From coast to coast, Canadians in different sectors of the economy write to me to find out how to deal with their workmates’ disrupting sounds, smells and sights. Not only do these habits get on their nerves, they also affect their work concentration and ultimately impact their productivity along with their performances.
No matter what the workplace annoyance is, here is a process to help you manage it.
Establish if it is random or regular
If it occasionally occurs, put on your ear plugs, take a break or go on a walk about to stretch your legs.
If it is a pattern, prepare notes on how it affects your work:
- a smell makes you nauseous and you cannot work;
- a rhythmic tapping gives you a headache and you cannot concentrate;
- constant gossip makes you lose trust in the team;
- repeated conversations outside of your cubicle keep you from focusing on tasks to achieve your deadlines;
- not cleaning up after one’s self, makes you feel disrespected and diminishes your association with the team.
Determine if it is a bendable behaviour or a chronic compulsion
Pen clicking, bubble gum popping, bouncing a ball to relax, or chewing loudly on crunchy foods are all habits that can be corrected with a courteous conversation from a trusted colleague.
A condition like constant throat clearing or coughing could be medical and difficult to stop, even when carefully addressed by a caring workmate. It may be embarrassing, alienating, and create anxiety that will increase the frequency.
Choose a method and a messenger
Anonymous notes are never the solution. They create paranoia and make the person feel unapproachable. Be empathetic and reverse the roles. What if you were “that guy” or “that gal” and saw that yellow sticky note on your desk? As a former human resources manager, I can assure that most employees are not aware that they are annoying you. When they find out that their body odour or another behaviour is being talked about behind their back, they are embarrassed and ashamed.
Sending an email may be perceived as passive aggressive and will create uneasiness the next time you encounter the person. Plus, an email or even a memo can quickly go viral. Don’t do it.
Decide if you are a friend or a foe
If you are not on congenial terms with that coworker, do not have the conversation yourself, it could be perceived as a confrontation. Ask for the support of trusted colleague, go to your superior or the human resources department.
Converse or complain with the company in mind
If you are going to a superior or HR, focus on the problem and be objective.
- Don’t make moral judgments.
- Document and speak from your notes. This will show the seriousness of your concern.
- Be prepared to say why you are not addressing the situation yourself.
If you are close to the person, prepare empathetically and present privately.
- Do so in private and ideally not during the intensity of work, possibly during a break or at lunch.
- Be discreet. Don’t discuss the annoyance with other colleagues.
- Don’t address the habit in the heat of the moment.
- Have the intention of finding a solution.
- Be cognizant of your tone, it should be benevolent.
- Start the conversation by stating that what you have say is difficult. Add that if the roles were reversed you would want to know.
- State work related implications; productivity, concentration, client perception, etc.
- Don’t point fingers. Blame yourself. If you are comfortable with self-deprecating humour, make fun of your sensitivity.
- Observe and listen. If the person is receptive, thank them for their understanding. If the person states that they cannot stop, thank them for their confidence. Depending on your relationship propose to explore solutions together.
- Allow the person to retain their dignity. Continue to treat them as you had before the conversation.
If the disturbing habit is from your superior, only have the conversation yourself if you are certain that it will be well received, go to HR or follow the company’s communication policy.
If the behaviour is generalized on the team, like: tardiness for meetings, not cleaning up in the kitchen, not refilling or giving back borrowed supplies, suggest a group meeting to establish guidelines or a code of conduct.
Lastly, always monitor your own behaviour. Here is what I learned are the worst workplace disruptions:
- Talking from one cubicle to another
- Hallway chatter
- Repeatedly asking questions on something that has been explained
- Leaving dirty cups and plates on the desk
- Not cleaning up in the kitchen
- Chewing loudly
- Putting down others
- Pretending to work
- Constant sighing in exasperation and exhaustion
- Heating smelly foods
- Wearing too much perfume
If you have just mentally checked off two or three of the above workmate nuisances, correct your own behaviour before addressing others.
Lastly, discrimination, intimidation, lying or stealing require immediate attention. Not only do such unethical and sometimes illegal actions or comments affect you, but they also impact the whole company’s image. It requires immediate attention. Detail what you have observed or heard and present with precision.