Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling an Annoying Co-Worker

I'm starting to get more questions in my inbox, and more of the question-writers are saying I can post the question and answer on my blog. Some question writers are even requesting I post the question and answer, no doubt because they realize that my readers are all super smart and will have great ideas. So I've decided to start an occasional "Ask Cloud" series. I considered calling it "Ask the Cloud" since the questions are as much for you as for me... but then I decided that sounded pretty egotistical, like I'm not just Cloud, but the Cloud.

The first in the series was actually my Having it All: The Logistics post, and my recent Advice for a Grad Student post fits the category, too, so I've gone back and tagged those two posts with the "ask cloud" label.

And here is the next installment, from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. I've made a few tweaks to the email to protect her anonymity, but I promise I have not changed the meaning.


I have a co-worker, who I share an office with, whose behavior I find more and more grating. She's good at her job, it's more of some of her personal behavior that really gets to me. She eats at her desk (which I'm fine with), but she chews VERY loudly to the point where it's a distraction and it's all I can hear. She also…um…burps and farts throughout the day, which can get a bit disgusting. She also has a habit of talking very loudly to herself a lot, so half the time I don't know if she's trying to engage me in conversation. She also intrudes on my conversations, adding peanut gallery-type comments, when I'm on the phone or am meeting with someone in our office, and likes to make comments and/or laughs about what's on my computer (especially if I'm having lunch and am therefore just surfing the net or whatever).

I might rip my hair out if I keep having to deal with of this. But, I have no idea what to do. She does NOT take any sort of confrontation well. Once, she left our door open over night, and I told her (not even…I just said I noticed our door was left open, and did she remember closing it, and maybe it was the cleaners or something), and she got instantly defensive and saying stuff like "oh, who cares anyway?" (well, I care!). I've seen her in other confrontations as well, and she takes it horribly. So, I don't think I can talk to her directly…but it would be really weird going over her head and talking to our supervisor about this.

I try to leave the office when she's eating, but she eats at such random times, and throughout the day, that I can't manage that. I also no longer have meetings in our office, which can get annoying since I have to book rooms.

I don't know what else to do. Help!


Ah, the joys of the shared office/open plan office! Management talks about their supposed benefits for collaboration, but never about how these arrangements can make you despise your colleagues....

I'm going to answer this more from a "what I would do" standpoint than a "how to get management to solve this" standpoint, because I wouldn't take this problem to your management, at least not yet.

Realistically, there is very little a supervisor can do about these problems that you could not do yourself, so if you go directly to management, you would risk coming off as someone who wants to avoid tough conversations, which is not a good impression to make on your boss. If you have a specific solution in mind, and you don't have the authority to implement it, then it makes sense to go to your supervisor. Otherwise, I'd try to solve it on my own.

I would also think carefully about which problems I wanted to bring up, and what I could reasonably expect my colleague to change. Sometimes, there are crappy situations in a shared office arrangement that are just part of the overall crappiness of the shared office, and trying to change them will just bring about new and even crappier problems.

I certainly feel your pain. Before I was moved to my current location at work, I had the misfortune of sitting in a cubicle near two guys who were doing a cleansing diet. I learned far more than I wanted to know about the state of their bowels, but they weren't really doing anything wrong, and if I'd tried to ask them to stop, it would probably have had a negative impact on my working relationship with them.

I think you are facing three distinct problems: the noise problem, the smell problem, and the interrupting of conversations problem.

I would use headphones to deal with the noise problem. You might be able to have a graceful conversation about your coworker about trying to curb her habit of talking to herself, but I cannot think of a graceful way to have a conversation about the noise she makes while eating. Ask yourself: what would you be asking her to do? Is this something she is likely to be able to control? I don't think she can control the noise she makes while eating- at least not without a huge effort. So I'd set up a Pandora account or bring in some music or just get some noise cancelling headphones, and block out the noise from her eating and also from the almost-conversations.

It is unfortunate that you have to block the noise instead of stopping it, but that does seem to be the expectation these days.  For better or for worse, headphones are the standard answer to noise in modern workplaces. I've asked for a nice wireless pair for my birthday, in preparation for my upcoming move back into a cubicle. You can experiment with different types of music and find the type that is best for work. During the Great Cleansing Diet of 2011, I discovered that female singer/songwriters work well for me, and I currently have a nice Pandora station built around Sinead Lohan, Vienna Teng, and Tristan Prettyman that is my go to mix for at work.

The burping and farting is tougher. I don't think I'd want to confront someone on this, either- I mean, what would I be suggesting the person do? Bolt up and dash out to the bathroom whenever gas strikes? I think this is another conversation that has almost no hope of going well. If the smell was too bad to just ignore,  I think I'd take a page from medieval times and douse a handkerchief in a smell I like or bring in a little ball of potpourri, and keep that on hand to discretely breath through when the smell in the office got to me. Perhaps this is one benefit of a cubicle farm over shared offices- smells dissipate pretty quickly.

