Meeting Interruption Protocols


We are having discussions on establishing a protocol on when and for what type of reasons for interrupting a meeting. We had an incident where an assistant knocked and interrupted a meeting (disciplinary & emotional session) for a message that was not urgent. Anyone have a list to work from?


Looking For Thoughts


Dear Looking For Thoughts:

Thank you for sharing your concern, especially since it is one which may others may very well have. It is very awkward and irritating–and can even be a liability problem–if a confidential or emotional meeting is interrupted for a non-emergency matter.

Dr. Gorden may wish to reply to this as well. But I think we both would say that this is a tremendous opportunity to allow some employee participation in the development of workplace procedures related to courteous communications, meeting protocols and so forth.

We get many letters about noise, disruptions and accidentally or purposefully inconsiderate actions around cubicles, offices, in breakrooms, and when meetings–especially confidential ones–are going on. It would probably be helpful to include in your employee handbook a list of requirements and suggestions for working effectively together in those settings–especially if similar situations frequently occur. I often teach that the six words that get us no where but frustrated are: “They shouldn’t have to be told.” I always say to replace those with, “Here’s how I know they understand.”

I believe that concept. So, I do think there needs to be some kind of information at the entry level, then reinforced routinely, about office courtesy and effective practices for working in an office setting.

However, it is also true that many incidents are only symptomatic of something else that should be corrected first. For example, was the action you describe–of an assistant interrupting a disciplinary meeting for a non-urgent message–typical for that employee? Does he or she often use poor judgment and this just happened to be more problematic than the other times? Perhaps the overall knowledge and skill level of that employee needs to be considered and action taken to retrain, reassign, or reassess job fit.

If he or she has done this type of thing before, what was the result? If he or she has never or rarely done this kind of thing, why do you suppose this was handled differently?

Did someone clearly tell the adminstrative assistant that the meeting was not to be interrupted except for urgent matters–and even that should be cleared with a supervisor or another person of status in the office?

Just saying, “I’m having a meeting in my office” isn’t enough to provide guidance about how messages should be handled–unless the matter has been discussed previously and guidelines have been made clear. Was there an understanding that the administrative person would be told when the meeting was over, so he or she would know when it was OK to check the room for occupants and to deliver a message?

I once told an assistant to hold calls and messages while I was in a meeting. After the meeting we left through a side door and went to lunch! It was several hours before she finally decided to peek in the door–and the room was empty! I was wrong to do that and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

Was there some aspect of the message that could have been interpreted by the assistant as urgent? Or, could the caller have put some pressure on the assistant about how important it was for the message to be delivered right away? Assistants often feel caught in the middle of messages, trying to figure out what will get them in the least amount of trouble!

Does this kind of thing happen often? If this is a rare event and the assistant now understands and it seems unlikely that this will happen in this way again, you may not need a written set of guidelines.

There are so many variables about situations like this that almost all guidelines will have a zillion exceptions–and if there are very many exceptions a list of guidelines won’t be helpful.

Perhaps the issue instead is clear communication at all levels about what is needed generally. Then, about specific situations, as those situations occur.

In this case, what would a guideline to prevent the interruption have said? “Do not interrupt disciplinary meetings, meetings that are confidential, or meetings in which personal or job-related problems are being discussed, unless the matter is urgent and cannot be handled by anyone other than the supervisor or manager in charge of the meeting, or the specific employee involved.” That sounds rather cumbersome! (And probably isn’t the way it would be written–but that is the general idea to be conveyed.)

Wouldn’t it be better if everyone were told, as part of orientation, staff meetings and regular communcation, that working together takes flexibility, empathy and understanding at all levels? It could be emphasized that each employee is responsible for communicating in a way that makes those possible.

Then, when Sam Smith is going to meet with Rob McGinty and the director of HR, Sam is responsible for telling Karen, his assistant, “Karen, I’m going to be in a meeting for at least an hour. It needs to be handled as a confidential meeting with no information given out about it and no interruptions. Please make sure we aren’t interrupted for anything other than an extreme emergency. Just tell callers that I’m in a meeting,without saying what it’s about, and that I will return calls this afternoon. OK?”

At the end of the meeting, Sam would say to Karen, “Thanks for holding calls and messages, I’m back in my office now and you can start buzzing me when you need me. Thanks again.”

That would achieve the desired results much more directly and certainly than hoping Karen understands and applies a set of guidelines given to her months or years ago.

However, if you believe having some written protocols will be helpful–and I can see that they might be in some settings–I think it should be a project for all adminstrative assistants, or a small group of the staff, or a mixture of staff and supervisors–with the understanding that the list will likely be edited and revised by HR and managers before finalizing. But as much of the original suggestions should be retained and used, as possible.

I hope these thoughts help you develop your plan of action. If you have the time and wish to do so, we would be very happy to hear what you decided to do.

Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.