Conference call etiquette

Still don't have an answer to the penguin question

I’m doing more conference calls these days, but so is everyone else. It’s the perfect activity if you are working from home: your boss knows you are apparently doing something, but it’s the sort of activity that needn’t interrupt other home-office tasks – such as watching Homes Under The Hammer, or playing internet poker.

Another reason that I’m doing more calls is that, for decision makers who don’t like to make decisions, it’s the answer to every question:

Me: If penguins wore trousers, would they be better off with a belt or braces? They’ve got no hips, but no shoulders either.

Decision maker: I’ll set up a call

There are informal rules of etiquette for these calls. If you are new to conference calling, the most important thing is to have another activity – such as deleting spam, indulging in ritualised self-harm, or squeezing out quiet tears of rage – that you can perform comfortably at your desk during the call.

I almost finished that paragraph off with “…to avoid disappointment”, which is ridiculous. Conference calls are institutionalised disappointment. We tolerate them only because we don’t have to look each other in the eyes while we waste each other’s lives.

So, for newbies, this is what to expect:

Day minus 2: Marketing Person 1 decides we need a call to discuss the Penguin Pants Project Crisis that you have created. A flurry of emails results, during which we establish that there are no mutually acceptable times for the next three months. Eventually Alpha Male 1 sends an irritated email saying that his PA could possibly try to move some things around for him because he’s about to get on a flight to Singapore. PA instantly offers six available slots in the next 48 hours. The call is set up for the day after tomorrow.

D -1: Marketing Person 1 sends calendar notification to all announcing that The Bridge Has Been Set Up. It includes dial-in details for a list of 25 countries, not including the one you are in – but including Slovakia and Norway, where your company doesn’t have offices.

Day zero: Emails from three people asking if our call is still going ahead, because if not they have another call that’s quite important, but don’t worry they’ll cancel the other call, even though it’s quite important, if our call is still going ahead.

Time -55 minutes: Email from someone who is confused by daylight saving time, asking where everyone is.

T -15 minutes: Email from Marketing Person 1 to remind us that the call is in 15 minutes. Response email from Alpha Male 2 warning that his previous call with Important Customer might not finish on time to join our call. Try to get the ball rolling without me, he says, difficult though it might be.

T +2 minutes: After frantic and unsuccessful attempts to dial in, you call from your mobile using the Slovakian access number. It’s just you and a marketing intern on the call. The intern has been instructed by Marketing Person 1 not to say anything during the call. Small talk is difficult.

T +5 minutes: Someone who speaks no English dials in using the Norwegian access number. This may, or may not, be a mistake. Small talk not improving.

T +5 to T +15 minutes: A new person joins each time you get three words into a sentence. Fragments of speech about difficulty of using access codes, and weather in New York/Singapore/Slovakia, occur. Alpha Male 1 and Alpha Male 2 have not joined yet, but seven middle managers you’ve never heard of are present on the call. They seem to know each other, despite being based in different continents, and exchange opinions about previous relevant conference calls to which you were not invited.

(I hear the opinion that these call-hangers don’t contribute. If we look at the conference call as an attempt to make a decision, this is certainly true. On the other hand their real job is to send emails afterwards to a Senior Person which

1. Questions the wisdom of any decision, hinting that it might undermine Senior Person’s authority

2. Suggest Alpha Males 1 and 2 might be unhappy with the outcome agreed on call

3. Subtly implicate you as the cause of both

This makes sure that any decisions will swiftly be reversed, giving them the opportunity to build a career based on lurking destructively in the background.)

T +15 minutes: Alpha Male 1 joins from airport lounge, and asks us to recap summary of Penguin Pants Project Crisis. Marketing Person 1 attempts to do this, but airport announcements picked up by Alpha Male 1’s phone keep cutting in.

T +20 minutes: Alpha Male 2 joins, and tells us to carry on as if he wasn’t there.

T +21 minutes: After 10 seconds, Alpha Male 2 announces he hasn’t received the agenda for the call from Marketing Person 2. Intern is silently surprised when he is blamed by Marketing Person 2 for this. He is sent to email the document (which he doesn’t possess) so that Alpha Male 2 will have the opportunity to learn why he was on the call after we hang up. Alpha Male 2 asks that, in the absence of an agenda, Alpha Male 1 clarifies Marketing Person 1’s recap of the summary.