The final issue, though, I think I'd try to discuss with her. I know you said she deals poorly with confrontation, but that's just tough, because she's a grown up at work not a two year old at day care, so she'll have to deal with a conversation. You can (and probably should) continue to book a room for meetings, as a good will gesture. I think a short, impromptu conversation in your office is OK, but for anything longer, and certainly for anything planned, I'd book a meeting room. I know it is a pain, but perhaps she finds your meetings as disruptive as you find her talking to her computer. And, more importantly, you can use this to tactfully bring up the topic of interruptions.

I'd say something like this: "I've noticed that it disrupts your work when I have meetings in the office, so I'll schedule meeting rooms whenever I can. However, I cannot avoid taking the occasional phone call in the office, and I have a hard time concentrating on the call when you interject into it. I know you can't help but hear what I'm saying, but could you please wait until the call is over to talk to me about it?"

Hopefully, that would open up a conversation about boundaries and you guys could then negotiate a work environment that works for both of you. If it doesn't work out, you could ask your manager about the possibility of moving, but that is only likely to be an option if there is an equivalent or less-desirable location to move to. As a manager, I would definitely try to find you a work location that works better for you- but I might not have much latitude to do so. There are often strict rules about who gets first choice on office assignments, and in my experience, making exceptions to those rules causes more problems than it solves.

That's all I have. I don't think there is any easy way to deal with any of these problems- and problems like this are unfortunately a fact of life in workplaces that are moving away from offices to cubicles or even completely open workspaces.

Readers- anyone out there have other suggestions?


  1. I am currently reading "Quiet" (the book about the power of introverts) and there's a whole section about how open concept offices make you hate your co-workers!

    I have nothing to add on the problem, but the connection gave me a chuckle this morning.

  2. Anonymous4:56 AM

    "the" isn't egotistical... it's, um... well, there are two grumpies, so ask grumpies doesn't sound right...

    I pretty much agree with how Cloud has broken down the issues and her potential solutions to them. Headphones, get away from the smell, talk about the part that's directly bothering your work.

    I've always used headphones. There are some really nice ones out there that completely block out sound and are comfortable (even if you're not playing music).

    If you want to move cubicles, put a word in with whoever is in charge of that. Who knows, you may end up being able to switch eventually. One of my colleagues changes offices every 2-4 years for no reason that I can discern.

    With the door situation, even though she got mad, did she get over it? Did she stop leaving the door open? Temporary conflict might be worth it for longer-term silence while you're trying to work. You could lessen the impact by complimenting her while asking her to stop interrupting-- she's so much more interesting and clever that it gets you off track when you're trying to concentrate. Or you could just be professional and direct.

  3. Anonymous5:00 AM

    Thanks for posting my question! I agree that there's no conversation to be had about the eating noises and smells...that's something i need to find a solution for. Headphones seem to be the obvious answer for the noises.

    As for the interruptions, bringing it up in a more one-off way is probably better than having "a conversation" about the issue in general. so, will try and do that

    Looking forward to seeing what other readers suggest!

  4. Alexicographer1:27 PM

    I think Cloud's advice is spot on. My office currently sits right next to a large construction site and while I am blessed to have a private office with a window, the noise from the site is a big problem for me. The beeping that large trucks make when backing up that is intended to be so annoying that you cannot possibly ignore it? Is spot on. Rather than headphones, I am using earplugs, which I find work quite well (not quite well enough for the beeping, but in fact I am finding them VERY nice in terms of blocking out general office noise. Plus, they do send a clear "I am not available to talk right now" message (there is no risk someone might think one is just listening to music until a chance to converse comes along). I'd think it would be possible to adopt them in a neutral sort of way, i.e. "Check these out, I tried them out while working at home [in a coffee house, whatever] and I find that the quiet they provide me really helps me focus on my work!" or words to that effect.

    Of course if you prefer headphones, great. But earplugs are another option.

  5. I wonder if the questioner is one of my previous coworkers, because I swear I had this same exact conversation last year :)

    One really good piece of advice I've gotten from a manager when I was just starting out was never to bring a problem to your manager without one (or more) potential solutions to discuss. And only bring those problem/solutions if you need his/her help to implement them.

    So as sucky as it is, I think the talking thing is one you need to discuss openly with the coworker directly, even if this person is horrible at "confrontation".

    If that doesn't help much, I'd minimize my time in the shared office if that's possible, or stagger my hours so the overlap is minimized. Can you work from a conference room, or is there a "shared desk" space for folks dropping in, or maybe even work from home sometimes? Is there someone on your team who might be out on some kind of long term leave and you can camp in their office? (I know I let folks use my solo office during mat leave as refuge from office-sharing).

    Agreed with the others that the eating/bodily functions thing is not something you can really bring up.

    Lots of sympathy here. I do not work well in a shared office. (Cubes are ok, but not a small room with 2 people.)

