Q. Can you assist me with telephone etiquette? When you are on the phone and someone just walks into your office and starts talking without saying "EXCUSE ME!" What do you do?
E. R., Jackson, MS
A. Galling. Your situation happens over and over in the workplace, and there’s really no excuse for it. Except in an emergency, conversations in progress take precedence. Your best bet is to squelch it as it happens.
First, say to the person on the phone call, “Excuse me for just a second, Tara.” Cup your hand over the mouth piece so “Tara” doesn’t hear what you are about to say.
Then, look Mr. Interrupter right in the eye, and in a strong but not angry voice say, “John, I’m on the phone right now. You’ll have to wait. I’ll check in with you as soon as I’m done.”
With that said, look away from Mr. Interrupter and turn your attention back to your call. If he persists, again excuse yourself to your caller, cover the mouthpiece and respond to Mr. Interrupter, “John, I don’t want to be interrupted. So unless this is an emergency, I will get back to you when I’m done.”
The only excuse Mr. Interrupter has for breaking in on your conversation is if it’s a real emergency. If that’s truly the case, then explain the situation to the person on the phone and be sure to return the call as soon as possible.
Mr. Interrupter has options. When he enters your office, he should immediately take note of the fact you are on the phone and refrain from talking. He could catch your eye and silently mouth the word “Emergency” to let you know something really serious needs your immediate attention. He could mouth the words, “Call me” to indicate he knows you are on the phone and wants to talk as soon as you’re available. He could slip you a note asking you to call him when you’re through. Or he could simply back out, wave and try contacting you later.
Even if he does nothing, the fact you saw him will most likely prompt you to contact him when you are finished with your call. All of these options respect the fact that you are on the phone and show that he had no intention of interrupting you. They also ensure that the person you are talking to continues to receive your attention and isn’t suddenly placed in the middle of an office issue between you and Mr. Interrupter.
By the way, even if he says, “Excuse me,” it isn’t a license to interrupt your conversation.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
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