Your phlem and burping is grossing me out. Did you get the memo?
July 26, 2011 8:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle these loud co-workers?

I've worked at my job for over a year and the enviornment is rapidly changing due to a hiring spree. I have two new co-workers who now sit on either side of me who both just started about two weeks ago. My company used to have a very professional, respectful enviornment, however that seems to have suddenly gone out the window, seemingly overnight.

Anyway, these two new co-workers are driving me insane. They work in a completely different department than me, so I don't interface with them during my normal job function at all. I cannot wear headphones while at my desk and I'm not allowed a radio. How do I deal with them nicely? Or do I just suck it up?

Co-worker #1: We share a wall and he makes revolting grunting noises constantly, including LOUDLY clearing his throat, burping/belching, and sniffling what sounds like the world's worst nasal mucous problem. He also shuffles papers and taps on his desk on occasion, but it's more of the bodily noises that drive me batshitinsane and simultaneously make me want to vomit. I was talking to a client on the phone the other day and she actually asked me what that noise is in the background? Yeah, it's really bad. I don't want to be rude to him though, but it's really gross.

Co-worker #2: A talker. Normally I would politely ask for a talker to lower his/her voice, etc. However, he doesn't talk to me. Ever. When he does talk to me, he is really passive-aggressive and makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. He instead talks with Co-worker #1 about EVERYTHING. Sometimes they go for lunch walks, but there's usually a good hour chunk of time where I'm on a teleconference at my desk and can't hear myself think. The issue is though, is that I'm running the teleconference, so I really can't put an entire meeting on hold to politely request that they keep it down. I cannot book a meeting room because we're having a major shortage due to said hiring spree.

Neither one of them will give me the time of day, and when they do, they make me feel very uncomforable, depsite me concertedly trying to make small talk, eye contact, friendly banter, etc. Both are older and both are male, I am younger, female, and have been at the company far longer and am in a much more Senior Management role than either of them.

HR is located in another office, on the other side of the country. I have never met anyone from HR face to face. My boss works in another office and our CEO/etc. who I also work closely with is traveling constantly, and bringing this up to them seems kind of juvinile.

What should I do?
posted by floweredfish to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would go to your boss and explain the situation and ask him to move you to another desk as far as possible from these two.
posted by orange swan at 8:19 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Mean to add: moving desks is not possible due to space shortage.
posted by floweredfish at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2011

Speak to their supervisor.
posted by jph at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2011

but there's usually a good hour chunk of time where I'm on a teleconference at my desk and can't hear myself think. The issue is though, is that I'm running the teleconference, so I really can't put an entire meeting on hold to politely request that they keep it down

I would talk to your boss,but I would talk specifically about this as the problem, as it will be taken to more directly affect your work. The rest just might sound "gossipy."
posted by sweetkid at 8:23 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

If they are interrupting your ability to hold a conference call, then no, it is not juvenile to go to someone with this! You need to speak with your boss, see what they want you to do (speak with the other persons' manager, they will handle it, etc.). Your manager needs to be aware of this, you aren't able to do your job!
posted by kellyblah at 8:24 AM on July 26, 2011

Can you use a table top sized fan in your space to create white noise? It will be just loud enough to cover any noises within your earshot.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:26 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you said moving desks is a problem because of space shortage, but can you switch desks with someone who is in their department?
Or maybe switch desks with one of them, so at least you don't have one on each side?
posted by cheemee at 8:27 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

First you are firm and professional and tell them both to quiet the fuck down. DO NOT over explain why this is necessary! They are in a professional environment and they should know better.

And frankly, you should know better. No small talk. Don't be ingratiating. Just tell them how it is and go back to your work.

If they don't simmer down, escalate.

Nip this now.

(I'm a little worried about why you haven't used your professional authority in this situation and spoken up sooner! Show confidence and professionalism, be unflappable - not a door mat. Good luck!)
posted by jbenben at 8:29 AM on July 26, 2011 [16 favorites]

Does your office use sametime or other IM tools? If so, next time you're on a call, as soon as you hear a noise shoot off a quick IM to one or both saying "hey, I'm on a conference call, could you hold the noise down a bit?" And if that doesn't work, you then have a record of trying to do something that you can take to your (and/or their) boss.
posted by pdb at 8:44 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

For teleconferences, it is possible to book a conference room? I have a desk on an atria (where you can hear ambient noise from the public several floors below, even small children crying) and book conference rooms for teleconferences even though I'm the only one physically in the meeting room, just because I can close the door and hear other people on the call.
posted by Kurichina at 8:45 AM on July 26, 2011

The technique I use in this situation is to pretend that I am a man, and I ask myself: "What would a self-confident, self-assured professional man do in this situation?" Then I do that. It's almost always the exact opposite of what I think I should do. (NB Technically I am a man, but it weirdly still works.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:47 AM on July 26, 2011 [40 favorites]

Talk to them yourself first. Ask them to use their 'library voice' for their conversations. Then with co-worker #1 mention, privately, that he has a few absent-minded habits that are distracting, such as the desk tapping and the throat clearing. You realize these are not conscious, but if he could try to keep them down you'd appreciate it. If you don't get anywhere dealing with it personally, that would be the time to escalate.

This is also a good opportunity to make sure your own cubicle etiquette is good. For example, if you're using a speaker phone for your teleconference, that's a no-no.
posted by IanMorr at 8:50 AM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - this is helpful!

I think part of the issue is that I work in a very small office and we've totally outgrown it already and are going to be pressed for space for awhile. For my T-cons, I have been booking rooms, but oftentimes, am forced to take calls from my desk because

@jbenben - I guess I never really noticed it until it got, recently, REALLY bad as the two of them are seemingly getting more comforable with working here. This, and I had been traveling in the meantime. But what do I say exactly? Please stop with the bodily functions? Lol.

