The folly of public meetings

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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.

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