Sometimes resolving a workplace annoyance means a blunt, and embarrassing, conversation with someone who means no harm. Here’s how.
Q: I work in a small office. My boss has made a habit of bouncing a tennis ball every time she is on the phone, which is a lot. It’s very annoying. Lately, she’s also gotten into the step-tracking fitness craze, so she walks around the office on her cellphone bouncing that damned ball. There is no refuge. How do I deal with this without causing any animosity? — Anonymous
Q: I work in a 10-person branch of a large organization. Three of us work in a small space. One co-worker often has a strong, unpleasant body odor that permeates our space. He is completely oblivious to this. This has been a problem for years. Complicating matters is that we are very fond of him, and he is by nature emotionally fragile. How can we discuss this with him without causing crushing embarrassment? — Susan
Q: My office is plagued by a colleague’s constant throat clearing, coupled with an odd, hiccup noise. Everyone is distracted and annoyed by this. But because it may be a compulsion or tic, and therefore a medical issue, no one has asked him to stop, if he even could. How can we deal with this? — Anonymous
A: The Workologist receives many inquiries related to “annoying” co-workers — people who mean no harm but have some habit or characteristic that others find bothersome. The examples above collectively reflect the core question that’s always in the background: Is there some way to handle this without an unpleasant conversation?
The short answer is no. But a more detailed answer may help anyone facing a similar situation determine how, exactly, to proceed. So for assistance, I talked to several experts who have thought about handling such conversations, each from a distinct perspective.
One approach can be ruled out immediately.
“Notes on the windshield are not acceptable,” says Edward Yost, HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade organization.
An anonymous missive may not make its point, and will most likely leave the target feeling embarrassed and alienated.
Start by considering the situation from the point of view of whoever is bugging you. Imagine that some workaday facet of your existence gets on everyone else’s nerves.
“How would you want someone to bring it to your attention?” Yost said.
In the case of a cough that could indeed be a medical problem, the person is probably as aware of the issue as you are and would stop if he could. It might be more productive, then, to think in terms of how to mitigate the effects — wearing headphones, talking to a manager about how your desks are arranged, and so on.
Next, figure out whether the matter should be handled by you or by a manager or human resources department. In general, you should try to address an annoyance — as opposed to something like harassment — yourself.
“If you go to your manager first, she’s very likely to say, ‘Have you tried talking to this person?’” said Alison Green, author of “Ask a Manager”and the work-advice site of the same name.
But there are exceptions, she added, and the body odor example probably qualifies. Whether you’re addressing an awkward issue as a manager or a peer, acknowledge the awkwardness up front, said Jayson Dibble, a professor at Hope College who studies social interaction. Then underscore that you value the person you’re talking to, and emphasize statements that begin with “I” rather than “you.”
“This is a statement of the behavior you’re noticing, followed by how that behavior makes you feel, along with any personal consequences resulting from the behavior,” he said. “’I feel frustrated’ or ‘I’ve noticed’ — you’re not blaming the other person, you’re describing the way you feel.”
Green suggested a related tactic.
“Couch the problem in terms of your own idiosyncrasies,” she said. “’For some reason, that bouncing-ball noise makes it hard for me to concentrate.’”
That signals that you’re working together to solve an issue.
When the annoying behavior is from someone who outranks you, you’ll need to exercise additional judgment. If the boss is thin-skinned, you may have to let it go. If you think you can discuss the problem, emphasize the business-related implications. It should be more “this hurts our productivity” and less “this really bugs me,” as Yost put it. Think in advance about the exact words you’ll use, and consider practicing with someone you trust.
The good news, Yost added, is that it often turns out that people appreciate it when an issue they weren’t aware of, but can remedy, is respectfully brought to their attention. But that is no guarantee.
And as Green wisely observed, “annoying” problems are “part of the package of working with other humans.” So instead of obsessing, decide whether the issue is worth a difficult conversation.
“If you’re not willing to do that,” she said, “it might be worth asking yourself how much the thing really matters to you.”