The Relationship Judge: The Loud, Inconsiderate Co-Worker

With so many offices moving to open floor plans these days to save on space/costs and encouraging open communication amongst teams, a whole new office culture has emerged.  Suddenly you’re in everyone’s business and everyone around you is in yours.  You know what everybody eats, their favorite TV shows, what they do over the weekends, their family members, kids, the fights they have and sometimes even their sex life.

When Alexis wrote in to talk about her company’s floor plan and the one colleague she is desperate to find a solution about, I couldn’t help but smile.  This must be happening in offices everywhere.  A definite ripe judgment is in order from The Relationship Judge.

The Facts:  Alexis works in a consulting office with about 25 colleagues sitting in an open floor environment.  There are no cubicles, no offices, just 2 conference rooms at the end of a small hallway to be used for group meetings only.  Her manager, her manager’s manager and two of her direct reports all sit within 10 feet of her.  She has daily, intensive conference calls where she provides business updates to multiple people on the phone and answers questions.  The other part of her job involves typing up narratives of the feedback she receives on these calls.

Listening to the chit chat around her is extremely distracting by itself, but Alexis notes one particular nuisance.  “Max,” a Senior Vice President on a different team in the consulting department, shows up to work about 30 minutes later than everyone else.  He then personally greets each and every one of the 25 colleagues with a loud, “Good Mooorning!” and chats for at least another 30 minutes with anyone who will listen on anything and everything – often while Alexis is on these conference calls.  Max also has these extremely irritable sounds that come out of his mouth.  Sometimes it’s repeated sighing.  Other times it’s throat-clearing.  Yawning.  It’s always drawn out, seemingly unnecessary and overly dramatic.

When confronted, he blames it on allergies, but it is persistent.  The worst part of Max’s open floor plan behavior is that he talks extremely loud on the phone, particularly when he gets excited about something.  Several members of the team, including Alexis, have asked him to tone it down a bit, but if anything, it’s gotten worse.  Alexis has tried noise-canceling ear phones, listening to music and a bunch of other tricks to block out the noise but it hasn’t gotten any better.   She’s mentioned the issue to her manager, who is friends with Max, and got laughed off.  She also was annoyed enough to mention it to the outsourced Human Resources department who claim to have spoken to Max, to no avail.

The Question: What do you do about a senior manager or any colleague who is beyond inconsiderate when it comes to office etiquette in an open floor plan?  What should Alexis to do block out the noise when on a conference call or needing some quiet to concentrate?

The Relationship Judge Says: What a pain in the ass, Alexis!  There’s no way to sugar coat what a jerk this Max guy is.  Every office has a Max, by the way.  Someone just completely in their own world who marches to the beat of their own drum.  That’s what every office based comedy has ever been written about.  It sounds like you tried doing all the right things – going to Max, going to your manager, engaging HR.  If repeating these routes doesn’t yield anything, you may need to explore your options.  Can you ask HR for a different open floor location and would that help?  Can you make your conference calls from one of those conference rooms or a different floor?

I have no idea if something like this could ever be implemented, but I’ll tell you a story which may give you an idea.  In 4th grade, my best friend, Jaime Margolin, sat in front of this girl, Heather, who hummed constantly.   Heather hummed all morning and afternoon no matter what the subject they were being taught, no matter if the teacher was giving a lesson at the front of the classroom, if a movie was being shown or a test being taken.  The humming drove Jaime insane.  At last, Jaime could take no more.  She told Heather the humming MUST stop and Heather responded that she didn’t know what Jaime was talking about.  The humming continued.

Jaime pulled our teacher, Mrs. Krueger, aside and revealed the problem.  Mrs. Krueger pulled out a piece of construction paper and in big magic marker colors made Jaime a sign that read, “HEATHER, PLEASE STOP HUMMING!”  She asked Jaime to put this sign on the back of her chair whenever she heard Heather humming.  This actually worked.  I don’t think Heather even realized that what was coming out of her was actually a sound. Maybe she thought it was only in her brain.  Bottom line – it was more of a self awareness issue. Perhaps Max needs a serious intervention.  Can a couple of colleagues, who may be equally annoyed collectively, say something?  Can you make a sign that says, “Shhhhh, I’m on a conference call!” and hold it up during your meetings?  I hate to think that 4th grade rules may apply again in the office world, but this could help you out.

iPod headphones may do the trick and there are lots of great Apps now that deliver “white noise.”  I downloaded one a few months ago to drown out the annoying people who talk on their cell phones on the commuter trains.  So cool to listen to a crackling fire, beach waves or a rainstorm while smushed in against 75 other people in a train.

