The folly of public meetings

The folly of public meetings

Summary: Coffee shops have become a natural part of the urban worker’s day. It’s so convenient to have work meetings in public, but it’s not without potential consequences.


If you live or work in the city, chances are there is a coffee shop nearby that you walk past every day. You may step inside from time to time to have a nice beverage while you sit for a bit to check your email. This is a good working break that lets you get things done while recharging your internal battery.

(Image: Starbucks)

Stopping in the coffee shop or similar venue has become so commonplace that many expand the work they do at the local beanery. Work meetings are regularly scheduled in these public venues for the convenience. If you meet with clients or coworkers in the coffee shop, it’s important to realize this is not without potential danger.

Living and working in the city center, I regularly work in such public venues. It gets me out of the home office and out among the people. It’s not uncommon for me to work half a day or longer in local spots.

"Of course he [client charged with murder] did it. I'm going to get him off on a technicality anyway."

These venues are often crowded and have as many tables crammed into the space as possible. That means when working at a table, there are likely others doing the same less than two feet away. This isn’t a problem when the occupants of those tables are working as I do, but when they are having a meeting and discussing confidential topics, all bets are off.

I don't sit around trying to hear what is being discussed in these public meetings, but it's unavoidable given the close quarters. It doesn't help that often there is at least one loud talker blasting away at the next table.

You'd think professionals would know better, but over the past two years I've heard the following being discussed openly in public:

At least a dozen job interviews. These range from interviews of potential baristas for the coffee shops to an attorney from Atlanta in town to talk to a large law firm. In the latter, the firm's representative shared all the dirt on the company's partners.

A sexual harrassment suit. This meeting between a claimant and a Department of Labor representative loudly discussed in detail the prominent attorney's deplorable behavior that led to the claim. Names were divulged openly, including those to whom the abuse was reported who did nothing.

A pending hostile takeover. This meeting had two executives of a local firm plotting the strategy for an upcoming hostile grab they were going to make for a competitor. The details inadvertently shared with me by the pair included the numbers they intended to throw out there.

How to cheat on a university exam. A group of students was trying to come up with the best way to get a copy of a big exam prior to taking the test. The mood was joyful, despite the gravity of the topic.

A couple of criminal defense trials. You'd think attorneys would appreciate the value of client confidentiality, but when it comes to the public coffee shop they apparently don't. One case loudly discussed in a public meeting dealt with the strategy for getting a client charged with a violent crime released into the public.

Another meeting dealt with a client charged with murder. At one point the attorney made this disturbing statement: "Of course he did it. I'm going to get him off on a technicality anyway." The client was named and the strategy was loudly laid out for his trial in the midst of a dozen coffee shop patrons.

These are just the major meetings that were thrust on this unwilling observer. There were many more of the mundane variety, but any of them could have been a serious problem if the wrong people had overheard them.

You might ask why I don't wear headphones to block out these meetings. The fact is I don't like to wear them when I'm working. Plus, and this is the takeaway from this article, isn't it irresponsible for those conducting confidential meetings in public to rely on strangers nearby to ensure their privacy?

Update: while sitting in the coffee shop writing this article, a meeting formed at the table next to me. This turned out to be a job interview, conducted by an executive of a small company. The interviewee had recently been released from prison, and wanted it clear she had "turned my life around".

She seemed sincere, but the admission she had been imprisoned for embezzling funds from the local sports league probably tanked her chances.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • If only CONTROL's Cone of Silence existed!

    And if only if were portable and actually WORKED! Every time it was used on "Get Smart," we in the audience could hear them both (Usually Chief and Smart/86) clearly but with some distortion, but they could not hear each other. I suspect KAOS could hear them also ;~)
  • Things Never Change

    I remember about 15 years ago being stuck between flights at Love Field in Dallas when a newly minted cellphone/headphone user pacing up and down the concourse loudly discussing a hostile tender offer for a public company - totally oblivious to all of us (hundred?) staring at him because he was talking so loudly (a side effect of using an earpiece with a microphone - you don't hear how loud you actually are) -

    Makes me HATE the FAA for even considering allowing cell phone conversations on commercial flights - here's hoping the DOT wins that battle.
  • Share and share alike...

    We share our personal information via all the various social networks. We give up more personal info by providing brick and mortar merchants with our phone numbers, our email addresses, and so forth, when we get loyalty cards from them. We think nothing of doing lots of things that compromise our personal privacy in exchange for convenience, saving money, getting "something for nothing," and the like. Why _shouldn't_ we have meetings in public, even meetings that involve _very_ personal subject matter? It's the sign of these times, after all. Sooner or later, we'll all know everything about everyone, and then where will we be?
  • Compelling headline

    I read it just to argue with you, but in context, am compelled to agree.

    There are meetings that must be held in public and those that should be held in public; employee work meetings fall into neither category.
    John L. Ries
  • Those are some pretty appalling examples

    And this doesn't even take into account the danger of using a public WiFi network as part of the meeting. Maybe these folks had the sense to use a HotSpot or a corporate VPN client, but given the rest of their behavior I wouldn't bet on it. Starbucks must be a great target of opportunity for industrial spies.
    • Ripe

      This Article might just provide fodder for your local hard working neighborhood extortionist and/or blackmailer type with surreptitious employment of their mini Camcorder. Ubiquitous Smartphone Video could work too. More easily.
      In case they were either slumming or looking to leapfrog to more serious criminal pursuits. The things you can learn at ZDNet.
      Thar's gold in them thar hills over in yonder Coffee Shoppe.
  • Not to mention productivity often suffers...

    ... in these types of meetings because it's nearly impossible to configure a seating arrangement where everyone can hear what everybody else is saying above all of the other noise in the venue.
  • my favorite coffee shop blunder

    Has been the real estate broker discussing with his client how he was going to beat out this rookie agent his commission, so the client wouldn't have to pay the broker fee. Instead the broker was going to take the rookies' commission.
    Unfortunately for them, I was the "rookie", sitting behind them at my normal coffee shop.
    Their deal went bust, and they will get to answer to ethics charges.
  • Public private

    This subject is similar to yoga and exercise instructors wanting to conduct classes in public parks. Public parks are for pleasure, not for running exercise classes, unless the class is run by a city our county recreation instructor. Weight lifting teachers started bringing in barbells to the small park and damaged the lawns.

    Our board of directors used to have meetings in a local eating establishment. The restaurant mgr wanted us to start paying for the right to use their meeting room. We held our meetings on a night when the establishment was basically empty.... Still - it's a business and they have the right to refuse service.