To work in an office is to spend a good chunk of your waking hours surrounded by people you never set out to spend time with.
Q: The guy next to me in the office cracks pistachios all day. It’s so annoying, I feel as if I’m sitting next to a chipmunk. Others have told him it’s disgusting to see the shells all over his desk, but to no avail. Any suggestions for getting him to eat his snacks at home, or more quietly, or not at all?
Oh, and also: Some of my co-workers (male and female) clip their fingernails at work! Just the sound of this makes me nauseous. How does one handle such unsanitary behavior? — Milwaukee
A: To work in an office is to spend a good chunk of your waking hours surrounded by people you never set out to spend time with. So I feel your irritation, but unfortunately, there’s no magic technique to change another person’s habits. You, or someone, must talk to the pistachio fan. But berating him, or telling him he’s disgusting, is not likely to be persuasive. He might think it’s an over-the-top joke that he’ll dismiss, or he’ll be insulted and ignore you.
Explain that you understand he enjoys his snack, but you hope that he will understand that the sound really distracts you. Assure him that there is nothing personal in this. And perhaps suggest a compromise: Could he try a quieter snack, or maybe limit his nut intake to certain times of day? Be polite and respectful, but firm.
The alternative is to get over it — which is what I’d suggest on the fingernail-clipping issue. I can’t believe that this happening officewide, around the clock. So if you approach someone’s desk and find a clipper incident in progress, come back later. If someone in earshot starts clipping, take a coffee break.
In both cases: Consider how you would want to be approached if someone else had a problem with some habit of yours that you figure is none of their business. If you can come up with a reasonable request, give it your best shot. If not, let it go. Sometimes, to work in an office is to compromise on such matters.
Bad idea for boss to be in gossipy work clique
Q: I work at an agency with a stressful caseload, but where most of us are committed to doing our best for our clients. As in all workplaces, friendship groups have formed, sometimes just on the job, but sometimes beyond that. The problem is that our executive director has chosen to hang out with one such group in particular for lunch and occasionally after hours.
He not only hears, but also engages in and promotes, gossip about employees outside this clique, and he makes professional decisions about who gets certain responsibilities based on that gossip.
An administrator who is lower on the chain of command has discussed this with him, but the executive director sees no problem: He feels his opinions are correct. Yet he does nothing to get to know staff members outside his group to find out what they are really like.
Our other middle managers say that it is inappropriate to go to his boss and that to do so would make us look bad. But we don’t think we really have enough to go to human resources. And we have been told that revealing to gossip victims what is being said about them would be “disloyal.” So we are left feeling there is nothing we can do.
It all feels like being in middle school; morale is suffering. People who work hard don’t want to feel they’ll be penalized if they don’t “hang out” with a certain group. — Anonymous
A: Workplace cliques are common, but it’s definitely not a smart move for bosses to participate in them — let alone allow group scuttlebutt to guide their decisions. If that’s actually happening, it’s even more troubling for management to discourage attempts to raise concerns. There’s nothing inappropriate or “disloyal” about drawing attention to behavior that’s potentially bad for the organization.
I don’t understand your hesitation to at least have a discussion with responsible people in human resources. There’s certainly enough here to do so. But as always, how you frame the matter is crucial.
Hurt feelings about getting left out of the lunch bunch or karaoke night are not the company’s problem. Tangible examples of decisions that are having a negative impact — and could have been avoided if the boss’s views weren’t skewed by a pack of cronies — are very much the company’s problem. Human resources, and management generally, should want to know if employee X has been given responsibility Y even though employee Z is an objectively better choice.
I don’t think the top boss is the person to start with, but the suggestion that you should avoid bringing such concerns to the head of the organization sounds fishy. That person should want this resolved, too. Make sure you focus on what it all means for the enterprise, not on who likes whom — or, unfortunately, you’re the one who will end up sounding like a middle-schooler.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at email@example.com.