Hello? Can you hear me now? YES, I CAN! THAT'S THE FRICKIN' PROBLEM!
August 20, 2008 12:29 PM   Subscribe

How do I tell my boss, whom I share a small office with, that her constant use of speaker phone is extremely distracting?

Caveats: She IS the boss. She is partially deaf, so she uses a hearing aid. She is a lovely person, so I don't want to use a method that would potentially hurt her feelings. She uses the speaker phone so she can multi-task while on long conversations.

I have already told her repeatedly that her use of speaker phone is so distracting that it hurts my productivity.

We have offered to buy a headset, but she says that her hearing aid makes it awkward to use.

To make it worse, there are 3 of us that share this office, and all 3 of us have hearing problems anyway, so this kind of background noise is annoying, distracting, and driving my co-worker and I bonkers.

Please help with suggestions that won't hurt her feelings, but will help us survive our 10-hour office days!
posted by HeyAllie to Work & Money (26 answers total)
Response by poster: We already have the headphones and use them. But that doesn't solve the problem of her carrying on a loud speakerphone conversation, which we can still hear while we're using the headphones.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:39 PM on August 20, 2008

Well, given that you all have hearing problems, there's not going to be the issue of being insensitive about someone else's disability.

It sounds like you have a good working relationship, so I'd say be straight with her. Avoid sounding like you've been delegated by committee to talk about it; just explain that you personally find her use of the speaker phone distracting, and that you're concerned that maybe others do too, and see if she can come up with a compromise that works. Is there anywhere else she could take the call if it's going to last more than a minute or so? What about a cordless phone she could take out of the office?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:48 PM on August 20, 2008

Best answer: You could invest in noise canceling headphones. Or, try earplugs. If your hair is longish, then you can probably discreetly remove them when your boss needs to talk to you.
posted by acidic at 12:58 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, it sounds like you've already told her.

Maybe advocate for increased use of IM or email, citing their usefulness for documentation purposes and/or their special usefulness for the hearing impaired?

Or perhaps setting a time for speaker phone conversations to take place, so you can set aside work that requires less concentration to do at that time -- like, say, speaker phone use between 2 and 4 in the afternoon -- something like that?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:01 PM on August 20, 2008

How about getting a phone-specific headset (one that accommodates hearing aids) for your boss? A phone headset makes multitasking on long calls much easier than using a speakerphone does. Improve her productivity and improve your environment at a single stroke.
posted by anadem at 1:01 PM on August 20, 2008

Lovely in every way except being incredibly inconsiderate. It is not reasonable for her to treat your shared workspace as her private office and expect you to concentrate, hearing problem or no.

Seems to me that you, having already complained clearly and repeatedly, have few options. If the company cannot move to a facility with separate offices, then she needs to find a way to give up the speakerphone.

Does she have the hearing aid only in one ear? Maybe she could use a headset receiver on the other side then?

Where I have worked, firing up a speakerphone in shared office space was highly unusual, done only for collaborative client soothing or troubleshooting important enough to justify nearby staff taking the interruption as an opportunity for a walk or a snack.

What would happen if you and your coworker underscored your point about lost productivity by simply leaving the room and having coffee for the duration of any of her lengthy speakerphone conversations? Maybe it would dawn on her, or maybe you'd have to explain that since you can't work amid her loud conversations they must be more important than your work anyway.

on preview: acidic - "noise canceling headphones" don't filter out conversations. They can only compensate for constant noise like the drone of aircraft engines. I wish they could actually tune out annoying people but I don't think the technology is there yet.
posted by Tubes at 1:06 PM on August 20, 2008

I agree with buying her a headset that works with hearing aids, if that's possible, and agree that you should leave the room while she talks on speakerphone, making it clear you CANNOT work while it's in use.
posted by xammerboy at 1:25 PM on August 20, 2008

Maybe you should all start using your speakerphones, maybe she just doesn't realize exactly how distracting it is, show her.
posted by heavenstobetsy at 1:30 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, we tell her repeatedly that her speakerphone conversations annoy us. She is good for a week or two, and then she forgets and it starts up again. I've even walked over to her with a sign on a post-it that says "ACK! SPEAKERPHONE!" She nods apologetically, then continues on. Remembers for a day or two and then starts up again.

