Conference calls are an integral part of the workday for many office-goers. One area of office etiquette that they don’t teach you in business school is how to behave during a conference call.
A conference call is a trust signal — whether you’re starting a business or jump-starting a business relationship with a new partner, coming across as unprofessional can sink your chances of closing the deal and that can result in cash-flow problems for business owners or your job being on the line for employees.
Be sure to avoid these conference call faux pas that make you look bad to everyone on the call.
1. Dialing In Late & Interrupting the Conversation
It is understandable that sometimes people are late to calls. Other meetings run over. Things happen. Do your best to be on time, but if you do find yourself running late, do not derail the entire conversation when you dial in. When calling in late, you may just want to silently listen and get caught up before speaking up, or just say that you are on the line, quickly apologize for your tardiness and let the call continue. You’re an unknown entity to whoever is on the other end, like someone with no credit history going to apply for a loan (hint: that’s a hard road to getting approved), so small things like tardiness can become permanent black marks in the minds of your fellow conference callers.
2. Eating & Typing Without Pressing Mute
Background noise can be a major distraction on conference calls. It is best if you can avoid doing anything else and just focus on the call, but if you do have a meeting pop up during your typical lunchtime or have to do something else while on the call, be sure to put yourself on mute to avoid excess noise.
3. Forgetting When You Pressed the Mute Button
If you do push the mute button to avoid background noise, don’t forget you pushed the button! It is a mildly embarrassing experience to find yourself in the middle of answering a question to hear someone say, “hey, are you on mute?” Pay attention to that blinking button or whatever it is that mutes your phone before speaking up.
4. Calling In on a Bad Connection
“Can you hear me now?” While that saying was popularized by Verizon commercials, it should stay off of professional conference calls. Dialing in from the car is just asking for trouble, and using a cellphone in an untested location could lead to an unpleasant experience. Test your phone by calling a friend or relative to ensure you have a solid connection before dialing the 10-digit code to enter the call.
5. Sharing Lengthy Personal Stories
Camaraderie is an important part of career development. Being friendly with other members of your team and sharing some brief personal stories is acceptable. However, do not launch into a diatribe on any personal topic. Keep personal stories brief and always avoid complaining, negativity and stories that include heavy drinking, drug use or partying. When you’re on the phone, it can be hard to pick up on non-verbal cues that you’re oversharing, so keep it brief to keep your business relationship solid.
6. Scolding or Berating Others
Some interactions in the office belong in public forums, like a conference call, and others should be in private. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong took some flack a while back for how he handled an unpleasant situation in a conference call with one of his teams. In the call, which was recorded and leaked to the public, Armstrong berated and fired an employee with more than 1,000 listeners on the line. This is an example of exactly how you shouldn’t behave, particularly if your job title doesn’t start with a capital C.
7. Not Paying Attention to the Call
If a conference call is part of your job, you should pay attention to your job. While you may be tempted to use the time when no one is looking to clear your inbox, catch up on the news or cruise social media, when you are on a call is not the appropriate time. If you organized a call and someone didn’t give it their full attention, you would be rightfully frustrated. Follow the golden rule and treat others how you want to be treated.
8. Making a Bathroom Visit
In a day of back-to-back meetings and calls, it can be hard to find enough time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat lunch. But if you find yourself doing the dance trying to hold it in, do not take the call to the bathroom with you. If you absolutely have to go, make sure to press mute on your headset so the other participants on the call are not taking part in what should be a private moment. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than toilet flushes on conference calls.
9. Forwarding Your Invitation to Way Too Many People
Colleagues appreciate when a call is organized, efficient and quick. Adding unnecessary collaborators to a call can lead to questions, distractions and going over time on the call when it would have been unnecessary. Information on conference calls should be on a need-to-know basis. If someone is not impacted by the discussion, they do not generally need to participate at all.
10. Not Knowing How the Conference Call Works
The instructions on how to use conference call software and systems can be dreadfully boring. In some cases, it can make HR memos look like an exciting read. But that is no excuse to not know how everything works. Don’t be the guy who calls in and doesn’t know how the system works. If you are the host, take an extra few minutes to make sure you know how to start the call and quickly handle anything that comes up during the meeting. This is especially important when you’re dealing without potential clients or outside partners who may be using a different dial-in system or conference call line than you’re used to.
Tips for a Successful Conference Call
The most important thing to remember to making a good impression on a conference call is that the people on the other end of the line don’t really know you. For example, if you’re trying to crowdfund the idea you think will launch a million-dollar business, showing up 10 minutes late and having a bad connection doesn’t exactly make people want to invest in you.
No matter how you feel about them, conference calls are a part of corporate America. Odds are you will have to make a group conference call at some point, whether you’re just starting your own tiny owner-operated business or have been climbing the corporate ladder for years. Stick with good conference call etiquette and you will be appreciated and praised by your team. Act professionally and stay on topic and you will be the one everyone wants to work with.
This article was originally written on April 27, 2017 and updated on February 1, 2021.