The Art of Conference Call Surveillance

Not announcing yourself to gain an advantage does more harm than good.


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My phone call with the owner of a potential acquisition target and her mergers and acquisitions advisor was just wrapping up. It was a productive call in which we reviewed financial results and projections, and considered various valuation models. Our business nearly concluded, we agreed on several action items and moved to wrap up the call. As I was finishing my notes and not wanting to miss a detail, I didn’t hang up my phone right away. The other two participants began speaking with one another — which made me question whether my assumption that they were ready to end the call was an accurate one — I hung on for a moment.

Soon their discussion turned to their strategy relative to the potential transaction between our companies. Ha! Here, they were discussing a highly confidential matter having forgotten that I was on the call. Perhaps I would be privy to their private tactics; what they really thought their company was worth as opposed to what they wanted me to think it was worth; what deal structures they might be willing to consider; whether they were talking to any other potential buyers; and so on. What luck!

“Excuse me,” I said before they could get more than a sentence into their discussion. “It sounds like the call is turning to topics you should be discussing without me.” There was shocked silence for a moment as they realized their error and thanked me profusely for my discretion.

A new level of trust developed between the seller, her advisor and me. The fact is we know from the time were kids that eavesdropping on a private conversation is inappropriate and extremely poor etiquette. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message.

Earlier this decade, I dialed into a scheduled conference call with John, a member of a large manufacturer’s procurement team. I like to join such calls a minute or so early so nobody is waiting on me. Often I am greeted by background music and an intermittent voice that comes on and tells me that the organizer has yet to arrive. “Hello,” I said, “Matt’s on.” No response. I figured I must be the first on the call. Then one of my teammates, who was working from another location, jumped on and then another. As nobody else had announced themselves, we assumed it was just our team that had joined to that point. We started exchanging ideas about the call that was about to begin.

“I think we’re just waiting on John,” I said, after a few minutes. “John’s here,” came a voice from the speaker on my desk. I panicked for a brief moment, before concluding that nothing shared before he joined the call was particularly confidential.

I suspected without certainty that the reason the typical background music was absent when I originally joined the call was that John had been there all along listening to a conversation we carelessly assumed was private. That time, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was on the call, but distracted by another matter. Maybe this particular conference call service didn’t have background music and John had joined later.

However, this situation repeated itself twice in the ensuing weeks during follow-up calls with him. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that John’s strategy was to join the calls early and remain silent in hopes that someone might slip up and unknowing say something that he could use for his benefit.

What I have found since is that John isn’t the only one who uses this tactic. I have picked up on others doing the same thing, most recently just a few short weeks ago. This time, the perpetrator was a human resources manager from a large manufacturing plant. Moreover, in raising the topic with others, it seems many have experienced this tactic at least once.

These experiences leave me with two major takeaways. First, when I’m on a conference call, I am always careful about what I share, especially when the topic of discussion involves another participant who has yet — or so I assume — to join the call. Let’s agree that none of us should be so careless as to disclose otherwise confidential information or speak disparagingly about another — probably ever, but certainly not on an open conference call. Second, I’m calling out the devious individuals who engage in the practice of intentionally remaining silent on the call in hopes of tricking others into disclosing information they would otherwise not share.

If your mother never taught you that eavesdropping is inappropriate and rude, at least now you know. We know who you are. When you engage in this behavior you may think you’re gaining information that will put you ahead, but, by compromising your own integrity and sending the message that you are a deceitful individual, you are doing yourself way more harm that good.