Cordless phone won't work since we are on a phone system.

Can't schedule a time when speaker phone use is okay. Client calls, conference calls, they happen all the time.

Would love to "walk out of the job" when the speaker phone is being used by her, but I've got way too much work and self-respect to do something that passive aggressive.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:32 PM on August 20, 2008

We already have the headphones and use them. But that doesn't solve the problem of her carrying on a loud speakerphone conversation, which we can still hear while we're using the headphones.

I would suggest buying better headphones if you can't get her to stop. I agree with Tubes that noise canceling ones won't work though, they just make conversations sound weird rather than blocking them out.

The best kind in my opinion are circumaural, closed headphones. Those are the big bulky kind that completely cover your ears and block out external sound. I have a sweet pair of Sennheisers and that get rid of nearly all background noise.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:33 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Heavenstobetsy - the problem is she is way deafer than the other 2 of us, so if we did that, it wouldn't bother her a bit since she can just barely hear US on speakerphones, or hears it on a muffled level. My co-worker and I only have slight hearing difficulties, so we hear her level of conversation just fine, unfortunately.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:35 PM on August 20, 2008

Since she can get by without a speakerphone for a bit, she doesn't need one -- it's convenient and easier, but it's not crucial. It also doesn't sound like it's really deliberately done to irritate.

Buy her a headset that works well with hearing aids (make sure it's returnable) and put a huge postit (or something like) on the speakerphone button. If she has to think about it every time she uses the speakerphone, it might break her of the habit.

I do not, incidentally, think that walking out of the office is passive-aggressive. She knows it's distracting, you know it's distracting. If you aren't getting work done, you're not getting it done. If you are getting work done, but less I might try to benchmark something clear, so you can say you can do only 50% of X while she's on the phone.
posted by jeather at 1:45 PM on August 20, 2008

Best answer: Is it a behind the ear hearing aid? Here is a lightweight handsfree assisted listening device that I swear by (I have hearing aids in both ears). If she is willing to try to accommodate you (if only for a day or two), then maybe she'd be receptive to a gift like this. She can also use it with her cellphone.

Please also keep in mind that someone who is hearing impaired often has no idea how loud they are being. My friends and family have learned to politely let me know when I'm being too loud.
posted by desjardins at 1:48 PM on August 20, 2008

What is it that you're looking for, exactly?

"How do I tell my boss . . . that her constant use of speaker phone is extremely distracting?"

"I have already told her repeatedly that her use of speaker phone is so distracting that it hurts my productivity."

Sounds like you've already got that part figured out. Your problem, then, is that it's not making any difference. You've shot down basically every suggestion given here... are you looking for a magic phrase that will make her suddenly considerate of others?

You won't find it.

Getting better headphones is a viable option. There are cordless phones that work with "phone systems." If you haven't called your service provider, that's a good place to start. I'd guess that walking out once would work, too... leave a note "We can't work while you're on speaker phone, so we'll be in the break room. Please let us know when you're finished." It's not really "passive-aggressive" if you've already made her aware that it's a problem.

The other option is, of course, DTMFA: Find a new job.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Really, toomuchpete, your kind compassion about a real life situation involving people with disabilities is really...too much. Actually, it's a great job with amazing perks, so I'm not willing to give that up because of an obstacle like this.

I like the idea of investing in having noise-cancelling headphones. I'm going to try those out since I think they may actually be a good solution. While it probably won't eliminate the background noise 100%, it should dull it quite a bit. And actually, I think explaining the reason for getting the noise-cancelling headphones might just be the trick to making her realizing how much it really impacts the others here.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by HeyAllie at 2:47 PM on August 20, 2008

Maybe the folks who manage your phone system could supply you with a telephone that has no speaker.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 2:59 PM on August 20, 2008