T +25 minutes: Silence.

T +26 minutes: Alpha Male 1 remembers he muted his phone because of airport noise, and starts clarification again, which is twice as long as the recap, which was twice as long as the summary.

T +33 minutes: Alpha Male 2 remembers you are on the call, and asks you for the Penguin Pant Crisis action item options. You list the action item options as quickly as possible. You recommend that we decide, while we are on this call, which action item option to take.

T +35 minutes: Long silence.

T +38 minutes: Alpha Male 1 breaks silence by announcing they are calling his flight, so let’s pick this up next week. Call-hangers burst into life to say sycophantic goodbyes to Alpha Male 1, including jokes about performance of local sports teams. Marketing Persons 1 and 2 compete to thank Alpha Male 1 for sparing this time because they know how busy he is, but discover he has already hung up.

T +43 minutes: Marketing Person 1 proudly announces that she has been given access to Alpha Male 1’s diary to schedule follow-up call, and suggests a time. Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +46 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +49 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T+52 minutes: Alpha Male 2 politely points out that his agenda hasn’t come through yet.

T +54 minutes: Everyone agrees to pencil the meeting depending on Alpha Male 1’s availability. Alpha Male 2 points out that Alpha Male 1 is meeting his Important Customer during that hour, so we might be wasting our time.

T +57 minutes: Exaggeratedly polite goodbyes. Marketing Person 2 says we made some great progress today.

T +60 minutes: You are accidentally CCed on an email from call-hanger suggesting that you placed Alpha Male 1 in an awkward position, and that they should revisit any decisions offline before the follow-up call.

13 Responses to “Conference call etiquette”

  1. 1 Maxine Hedges August 31, 2010 at 8:43 am

    It’s you isn’t it? You are the reason I get an extra unknown attendee on my post call notification. You are listening in to all my calls. How else can you know all of this in such fine detail?

  2. 2 Tim Phillips August 31, 2010 at 11:42 am


    The extra unknown attendee on the conference call seems to be a surprisingly common problem. Is it the same attendee on every call? Maybe he’s involved in industrial espionage on behalf of a foreign government: The Bourne Bureaucracy.

  3. 3 renata allamandi September 2, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Hello. Alpha Male 2 here. Where is my agenda?

  4. 5 Ivo Kezic September 3, 2010 at 9:31 am

    The World speak different languages, has different tradition, religion, fashion, habits, laws, food, art, Government… BUT the ONLY ONE thing that is the same EVERYWHERE is THE CONFERENCE CALL etiquette. Why? Seems that Conference call behavior is in the basic foundation of the Universe 🙂

  5. 6 Margaret McGann September 4, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Thank you for my best laugh all week. I sit through these T/C calls at least two or more times a week and you captured it perfectly.

  6. 7 joannesimonis September 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Absolutely bang-on ! How about the frantic sidebar emails from people who can’t find the meeting access code before they dial in 15-20 minutes late.

  7. 8 TD September 26, 2010 at 3:03 am

    For extra fun add in your Chinese development partners and the India software team. All at some odd hour since this call now covers three time zones spaced about 1/3 of the way across the globe from each other.

  8. 9 Miss Harker October 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    That was so funny Mr Phillips.

    Miss Harker

  9. 10 Gareth February 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Working in the conference industry I can say this is 100% spot on for more than 80% of calls I hear, not to mention at least 50% of the internal calls I join…but then 98% of all people know that 20% of stats are made up! 😀

    Seriously though, I wonder if in the next 20 years or so, once the ‘dead wood’ of C-Level management is completly out of the system, will we see a change in this seemingly pointless discussion medium and go back to the boss at the top being held accountable for his/her decisions rather than spreading it through a team so he can wash his/her hands of things when it goes wrong??

  1. 1 The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 1) « talk normal Trackback on September 7, 2011 at 6:05 pm
  2. 2 For one day only « talk normal Trackback on August 24, 2012 at 8:13 am
  3. 3 The funniest article yet: Conference call etiquette Trackback on November 7, 2012 at 7:52 am

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