@pdb - no IM tools, but I could try shooting an email.

Also - I know it was suggested that I should speak with their supervisor - FYI, he works in another office and I've never met him or interacted with him before.
posted by floweredfish at 8:52 AM on July 26, 2011

talk to your boss, explain the situation and get headphones.

Sometimes people view headphones as being unfriendly, hence the talking to your boss first. there's not much else you can do. Cube farms are awesome.
posted by zombieApoc at 9:02 AM on July 26, 2011

sweetkid has it: talk to your boss about how someone asked you what the noise in the background was, and how you have trouble concentrating on your teleconferencing calls because of the noise.
posted by Specklet at 9:04 AM on July 26, 2011

Can't you put the telcon on mute and tell (not ask, tell) them to shut up? This happens in my office regularly.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:14 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You tell them when you are about to start a teleconference, and you ask them to be very sensitive to extra noise.

Chances are they won't be. Not because they are boors, but because your work life and routines won't be real to them.

I understand why telling them while you're in the thick of it is difficult. Putting the conference on mute is fine, but you have to redirect your attention to them. But "in the act" may be more memorable than "please be aware." So if you do have to remind them mid-conference, then Put conference on mute. Turn and say, "please be quiet, the participants in this conference can hear you. " If they try to discuss or apologize or what if while you're in the midst of the conference, just point at the phone, and maybe scribble a quick note or IM that you'll have to discuss later.

If it's still a problem, then talk to your own supervisor (not theirs). Ask to have your desk traded with someone else's. If they can't get you a permanent trade--not many people may want to sit next to boistrousness and body sounds--ask if you can 1)use someone else's space while conducting these meetings, 2) work from home. Finally is asking for assistance in addressing their behavior.

Above all, you want to make a business case that the behavior interferes with your productivity, and it's more than just a personal annoyance for you.
posted by nita at 9:33 AM on July 26, 2011

Best answer: But what do I say exactly? Please stop with the bodily functions?

You don't need to address what the noises are, just that they are noises and they impact your ability to do your job and to maintain an appearance of professionalism while working with customers.

I have sympathy for the cougher; I have crappy sinuses and I'm sure no shortage of people have disliked some of the noises that come out of me on a bad day. If it's personal comfort I'm inclined to say "sorry, but tough" since it's not like this is something I do on purpose or that I'm really enjoying myself. But you're past personal comfort and into measurable negative repercussions.

I'd suggest starting casual and moving up as you don't get results. Never mind the past, you want to start a concerted and documented path here that you can point to conclusively. Since they've demonstrated a history of being uncooperative make sure you make some basic notes.

Start with a casual walkup. Hey Bob, have a second? I need some help. I run these teleconferences with customers and the open air layout here makes things tough. Can you help me think of some way to indicate when they're going on so I can get a kind of quiet-er zone around me so we can keep the customers happy?

When that doesn't work out you move on to scheduling a meeting. Invite your boss and their boss as necessary.

When that doesn't work you meet with your boss directly and ask him/her how they want to proceed with this continued difficulty. Never fail to mention that it's causing issues with providing service.

As far as the space pressure, that's somewhat to largely irrelevant. This situation is negatively impacting doing the work - it's a hard constraint. You wouldn't just shrug off if they couldn't provide a phone for a receptionist or a computer for a programmer. A sufficiently quiet space for someone who does phone work with customers isn't a nice-to-have it's a necessity. The Powers That Be can solve that issue any way they like but just shrugging it off is only possible if you don't push hard enough that this is a real problem.

Do you want to telecommute some or all? If you have a quiet space at home to do this why not propose it as a solution for the space AND noise issue?
posted by phearlez at 9:53 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As far as the two nearest you, you mention you're a woman with seniority over them. Now you have to back that up. Don't ask, TELL them to be quiet when you're on the phone. Don't wordsmith it in your head too much before doing it.

Look, I'm a woman in a cube farm with no walls, and I work in an IT environment. So I'm outnumbered by men with something like an 11 to 1 ratio at my workplace. I've been able to get exactly this sort of thing accomplished by being extremely assertive. So what if you seem like a bitch? It's more adult and empowering to straighten out this stuff on your own, if you can, rather than go over their heads.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:22 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I'm not here to make friends." Repeat that in your head as necessary. These guys already don't like you, you don't have to work on the same projects with them, and they're below you in the hierarchy. Who cares if you piss them off? Be assertive. "Bob, Joe, I need you to be quieter so I can focus on my work." If they do anything really stupid, like call you a bitch to your face, that goes directly to HR. My guess is that they'll grumble and gossip about you behind your back, but again, who cares.
posted by desjardins at 10:44 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ask them to cool it. If they don't, try waiting until they are in full body function jamboree mode, and use administrivia as an excuse to call HR. When HR pick up, put them on speakerphone.
posted by tel3path at 11:36 AM on July 26, 2011

Best answer: in a much more Senior Management role than either of them. ...

...bringing this up to them seems kind of juvinile.

I don't know, it seems clear to me that you have authority and you're not using it. Skip the banter and be the person in charge.
posted by headnsouth at 11:36 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

I love ImproviseOrDie's advice! The only thing I would add is that sometimes I feel even more empowered to be an assertive woman when I think that it's best for womankind if I stand up for myself to men. So maybe thinking about that will help!
posted by smirkyfodder at 4:27 PM on July 26, 2011

I can understand why there might be a rule against wearing headphones during the course of the word day, but I don't understand why you couldn't wear a telephone headset during a conference call.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:11 PM on July 26, 2011

... during the course of the work day ...
posted by Bruce H. at 3:58 AM on July 27, 2011

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