Go ahead and give them a try, if you like, but while noise-canceling headphones work well on sounds that are relatively predictable and continuous, like a buzz or hum, the do not work well at all on sounds that are highly variable, like speech. In fact, by countering the white-noise component of the background sounds in your environment, they can make the other sounds in the mix, like speech, stand out more, making them even harder to tune out.
posted by redfoxtail at 3:36 PM on August 20, 2008

actually, i was going to suggest the same thing as toomuchpete. ask if you can switch to laptops so you can take your work to a quieter place when she is on the speakerphone. it's actually not rude, because you have asked her, and she has failed to comply. if you cannot change her behavior, you must change your own, or else live with the situation.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:51 PM on August 20, 2008

And actually, I think explaining the reason for getting the noise-cancelling headphones might just be the trick to making her realizing how much it really impacts the others here.

I agree. I don't think she's being willfully inconsiderate. You said she's otherwise a nice person. She might be initially embarrassed or mortified but I don't see anger or hurt feelings as a likely response. She already knows she's hearing-impaired. It's hard to tell when that's impacting others, because the very thing that's impacting others (i.e., noise) is the very thing that makes us impaired. I used to turn up my TV too loud until I got one with closed captioning, because I didn't know it was too loud. What is "too loud" to someone who's nearly deaf?
posted by desjardins at 3:52 PM on August 20, 2008

If she is going to be really sensitive about this, then just get handsfree sets for everyone, since you all have hearing impairments anyway. For those who don't wear hearing aids, there are ones that simply increase the volume.
posted by desjardins at 3:56 PM on August 20, 2008

Some headsets only cover one ear rather than both. If she only has the hearing aid on one ear, maybe she might consider that option. If you only said "headset" she might have immediately assumed one that covers both ears.
posted by monkeydluffy at 4:43 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Desjardins, you're right. She really is a nice person, the message just isn't getting across to her. We're all super busy and it's a small office and a small company. Unfortunately, we don't have a separate room that we can easily escape to for a few minutes.

To clarify, we all have handsfree headsets. Boss refuses to use one because she is uncomfortable using one with her hearing aid. It's clear she's not impacted by the noise level in the office because, well, she doesn't hear it. Those of us with lesser hearing loss are more sensitive to it. And yes, she does speak louder using the speakerphone; her normal speaking voice is quite soft.

Based on your suggestions: Co-worker and I will try to band together once again to CONSTANTLY (written and verbal) remind her about it rather than occasionally. We will try to convince her to use one that is hearing-aide friendly. Co-worker and I may try noise-cancelling headphones.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by HeyAllie at 5:58 PM on August 20, 2008

Best answer: Make her a humorous desktop reminder.
  • Take a picture of the speakerphone.
  • Photoshop some sound waves coming out of the speaker part.
  • Then, put the universal circle w/a slash NO sign over it.
  • Slip it into one of those acrylic stand-up sign holders that you can get at an office supply store. Make sure it is at least 8.5" x 11".
  • Place on desk.

  • posted by Ostara at 6:54 PM on August 20, 2008

    Seconding what's been said a few times above, you can give noise canceling headphones a try but I think you'll be disappointed in this case. I have the best ones on the market (Bose QC3's, $300) and even they don't cancel random speech, just regular noise/hum like engines.

    Hopefully you'll have some luck with the hearing-aid alternatives that were suggested above.

    And there ARE cordless phones that work with "phone systems" ... they are just handset extenders.

    Good luck!
    posted by intermod at 8:02 PM on August 20, 2008

    Sigh. Those headphones won't help.

    (evil tag) Open her phone. Cut the speaker wire. (/evil tag)

    Sorry. Really. You might have to do it to all the phones. But it'll work.
    posted by filmgeek at 8:31 PM on August 20, 2008

    In-ear earphones are extremely effective noise blockers. When I wear mine, I can't hear the babies crying on the airplane, let alone the engines. I spend the entire time surrounded by a flight crew who is pantomiming to me. It's great.

    The more expensive models have an external microphone and a volume control. That should decide how much of the external sound you want to hear. It's useful to discuss with your seatmate for a moment.

    They probably work very well as hearing aid. He should mention your issue to your hearing specialist. They might be able to assemble something for you.
    posted by gmarceau at 1:59 AM on August 21, 2008

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