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by ERIN WHITE | March 31, 2009


When Nathan Richey started work as an analyst at a financial boutique in Chicago several years ago, he felt self-conscious while talking on the phone. Most colleagues surrounding his open-air cubicle were about 10 years older and could overhear his conversations. If you make an embarrassing mistake, he notes, "you have a crowd."

It's something most college graduates discover when they start work: Cubicles are a very public place to learn your job. No matter how discreet you try to be, chances are your cubicle mates can overhear your phone conversations. Make a rookie mistake, as you are bound to do, and everyone hears it. Even if your conversations are entirely business-focused, you can still embarrass yourself by misstating industry lingo, leaving rambling messages or sounding generally inarticulate. The problem isn't just that you feel stupid when you make a phone snafu, but also that you're more likely to make a mistake because you're nervous when you know your office mates are listening.

"It's really intimidating to a new hire," says Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, a Chicago-based career counseling service. "You're leaving a situation where you did your own thing in college, to really being under the microscope when it comes to life on the phone."

The only real solution is genuine self-confidence. But that comes with experience, which takes time. In the meantime, Mr. Karsh suggests a few tricks.

Among them: Come in early or stay late. That way, you'll be able to make calls without many -- or any -- of your colleagues around. Even if you don't reach the person at these odd hours, at least you've done what can be the most nerve-racking part: making that initial contact. And you'll be able to leave your voice-mail messages without colleagues listening in. If your co-workers all go to lunch at around the same time, you can also make your calls then.

Mr. Karsh says using a headset can help. It frees your hands to gesticulate more freely, mimicking face-to-face conversation more closely. This can loosen you up and make you feel more at ease. "You can make bigger hand gestures and talk with a smile on your face," he says.

Pamela Gingold, the president of CareerStart, a Northbrook, Ill., career-coaching organization for college students and recent graduates, suggests finding a private desk for the most anxiety-inducing calls, at least at first. A conference room with a closed door is one good option. "Once you start to feel comfortable, then you can do it outside," she says.

Another tip: If you have to make a series of similar calls to multiple people, start with the least important person, Ms. Gingold says. "Make all the mistakes on that person and then work your way up," she says. By the time you get to the more important people, the repetition will have eased your nerves.

If your colleagues pop their heads over the cubicle wall to correct a mistake you've just made on the phone, don't get defensive. They may lack tact, but their advice may save you further embarrassment.

Mr. Richey, now 29 years old, developed a few techniques of his own. He mapped out conversations in advance, bullet-pointing items he needed to mention. If he needed to leave a voice mail, he could glance at the points to keep himself from rambling or losing his train of thought.

Sometimes, he didn't know a term a caller mentioned, or he couldn't remember a term for something he was trying to describe. So when he got off the phone, he looked it up in a dictionary of banking terms. He kept a list of those terms pinned up next to his computer.

Six months later, he got a job at a bank. One of his duties involved calling companies the bank had loaned money to that were now in financial trouble. He had to tell top company officials the bank no longer wanted to be one of their lenders and wanted its loan paid back. The job often required Mr. Richey to take an aggressive, contentious tone. At first, he says, "I just didn't have enough confidence to chew the CFO out," with all his colleagues listening in. So, at first he made those calls from a conference room or spare office. "If you mess up and you have to backpedal, at least you're not doing it in front of a crowd," he notes. "There's always that fear you're using the terms incorrectly."

Jennifer Veres, 23, has been working since June last year as a graduate research assistant at the Center for Government and Public Affairs at Alabama's Auburn University Montgomery. When she first started, she was nervous about how her older colleagues perceived her phone manners, especially since the more experienced managers sometimes roam the open-layout space. Once, the head of the center walked up next to her while she was on the phone verifying addresses for the organization's Christmas-card mailing list. "It made me more nervous, so I started stumbling over my words," she recalls. "I was fine when he wasn't by me."

Now she makes a point to plan what she's going to say before she dials the number. This also helps her remember to maintain a professional tone. "I remember that I have to tell them my full name and my phone number, not just, 'Hey this is Jennifer, call me back,' " she says.


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