If you’d like to try the passive-aggressive approach (which is always self satisfying, even if momentary), the next time you’re on a call and Max is acting up again, press “Mute” and say something really loud like, “Sorry what?  I’m sorry I still can’t hear you – what did you say?  Oh yeah, I apologize, that (voice / sound / sigh) you hear is a colleague in our office.  Yeah, I’m sorry it’s so loud, I will ask him to be quieter.”

If he doesn’t hear you give this dramatic monologue, somebody should, and at least you’ll have a reason (even if fake) to approach him after the call.  Overall, I think you’ve got to get your manager to do something or find a way to adapt.  If these don’t work, I highly recommend that you buy a Powerball ticket and keeping your fingers crossed.

Your Turn: Do you guys work with an inconsiderate colleague?  How do you cope?  Do you have any effective tricks of the trade to either quiet the person or block out the noise?

Have a great weekend.  I think The Husband and I might attempt some holiday shopping at some point.  Wish us luck.  Until next time, please “Like” my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/OfficeStace) or “Follow” me on Twitter (@OfficeStace).

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Comments

  1. I think it’s not anyone’s fault, except the person who decided no one should have actual offices. Whoever made the floor plan is at fault. Obviously this is part of this guy’s personality and no one can change that. Who would want someone to stop being theirself? It’s what makes people unique. It would be just fine if he were in his own office with the door closed, but I think it’s definitely out of your hands. You can’t ask them to renovate.

    • AnnoyedHereToo says:

      Well, I partially believe this to be true.I have a cubicle setup where a senior person across the cubicle has this tendency to bang the desk and keep humming songs almost through out the day.Maybe, we can deal with the humming, but the banging is terrible. Many people have told him to be a bit silent, but he doesn’t.He was in a different section of the same office where maybe people were ok with all of this and he thinks it is not his fault he got transported here.All said, I just feel he is not a kid and must behave a bit responsibly.

  2. Goodness, it’s horrible to try to get work done and then someone comes in wanting to shake everyone’s hand and chit chat! (ugh)

    I’ve had that experience. I requested to begin work earlier (6:30 am) (and leave earlier) which was granted. I had at least a good 2 hours of solid work before anyone else arrived. (ouf)

    Not sure this will help Alexis, but I certainly sympathize.

  3. bbbeaver: trying to add your comment. The spam filter was working overdrive – comments should work now. THANKS

    I disagree with the above comment that you cannot do anything to change Max’s annoying behaviour. Jaime was able to successfully do so on the good advice of her teacher, and this method is right out of Psychology 101 called operant conditioning. The inappropriate behaviour gets altered by its consequences.
    I would suggest that Alexis get together with some of her office mates to compile a list of these annoying behaviours. Then Alexis can ask for a meeting with her manager and Max and hopefully a couple of her supporters. Alexis can then act as spokesperson to outline the specific behaviours of Max that are affecting their well-being at doing their jobs. That’s step 1. Step 2 is then to state in a calm manner how she/the group feels in relation to what they are observing with respect to these behaviours (e.g., anger and frustration at not being able to concentrate on one’s work). Step 3 is then to spell out the needs/values/desires that are creating those feelings (e.g., wanting to be able to focus one’s attention on the work involved during conference calls). The 4th step is to then spell out the concrete actions that are being requested in order to improve the work environment for all. Buy a few bicycle horns from the dollar store for the group of supporters. Mention that if Max gets too loud or excited outside of the break room then the group will respond by blowing a horn. If the behaviour persists then the horn blowing will continue to bring attention to the undesired behaviour. Then quickly end the meeting showing calmness (showing irritation just escalates the tension). Keep the meeting short and to the point. In the beginning it will be noisy but soon Max will begin to see there are consequences to his behaviour and it will change. Also, when he is in the break room talking excitedly about his life give him a smile to reward him for appropriately expressing his exuberance for life.
    Okay…..the 4 steps are : (1) observation
    (2) feeling
    (3) needs
    (4) request
    Be specific. Make sure you are identifying feelings and not identifying criticisms. Be specific about the behaviours and not generalities about the person. What is it that you and your co-workers need in order to do your work more effectively in light of the unwanted behaviours. Make a request and then leave it up to Max to either go along with the request or not. He has the choice to make. However, by spelling out a consequence for not doing the request and then actually following up with the consequence you are then taking action……it will change. Now go blow your own horn!

  4. Thanks, Stace……..you got the job done! I wish you coulda seen the Bachelor Canada series which just ended this past week………we needed your colourful insights……Canadian Ben (aka Brian Smith) was heading to choose Courtenay (aka Whitney) again but she turned weirder than weird so he was just left with one gal at the end (Bianka) and it all seems true blue love….they almost eloped.
    I think Wally should be a Wedding Crasher at Ashley and JP’s wedding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! After the exchange of rings at the altar Wally could prance up the rose petalled aisle with two red roses in his mouth to offer to the happy couple!

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