  6. I did my PhD in a cubicle farm, and headphones were a must, so I don't think noise is a very big issue. I love that they have the "Don't bother!" effect as well.

    However, I am not sure I agree with leaving the bodily grossness alone. In grad school, a few cubicles down from me was a dude who smelled really bad; it didn't usually bother me as I was far from him (unless he'd decide to walk past... gaaaah), but it did bother the people right around him and they eventually sent a representative to talk to him. He eventually started taking care of it. I also had to have the hygiene talk with two different students in my own group at some point or another, because other students were complaining and, in one instance, stopped coming to the lab completely after it started smelling like something had died in there. It's not a pleasant conversation to have for either party, but it's important. If the colleague is being gross (and let's face it, women are held to a much higher standard in terms of how gross they are allowed to be) maybe she needs to be confronted, as it will benefit her in the long run.

    I had a friend who hated her labmate who "smacked his lips when the ate." She would get livid, that's how much it bugged her. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and something that may be a completely a non-issue where you lived before becomes an issue now.

    I live in a veritable frathouse with 4 guys (1 big and 3 medium to little) where burping and farting is a source of much amusement. I can tell you that even little boys can learn to control how much and where they burp and fart (or to not control). I know I would certainly be bothered by a person right next to me burping and farting all the time (unless they are the adorable toddler that I gave birth to; but even so, there are limits).

    I wonder if Cloud's reader and reader's office mate were two guys, what would happen. I wonder if they would either crack each other up by burping and farting in sync, or if one would just tell the other "Dude... Your constant burping and farting is bugging me. Go easy on the fiber. Or whatever. But it's not cool. You're stenching up the place."

    It is also possible that I am just being a douche, as is my wont.

    I would have no problem bringing up talking/interrupting. (Trust me, once you've had to tell someone they smell, all other workplace confrontations are a piece of cake.)

    If talking doesn't work, I would ask to be moved into another office/cubicle.

    1. Anonymous4:04 AM

      Given the cultural whatever around women and bodily noises and emissions, my guess would be that she cannot help it. That's very different than having regular contests. If it were too much perfume that was the problem (something more common with women), I think that could be addressed.

    2. Dunno, I would still bring it up. If it bothers you, it bothers you. Maybe she grew up in a culture where burping is no big deal or is a definite positive (there are plenty of those). Maybe she grew up a tomboy with 7 brothers and thinks nothing of farting/burping. Maybe she thinks she's stealth, that no one notices. Sometimes people are really in denial about what others are able to perceive.

  7. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Question asker, here, again.

    Thanks everyone for your advice and suggestions. Working elsewhere could be a solution (we do share an actual office, not in a cubefarm or anything). I work at a university. So, even though our group does not have additional office space, there is plenty of space on campus to work (especially now that the semester is over). It's also easy for me to work from home. Thankfully, my job is very mobile.

    I'm pretty sure she has digestive issues which lead to the bodily function noises (she's mentioned something about it), so even if I do talk to her about it, it's not something she'd be able to change. It's just really gross to listen to/smell.

    GMP - I'm very much like your friend actually have an emotional/physical reaction to loud eating noises (I actually get quite agitated and feel like I need to run from the room). It happens when my husband eats too. I was told by a doctor friend (who also has the same reaction) that an over-sensitivity to sound is called misophonia ( --- I still don't know how to cope with it though. So, this obviously makes her eating (which is already loud/rude) more grating for me.

  8. Anonymous10:19 AM

    I would get totally passive aggressive about the farting, the next time she does it make a big deal about the smell. Do you smell that? What is that? Is someone near us eating fish? Did I forget to take my sushi lunch home? Maybe I should have maintenance check our vents I keep getting these wafts of a horrible smell. I would never actually say "stop freaking farting" I would just make a big deal of noticing the smell every time she did it. You can hold a fart in, you don't die from it.

    As for the interruptions of meetings/phone calls I would turn the tables. I would say, "Hey I have a meeting with person A coming up, you think you can ignore us while we meet or do you want me to book a room." Implicit in the statement is the both the "ignore" as in don't interrupt and the "I am taking you into consideration".

    I suppose if you really want to be mean you could get some dead cockroaches and put them in her food drawer around her computer and then when she finds them suggest that maybe eating and storing food in your office needs to stop. I don't think I would have the balls to do this but it is fun to imagine.

    1. Anonymous4:58 AM

      LOL! I have totally thought of doing the first one. The second one might work - its to the point but doesn't make a huge deal. Pretty sure the third is off the table :)

  9. In my previous company, I was sitting next to two women whom I will not drop the names, they're beautiful, but they are crazy as hell. They always talk about gossips about our other coworkers, they eat too loud at their tables during break time with the mess reaching my table. God they are women with no manners, the problem was they made story about me and it really made me so angry. I approach them directly and say straight to their faces if they have any problems about me. They just laugh. It made a serious commotion in our office.After few more months I decided to leave that company, but I'm happy I did that.

    To those two women I did rate you in this website:

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