedule a phone call or at least craft a clear, concise e-mail. Marshall says this rule is especially important for companies that have international clients, because specific words can have very different meanings that get lost in writing.
Rule No. 6: Be wary of abbreviations and emoticons.
Before you go hog wild with acronyms and smiley faces, consider who you’re texting, e-mailing or IMing. In most cases, colloquial abbreviations like “LOL” and any emoticons shouldn’t appear in messages to professional contacts, but use your best judgment. “Younger generations for example, my interns prefer texting over conversation,” Marshall explains. You might be very comfortable with texting. But you have to realize that older clients and business contacts may not use it very often and thus might not know about common abbreviations. When deciding how to engage with people with your smartphone, consider their comfort zone: “When I text a younger person, I use standard abbreviations,” Marshall says, “but when I communicate with clients or business contacts closer to my age, I use proper spelling and grammar.”
Rule No. 7: Never send sensitive information.
According to Marshall, due to sensitive information such as files, links, and passwords being texted freely between younger employees, all her websites were compromised, causing significant downtime. “Recently, all my websites were hacked, complete with red skulls and crossbones.” She adds that the failure of an employee to adhere to Rule No. 6 when posting public messages online caused additional confusion for visitors to her websites. “I asked an intern to take down our main page and put up a brief message explaining we would return when the website was recovered. She posted ‘BRB’ on the page, and many of my clients were confused by the message, unaware that ‘BRB’ stood for ‘Be Right Back.'”
Rule No. 8: Stay professional.
Even though texts and IM are by nature more casual than other forms of communication, the quality of your instant messages are still a reflection of your business and expertise. Make sure to spell check and not write like an over-excited teenager. Marshall says, “I often chat online with listeners of my podcast,” she says. “In doing so, I’ve discovered that IM and text message conversation skills are a critical part of relationship building and networking. Turn-taking still exists, as it does in a regular conversation. Be sure to answer questions, but also ask questions so the conversation can move forward. Delivering compliments and constructive criticism gets attention, but it will not build a relationship.” HBM