You’re Not Crazy for Thinking Your Boss’s Phone Addiction Is a Big Problem

There’s now a word for your manager’s annoying iPhone habit.

As if the boss-direct report relationship wasn’t fraught enough already, devices are throwing another wrench into things. Bosses are now so distracted by their phones when they’re with employees that there’s a term for the bad behavior: boss phubbing, or BPhubbing (short for phone-snubbing). According to a recent study in Computers in Human Behavior, it could actually impact your work performance.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

It all hinges on trust, specifically how much or how little a supervisee trusts their supervisor. Drawing on previous research showing that a lack of trust between bosses and employees hurts employee engagement, the authors of the new study theorized that being snubbed by a supervisor in favor of their smartphone would also damage that trust and affect people’s work.

For the first step in the study, the researchers created a 9-point scale of BPhubbing designed to assess just how bad bosses are at being on their phones when they’re with employees. It included agree or disagree statements like “My boss places his or her cell phone where I can see it when we are together,” and “When my boss’ cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.”

Over the course of several studies-within-the-study, the researchers gave that scale to more than 200 adult professionals and had them rate their own bosses. After short distracting tasks (meant to keep subjects’ thoughts on their bosses from spilling over into the next parts of the study) the participants also answered questions about how meaningful they felt their work was, how valued they felt within their company and how capable they felt in their role. Participants were also asked how hard they worked and to put their effort into a percentage from zero to 100.

According to the results, BPhubbing your employees is a really bad idea. “BPhubbing reduces employee’s trust in their supervisor which in turn has a negative impact on employee engagement via two complementary routes,” the study authors wrote. First, participants whose bosses were guilty of a lot of BPhubbing felt less valued, which in turn made them feel less invested in their job. Second, being snubbed in favor of a phone made employees feel less capable of doing a good job, which also made them less engaged in their work. (Like we said, BPhubbing is a terrible thing.)

The study authors put it this way: “Phubbing is a harmful behavior, and regardless of whether the phubbing occurs when eating with others or in a meeting with others, it undermines any corporate culture based on respect for others.”

There’s another interesting layer to this. The researchers suggest that BPhubbing is actually in a class of disrespect all its own, distinct from more general uncivil behavior in the workplace.

At its most basic, this is an issue of common courtesy and respect. When there’s a human in front of you, you should be able to put your phone down and focus on them. But our modern workplaces and connected-24/7 culture make that a bit more complicated. That’s why the researchers suggest company’s overhaul their attitude towards email and the like, emphasizing that employees, including bosses, don’t need to respond to every message and request immediately. They also note that companies could create specific, actionable policies around smartphones in meetings and other times when face to face communication is critical. When company cultures prioritize healthy boundaries with devices, it makes it easier for everyone, from executives in the C-suite to employees in the cubicle area, to follow suit.

Read more about the findings here.