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March 30, 2013 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Need advice on a situation at work.

I have been employed as a software developer in a group of 5 developers at a government office for about 10 months now. I came from private industry and in particular, small startup type companies where we worked hard. The amount of chit-chat among coworkers at this new office has been startling. They have daily conversations, unrelated to work, for an hour, sometimes even more. (Fwiw, the small company I had worked for previously was bought out by a large corporation and ruined our fun little company, so I left).

I am not a talker. I am an introvert (though I am not shy or socially inept). I'm good for 10 minutes of 'how was your weekend' sort of conversation. I prefer to work. Most of the others have figured this out. We chat for a bit and we're done. One, however, has not. He is unable to interpret non-verbal cues that I am not interested in conversing. Yesterday, he was in my office for a total of 2 hours. What's more, he can be overbearing. He is interested in stating his opinions, not interested if you disagree. He has picked up my (personal) tablet, which I keep on my desk and started pressing buttons. If I try to give a hint that I'm not interested in talking by leaning into my screen, he'll get right in there, tell me what to do. Even took my mouse once and started clicking. Regardless, even if he was the nicest guy ever, I would rather work. I can sometimes end the conversation by walking out of the office, to go get tea, or claim that I have to go upstairs to talk to someone, but one can only do this so many times.

I feel I can't talk to my boss, who is actually a pretty good guy, because he could perceive this as a personality conflict. This guy is the most important/experienced developer on the team and so I would be the one go to. The probationary period for my position is at the one year mark (2 months away) and at that point its a lot harder to get rid of someone. It might be possible to talk to my boss after that, though I'm not sure how I would initiate that conversation.

Any suggestions on how to handle this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can sometimes end the conversation by walking out of the office, to go get tea, or claim that I have to go upstairs to talk to someone, but one can only do this so many times.

"It's been nice chatting with you but I am going to have to ask you to leave so I can get some work done. Please close the door on your way out." And then stop engaging at all except to repeat what you said in various ways. No more engaging.

I am like you and have a really hard time telling people "No." in any useful fashion, but whether this person is clueless or intentionally pressing your buttons they're intruding on your space and your passive approaches aren't working. You need to ask for what you want, not rely on others to pick up on it, since clearly they aren't picking up on it. I feel that if I have a personality that is at odds with the workplace culture it's on me to tell people how I need to be treated. Maybe isn't fair, but it definitely makes my time at work much less stressful.

If the person persists on lingering in your office once you've told them explicitly you need them to go, then you involve other people in the office. Until you've told them to leave directly and they haven't, you're still in the "You maybe need to communicate this more clearly" camp. That is unless this is some sort of harassment situation. I'm presuming it's just "clueless person won't leave" in which case yeah, one more explicit "Please leave now" statement seems like it's what you need.
posted by jessamyn at 9:53 AM on March 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


Have you actually tried skipping the non-verbal cues/verbal misdirection and being direct? It sounds like you haven't set appropriate boundaries and while that doesn't excuse him stomping over pretty obvious ones, it'll likely be the first thing your boss asks about if you go to him with this.

Like jessamyn I personally find that this can be far easier said than done, but being assertive in this way will likely be critical for your long-term prospects at this company (if there are any).
posted by sm1tten at 9:57 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I worked with a guy years ago who just sucked at reading non-verbal cues, so I had to be direct.

If you haven't already tried "Fred, I gotta get back to work. See you later," then do that. What you've been doing hasn't worked, so do something else.
posted by rtha at 10:06 AM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


my "get out of here" line is something like "hey we'll catch up later ok? I have to get a handle on this project right now. See you later."
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:07 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


1) Headphones. I joined an office with someone like your coworker, and another coworker who'd been there longer than I had was rockin' out at his desk during lunch one day and I asked him what he was listening to. SHHHhhh, he hissed at me, and showed me that the jack end of the earbuds was actually just stuffed in his desk drawer. Wearing headphones is a non-invitation to chat.

2) What rtha & fingersandtoes said.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:11 AM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow, this behavior of his has been pretty extreme, over a long period of time. Maybe you could fight it by directing the conversation onto whatever work you are doing. You could act like you are so into it, or the work is so urgent, that you can't help talking about it.
posted by BibiRose at 10:12 AM on March 30, 2013


When someone picks something of yours up and starts playing with it without your permission, you immediately have the right to say in as affronted a voice as you feel necessary, "Hey, I would appreciate it if you would stop picking up my stuff and messing around with it. It's really rude and it sort of boggles my mind that you think it's okay" as you gently reach out and remove the item from the person's hands.

