Your cellphone rights end when paycheck begins


Question: My boss told me that she will dock my pay for talking on my own cell phone at work. Can she do this?

Answer: I’ll admit up front that I have a bias against cell phones and I still have a rotary phone in my home. I think if your boss can document the time you aren’t working while you are clocked in she can dock your pay. If work rules are in place stating that you are expected to be focused on your work while clocked in, then there isn’t much debate on this one. The fact that you are using your own cell phone doesn’t matter.

If you are asked to work an hour of overtime you expect to be paid overtime for that hour. On the flip side, if you spend a couple of hours during the week on personal calls, is it fair to be paid for that time?

However, it would be difficult to dock your pay unless your boss is working quite close by and able to track your activity all day long. It is more likely that she would give you a performance warning.

Do you believe you can talk on your cell phone while doing your work? Spend a little time watching someone who is doing that and you will see them posed as if they are working, but very little is getting done.

It’s about time, it’s about space …. It’s not just the time you waste on the phone, it’s that your workspace is probably small enough that your coworkers have to listen to you chatter. That makes it difficult for them to focus on their work. In every workplace there are people who stay focused on their work all day and there are people who welcome distractions. The focused employees may not tell you directly, but I know from experience that coworkers don’t like it when they have to pick up your work while your attention is on your personal life.

What about other time wasters? An employee who spends time shopping online, or takes several long smoking breaks outdoors, or composes poetry when the boss isn’t looking may be wasting as much or more work time as you do with your cell phone. But there’s a difference. Their time-wasting activities are easily hidden and quiet. I am not suggesting wasting time if the activity is quiet. But I think the reason so many businesses have created policies banning personal cell phone calls and texting during the work day is that it can be so disruptive to your work and the employees around you.

What if it’s your money? If you are paying a plumber or furnace repairman who spends fifteen minutes of every hour on his cell phone, do you want to pay him for the three hours he was working or the four hours in was in your house?

Your customer’s perspective is obvious. Customers want your full attention. Recently I made a purchase while the cashier chatted on her cell phone. She never stopped talking and she gave me the wrong change. If you don’t meet with paying customers, you do have co-workers who need your assistance and deserve your attention.

What about employees on salary? A salaried phone zombie is still a phone zombie. If an employee is regularly interrupting work with personal calls, isn’t really focused on what is being said in meetings, ignores co-workers who have questions and has to check his phone constantly — it will affect that employee’s performance and mistakes will be made that could be costly.

The bottom line is that you and your boss made a deal when you were hired. You are paid in exchange for your time, energy, attention and with the expectation of an honest effort to do the best work possible. Many people do a quick check-in call with the kids or spouse once or twice a day, and if those calls last just a few minutes then there isn’t much of a problem. Use your breaks and lunch time to take care of personal calls and let your boss know you will make your work your top priority during the workday.

Virginia Detweiler is a human resources consultant and has taught business and management at Walla Walla Community College’s Business and Professional Development Program and at Walla Walla University. Questions for her columns can be submitted to her email address at Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She also can be reached at 509-529-1910.


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