Is your boss phubbing you?

By Adam Earnheardt

Over the past six years, I’ve advised about 300 interns.

Aside from the work they complete at the internship location, students reflect on their experiences in a daily journal and check-in with me once a week to provide an update.

We often discuss workplace concerns.

“My boss ignores me every day,” a student wrote in an email. “When he does talk to me, he’s always looking at his phone instead of at my face. He’s always on his phone.”

She went on to explain that he ignores other interns, too.

“When he’s not around, he texts us instead of calling,” she added. “I think he just doesn’t know what to do with us. I think he doesn’t trust us.”

Her supervisor was phubbing, a portmanteau of the words “phone” and “snubbing.”

According to Meredith David, marketing professor at Baylor University, phubbing refers to the act of snubbing someone you’re spending time with by looking at or being distracted by your cellphone.

Boss phubbing, or Bphubbing, a term coined by David and her colleagues, occurs when a supervisor interrupts face-to-face time with an employee by using or being distracted by a smartphone.

“I started studying the impact of phubbing on individuals and relationships in both personal and workplace settings,” David said. “My research reveals how a behavior as simple as using a cellphone in the presence of others can ultimately undermine individuals’ personal and workplace relationships.”

In the October issue of Computers in Human Behavior, David and her colleagues shared the impact of BPhubbing on employees.

“BPhubbing has a negative impact on employees’ trust in their supervisor, but the negative effects of BPhubbing don’t end there,” David said. “Our results show that, by harming trust in their supervisor, BPhubbing also negatively affects employee engagement.”

Specifically, BPhubbing reduces employee trust in supervisors, which in turn has a negative impact on employee engagement in two ways.

“First, employees who experience BPhubbing, and have lower levels of trust for their supervisor, are less likely to feel like their work is valuable or beneficial to their own professional growth,” David explained.

In turn, employees are less engaged or committed to their work.

“Second, employees who work under the supervision of an untrusted, phubbing supervisor tend to have lower confidence in their own ability to carry out their job,” David said.

Again, this negatively impacts engagement.

Of course, as David notes, most of us have been guilty at some point of looking at our phones rather than paying attention to someone.

“Put away your cellphone in favor of meaningful, distraction-free interactions with your supervisor and coworkers,” he said. “The benefits far outweigh that text message, unread email, or social media post.”

Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. Have a column idea? Email him at

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