When the guy sticks around and doesn't get your hint, lean back in your chair and fix him with kind of a bemused expression and say, "Dude! Way to be dense. I have been trying to let you know that I'm busy for the past 10 minutes and you either suck with social cues or you're purposefully ignoring the ones I'm sending, but seriously, I need to get back to work and you're not letting it happen. Out with you, please!" And laugh a little just for effect. If he still sticks around, stand up and move towards him and the door of your desk or cubicle and be like, "Hey, I'm serious. Visiting hours are over as of today. Thanks!"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:14 AM on March 30, 2013


Speaking as someone who's had a similar co-worker in a government office (albeit in a far different function), I agree with the other opinions here suggesting that you may need to be more direct in stating what your boundaries are. I remember feeling a little foolish and embarrassed to have to tell a grown person that "What's on my desk is off-limits to you, and unless you explicitly ask my permission, you are not allowed to touch my stuff." It was awkward for a while after that, and there have been other, similar encounters, but each one's gotten easier, and each has improved our ability to work together.

I don't quite see your reluctance to talk to your boss for fear of "personality conflict." The odds are good that if he's a "pretty good guy," he'll be willing to listen without looking to make your speaking up a negative come your next review. The odds are that he's well aware that your co-worker lacks a filter, but that he's not able to act upon it (it is harder to get rid of someone who's passed probation). In this case, documentation might be a helpful tool for your boss, too.

It's been my experience that some people land in government because they don't have the finesse or interpersonal skills to hack it in private industry. They're out there, and unfortunately, it means that the burden is on the rest of us to train them to function with other human beings, because they aren't going to go away. I don't think rudeness is the answer, but directness is often required. Think of it as training a puppy: don't be mean, don't be ambiguous or vague, and don't judge too hard, but be firm and consistent, and it'll work out.
posted by Graygorey at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2013


Yesterday, he was in my office for a total of 2 hours.

"Okay, I need to work now. Get out."
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Mark, I am going to work now." Then start working.

Don't say "Sorry, Mark..." or "I would really love to talk, but..." or even " I need to work."

This is about assertiveness, and there are polite and professional ways to be assertive, but they will all include you being absolutely clear on the expectation that you are going to work. Right now.

If "Mark, I am going to work now" coupled with you actually working does not cause him to leave your office, your next step is to ask him, politely, to leave. "Mark, I'm working. Please leave my office." You may hate how confrontational this feels, but it will be effective and you will not need to do it more than a few times.

Also, close your door, if your office has a door. I second the headphone suggestion, or, use ear plugs. My wife uses these at work. It really feels like people are making an imposition on her when they get her attention and she has to stop what she's doing and take out her earplugs to speak with them. People soon learn that she is concentrating and that they are interrupting work to talk to her, so it better be important.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sounds to me like you guys could use a private chatroom. I log out of our IRC channel when I need to focus and log back in when I need a distraction. The workplace being government-owned might prevent this kind of arrangement, but see if it's possible over the local network. If you can train everyone to take their personal chatter to the computer, you can leave your headphones on and ignore everyone!

The person who is grabbing your mouse, however, needs to be dealt with in a different way. Body language and the use of big obvious headphones both help. If they bother you, you remove your headphones halfway, look at them expectantly without turning your body in their direction, and put the headphones back on if they don't have any direct questions for you. Either they're totally inept or they're actively trying to annoy you. Inept people will get the idea when they realize you're no longer listening, and actively annoying people will need your boss' intervention.
posted by theraflu at 10:21 AM on March 30, 2013


You can also use peoples' tendencies to follow and their exit-your-office-when-you-do tendencies to your advantage - get up and 'go to the bathroom' and he'll likely exit. Similar things I use are refilling my water bottle, grabbing a snack from the fridge, etc.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:28 AM on March 30, 2013


I have people like this in my office. Twice I have emailed my husband to call my office phone so I can answer it and pretend it's an important business call. Obviously this isn't a good long-term solution, but it does work on an occasional basis.
posted by something something at 10:53 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't seem to find the classic description of the technique, but there's a nonverbal way of getting someone out of your office that involves them talking at you, you stand up, maintaining eye-contact and "uh-huh" engagement with whatever they're saying, walk over to the door, where they will follow you, you guide them out with your hand and close the door between you. "Okay, talk to you later."
posted by rhizome at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Twice I have emailed my husband to call my office phone so I can answer it and pretend it's an important business call.

