Avoiding Close Calls

Commentary originally printed 02-13-2012, page 43

© 2012 Los Angeles Business Journal.  Reprinted with permission.

Too casual attitude about using phones to conduct business in public can violate client confidentiality.

I recently rode in first class on the train from Geneva to Zürich, Switzerland.  As the train pulled out of the station, the voices of a man and a woman sitting in front of me rose to accommodate for the noise.  They engaged in separate conversations I could easily hear in three languages on their mobile phones, and they communicated with each other in English whenever their different calls finished.  The scenario reminded me of being home in Los Angeles, with people everywhere talking in a variety of languages on their cell phones and then seamlessly shifting back and forth to English whenever necessary.

These two talked about one particular client, then spoke with him on a mobile conference call, addressing him by first name.  Once disconnected, they quickly coordinated their strategy for successfully dealing with him, as well as achieving his goals.  In a matter of minutes, I deduced these two people were bankers, and I knew exactly who their client was.

For the next three hours, I overheard details about his business, the money at stake, what his bankers thought about him, about their own associates, and more.  Truthfully, I was appalled.

And yet, these two people were no different from Angelenos who carelessly speak about private matters in public spaces.  Some people make mobile calls from trains; others, while in line at Starbucks; still others use phones in restaurants; and, a very special group of people even use their mobile phones while using public restrooms.

Their actions on the train were reflections of something I’m quite familiar with called “mobilology,” which studies the effects of mobile phone and wireless use on human behavior; community building, sustenance and erosion; culture; education; entertainment; economics; and, health care delivery.

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Here, the bankers behaved as though they existed in a “bubble.”  Socially, international bankers conduct business 24/7 over a phone, irrespective of place, so these two acted according to their profession’s norms.  Culturally, they assumed their behavior didn’t impact (or, in this case, offend or disturb the tranquility of) anyone else around them, who might consider such public phone use inconsiderate.  Economically, the bankers worked practically non-stop because in their world, wasted time equates to loss of money.

What these supposedly savvy people neglected to take into account was that I could hear through their invisible “bubble.”  They clumsily revealed their client’s identity, and also gave me valuable information to share with anyone, anywhere, for any reason.  How could they know I was going for holiday with their client’s potential competitor?

For the sake of efficiency and by yammering away indiscreetly from Geneva to Zürich, these two executives had sacrificed whatever troth of confidentiality they had pledged to their client and which he had every reason to expect from them.  Did this affect anyone besides the hapless client?  Yes.  Me.  Not only was my peaceful journey spoiled by the selfish indifference of these two, but I also was forced to examine my own morals as a nationally published writer and ghostwriter.

I could easily write a tell-all story and out these two self-important people, but then they would immediately (and deservedly) get sacked, as well as every other innocent person working up and down the line from them.  I already had listened to one banker talking to his young daughter at home, so I didn’t want the responsibility of causing her daddy to lose his job.  This explains why I have written this op-ed without divulging names or details – truly to protect the innocent.

But I did tell these bankers right before we pulled into Zürich station that I was an American writer who had heard their entire conversation.  Then, without notes, I repeated details to prove it.  One banker turned beet red; the other, blanched.  Both panicked.

Enterprises, large and small, should be disturbed by this true tale of mobile myopia.   As younger men and women join the global work force – people raised on a diet of mobile social broadcasting where nothing is sacred and confidentiality is tantamount to nontransparency – business will need to assess the myriad ways mobile can cause the wheels of commerce to derail.

Two bankers talking on a train can bring your business to a grinding halt if your competitor overhears them.  So the next time you send your bankers, your sales force, secretaries, ad agency or graphic designers out into the world to do business on your behalf, tell them you’re willing to lose a little efficiency for the sake of keeping your company’s business your company’s business.  In this global village, you never know whose ears might be listening.  Can you hear me now?

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Florie Brizel is chief executive of L.A.-based consulting firm Brizel Media and is a member of Dutch think tank FreedomLab: Future Studies.  She coined the term “mobilology” and lectures internationally for its establishment as a new social science.