The Great Headphone Debate

One Battle between Boomers and Millennials.

I thought the debate would be about the nose ring. Or the combat boots. Or the casual attire. But no, the heated discussion was all about the headphones. And the two sides of the argument seemed to be separated by generation. This passionate debate was sparked by a video involving a Millennial candidate for a job in a recent inclusion workshop. Something seemingly innocuous turned into something quite controversial.

I am not a fan of most discussions about generations in the workplace — they tend to be about stereotypes and not about individuals. I wrote another article titled “Millennial Should Not be a Bad Word” to make that point. But the generations do differ in regards to technology — Millennials grew up exposed to much different technology (smartphones, Google, email, texting, and more) than Boomers. Recently I came across one technology-related topic that seems to be consistently divided by generational lines and seems to cause an inordinate amount of passion — that topic is about the appropriateness of headphones in the workplace. My observation is that Baby Boomers adamantly oppose any use of headphones. Millennials want full access to their headphones, and Gen X (like me) favor use in certain situations and not others.

Some workplaces do not allow employees to use headphones — for reasons related to safety or the nature of the work. For example, in a warehouse or manufacturing facility, workers need to be able to hear the warning beeps of a forklift backing up or the alarm of a machine that is out of order. For safety and productivity reasons, the company prohibits headphones in these environments. Headphones might also be restricted if you are working directly with customers — in sales or retail or restaurants — because you need to be aware, available and interacting at all times.

But in many office jobs, the work itself does not require that headphone use be restricted. Instead, it becomes a preference and policy decision by the company. And this is when it can turn into a battle across generational lines — or even lead to unconscious bias at work. There seem to be three main arguments about headphones: distraction, communication and respect.

Distraction

At a previous company there was one person who always wore headphones. Every once in a while we’d hear a chuckle coming from his cubicle, and we rarely heard typing or other common work noises. He had his screen angled, so it was not easy to see. One day a coworker finally stepped around him into the cubicle and realized that he was watching movies and listening through headphones. The headphones were the only visible sign of goofing off. Okay, that was a problem. And regardless of what people claim, they don’t work as effectively while trying to multitask while watching TV or movies. In that case, he abused the system and cost the company in productivity.

Baby Boomers seem to think that everyone with headphones on is goofing off. But the flip side is that headphones can help many people concentrate better. Personally, music helps me get in the zone when I am writing or doing deep thinking work. I can block out the music and concentrate, but I can’t block out noise made by people. People who need music for focus or to block out other noise, and who sit in a crowded area, will benefit from using headphones. As long as they are used appropriately.

Communication

Another claim against headphones is that they keep people from interacting — someone wearing headphones is less approachable. This thinking often aligns with people who favor open concept office spaces. In these workspaces, there are no walls or doors — not even cubicle separators. They are designed to break down hierarchy, to get everyone collaborating and to create constant communication. Frankly, I don’t get it — I don’t understand open concept offices. Maybe I’m showing my age on this one, but I don’t understand how anyone is supposed to get any work done if there is constant noise, movement and talking. Sounds like chaos to me. Headphones might be the only salvation in an open concept workplace. Communication and interaction will still happen in meetings or by email or by instant messaging. And co-workers can always tap someone gently on the shoulder to get their attention and start a conversation in person.

Respect

Some older generations see headphone usage as disrespectful and a sign of being a poor employee. The opening lines of this article referred to one situation that happened in a workshop about unconscious bias. The workshop includes videos of several workplace scenarios that show unconscious bias and the impact in the workplace. One scenario shows an older man interviewing a young woman — his bias is that he will not hire anyone under 30 years old. The scenario has many potentially controversial elements. But the element that consistently gets the most passionate reaction is not about the bias against young people or about the stereotyping of Millennials or even that her interview outfit includes combat boots and a nose ring — it is the fact that she had on earbud headphones while waiting in the reception area before the interview. This factor seems to be a dividing line and a lightening rod for opinions. Some Baby Boomers had a dramatically negative reaction — one senior leader said that he would not hire her simply because of the headphones. For some people, headphones before an interview seem to be displaying a lack of respect or a breach in propriety that branded the candidate negatively. By contrast, Millennial participants didn’t even understand why the headphones were an issue.

The great headphone controversy surprised me. Headphone usage now has the dubious honor of being added my list of “seemingly innocuous but surprisingly divisive” workplace topics. That list includes other controversies such as heating up fish in the shared microwave, rearranging seating assignments, the value of team building activities and cleaning up dishes in the shared kitchen. Who knew?