I entirely do this. In fact, I will also pretend I'm on the phone when I'm trying to get some work done when I know some of the conspicuous time-wasters are on the prowl. They fiddle around with the toys that are closer to their area of my desk for a while then give up. I will occasionally cover the mouthpiece of my phone and whisper "Anything I can help you with?" This generally prompts a speedier exodus.

For me it is not usually guys who aggressively invade my space when I'm at my computer - it is other women, who feel more comfortable (apparently) letting their bodies brush against me, or removing my mouse from my hand to do something. I've rearranged my desk so that it is pretty awkward for them to do this - there are some serial offenders. I step on toes (not particularly gently) and then apologize for how cramped it is behind the desk and suggest they explain from the other side of the desk.

On the touching personal electronics - that is pretty weird. I'd go for a "Actually, that is my personal device," while you immediately take it back, using the surprised tone of voice you'd use when a dog unexpectedly pooped in your hall.
posted by arnicae at 11:27 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, touching your personal electronics is pretty unacceptable. Normally I would say then you see him coming, move your ipad or whatever out of reach, and do it pointedly.

However, if my reading of your situation is correct, you should tread carefully for the next two months, after which you can be more direct with him. It's a real problem that he's been doing this for ten months. Pointing out (or even suggesting) that someone has been doing something rude, or even just unacceptable to you, for so long while you have said nothing, potentially embarrasses them. This guy may be embarrassment-proof, but still, there may be some real awkwardness if you suddenly assert yourself. Not saying you've done anything wrong up to this point-- you've probably acted appropriately for your position-- just that this is an entrenched situation and you should pick your moment.
posted by BibiRose at 11:57 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


This guy is the most important/experienced developer on the team

But does he actually have a higher title, like "Lead Developer?" Or he just thinks he's important?

This may happen in other jobs, but I know damn well it happens with software developers: It's like grade school in that a social hierarchy evolves apart from actual official rank. There are people who walk around acting like the boss of those of equal rank because, frankly, they are socially maladjusted bullies, and the "teacher" never tells them to stop.

My experience is that standing up to them often has a good result. If this guy physically picked up my mouse I would say, "Please don't touch my stuff." If he did it again I would say, quietly, "Are you fucking kidding me? Put my stuff down right now and walk away."

Of course this is all subjective based on the office culture, and whether the person in question is a bully or has a legitimate disability (or both). But in my experience, even in a situation where I was a contractor in constant jeopardy of being let go, was that standing up to the bullies immediately made their behavior better.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:06 PM on March 30, 2013


There is a specific name for people who engage in these behaviours. They are called assholes.

Passive aggressive. And this clown is not even passive, it's pretty much complete aggression. In my experience, people doing this sometimes really do not know they are doing it. Not consciously, that is -- on some level they absolutely know what they are about, and dig it.

He's running a game.

A good analog of passive aggressive behaviour: a big happy dog up on his hind legs, kissing on your face, all the while pissing on your legs and furniture.

I've got an asshole like this one in my social milieu. I finally, totally tired of it, tired of him, and had cut him, totally. I barely acknowledge him, if at all; I'm kind to all, sometimes gregarious, festive even, whatever. But him I just will not engage with. I do help him, if something comes up that is real, and do so with all I have. Aside from that, I will not answer his questions, or acknowledge his statements, I just look at him until he goes away.

It's awkward, you risk looking like a nut, it's totally counter-intuitive. But you won't look like a nut to anyone who knows the score, and everyone who works with him knows the score, except for those who don't, and they'll soon find out.

Complete exclusion won't work in your setting, of course. But you can come as close to that line as possible. Deal only with questions and/or statements directly related to the project at hand, only related to your current work situation, and keep those brief. Brief brief brief. And then "Hey Melvin, I'm going to go to work now." Not "I've got to go to work." but rather "I'm going to go to work."

It's really difficult to do, esp at the first -- and passive aggressive people know this -- but you're going to have to look him in the eye and insist that he leave your office. Now.

One reason he's in your office so long is that others have already learned his game, and have already cut him off, cut him out of their life. I'd bet dollars to dimes that your supervisor is well aware of his games, and most if not all of your co-workers, also. Perhaps -- probably -- your supervisor doesn't know how to deal with this; passive aggressive people, the real pros, are very, very good, with lots of experience, to boot, and your supervisor likely doesn't know how to deal with it. Or can't fire him. Or won't.

Remember -- your gut is telling you true. This guy is an asshole. He's a specific type, he's slippery, he's good at his game, but he's an asshole all the same, no difference between him and your garden variety asshole farting in the elevator. Never bother, do not try to reason with him, he'll say "Why do I do what? I do nothing! I'm talking about work stuff. I only want to help." So. Don't engage with him -- you'll never win. Don't bother. Questions or statements related to current work, that's it.

It's difficult, but a good lesson to learn.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Alright, well, thanks for the visit, but I gotta finish this up right now. Would you mind closing the door on your way out?"

"I'm swapped right now so I can't really chat. Sorry."

I do also wear headphones when a chatty person is around and I'm trying to work. I can conveniently not hear what they say and they are going to have to REALLY want to talk to me if they insist upon interrupting me and getting my attention.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:47 PM on March 30, 2013


I worked with someone who didn't pick up on most conversation ending cues. I eventually found that when he was doing this in my office, I could stand up, and start to move towards him/the door while he talked, and he would back out of the door. When I got to the door, and started to close it, he would end the conversation and leave. I did all this without referring verbally to the fact I was doing it, i.e. I didn't make excuses about having to go somewhere or needing to get back to work. Sometimes just me standing up and taking a step forward would trigger his conversation-ending patterns. It was like an awesome secret weapon! The year it took me to learn this was very annoying, though.
posted by lollusc at 7:07 PM on March 30, 2013


Headphones are my favorite way to signal that I'm trying to work and not available to talk. Sometimes I don't even have any music on when I wear them.
posted by 168 at 8:37 PM on March 30, 2013


There are apps for smart phones that will fake an incoming call. "Sorry, I have to take this personal call." Would be an easy way to get him out of your office.
posted by raisingsand at 3:34 PM on March 31, 2013


This worked for me in the same situation: get rid of all visitor chairs in you office or fill them with paperwork/books/whatever. Stand up when the person comes in and don't sit down until the person leaves. Good luck.
posted by KneeDeep at 4:30 PM on March 31, 2013


He is unable to interpret non-verbal cues that I am not interested in conversing. Yesterday, he was in my office for a total of 2 hours. What's more, he can be overbearing. He is interested in stating his opinions, not interested if you disagree. He has picked up my (personal) tablet, which I keep on my desk and started pressing buttons. If I try to give a hint that I'm not interested in talking by leaning into my screen, he'll get right in there, tell me what to do. Even took my mouse once and started clicking. Regardless, even if he was the nicest guy ever, I would rather work. I can sometimes end the conversation by walking out of the office, to go get tea, or claim that I have to go upstairs to talk to someone, but one can only do this so many times. ...

This guy is the most important/experienced developer on the team and so I would be the one go to. The probationary period for my position is at the one year mark (2 months away) and at that point its a lot harder to get rid of someone. It might be possible to talk to my boss after that, though I'm not sure how I would initiate that conversation.

He isn't failing to pick up on your cues, he's deliberately ignoring them.

As the self-appointed(?) leader of this tiny tribe, it's his responsibility to acculturate you, and his behaviors are sending you two primary messages:

1. You are working too hard, and your greater productivity threatens to make the rest of us look bad. Especially me. If that's what it takes, I will physically prevent you from getting too much done until you understand that we do not work that hard around here.

2. I am Number One. I will demonstrate this to you by handling your personal items in a transgressive way.

The fact that he's doing this now, ten months in, suggests to me that he is also aware the probationary period is nearing an end, and that he is trying to see if he can get you in sync with his program before he has to decide whether to oppose giving you a permanent position. He doesn't necessarily want to get rid of you; you could come in very handy in the event of a crunch, but he can't have you showing him and the whole group up, and giving superiors ideas he doesn't want them to have.

I think you'll get a better review by appearing to play along than by going against him. When you pass the probationary period, you can play a different game if you want to.
posted by jamjam at 11:42 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


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