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Facing the Awkward and Annoying at Work

One of the greatest benefits of working is the great relationships with co-workers that develop over time. But problems can arise when you are faced with tolerating a co-worker’s aggravating habit. Addressing those issues with co-workers can be painfully awkward. However, there are some ways to mitigate the awkwardness and tackle the annoying issues head on.

The Annoying Habit

Chewing ice, smacking gum, tapping of a pen…very small things, something you could 3341419492_ff1839e6f8_operhaps ignore once or twice. But for 40 hours a week…it will break down the strongest among us.

When it comes to annoying habits, I recommend the “nip it in the bud” approach. You are not doing yourself any favors by continuously brushing things under the rug. If some issues are left to fester unaddressed, the result may be that it comes out one day when you are just at your wits end and you explode with words that can damage a relationship.

In a calm voice, approach your co-worker, and let them know that their habit is bothering you. You may even want to acknowledge that it is a small thing, but that you hope they would still consider making a change (not doing it anymore) to accommodate you. Be gracious, but be direct and specific.

“Mary, I love working with you on our team, but there is just one small thing that I need to talk to you about. You often smack your gum loudly while you are working…and it’s very distracting to me because I can hear it at my desk. I know it’s a small thing, but when I am trying to concentrate on my work, sounds like this can be a big distraction for me. Do you think it would be possible for you to chew softly or try a different kind of candy?”

The Loud Talker

A loud talker can create a problem especially in a cubicle setting or in an open concept work space. It’s aggravating when the person is speaking in an overly loud tone on the phone, whether it is professional chatter with a client or a personal conversation with a friend. Equally frustrating is the loud talker who stops to speak to the person who sits beside you.

Loud talkers are generally not aware of how loud they are being. Again, you’ll need to be direct and specific. It will usually take multiple reminders to help them change – so don’t give up.

“Bob, we all know that you are great with our customers…but, you may not realize just how loudly you can get when you are talking to them on the phone. Since we have to work in cubes, and none of us has a door we can shut, do you think you can try to be mindful to keep your voice lower?”

Be timely – talk to that person as soon as they get off the phone – so that you have a specific example to discuss.

“Hey Mary, I wanted to mention something to you if you have a second? Sometimes I have a hard time concentrating on my work or even hearing myself think when you are on the phone – like just now with Mr. Brown, your voice was pretty loud…I’m not sure if you realized this?”

With the loud talker, continue to acknowledge that you know it is not intentional. Try asking if the loud talker would mind if you gave a gentle reminder – an agreed upon signal (such as tapping your ear) — when he/she is getting too loud. You may also want to point out that if it is aggravating coworkers, then it’s probably offending clients and professional contacts too.

The Chatterbox

One of the best ways to make the work day more pleasant is to occasionally engage in a little socializing with co-workers. Eventually, most of us end the conversation and turn back to our desks to get focused on work. There are some co-workers who don’t seem to know when it’s time to stop talking or they don’t seem to pick up on your subtle hints that you are done with the conversation (like the fact that you have stopped talking).

For a chronic chatterbox, start off conversations with a notice that you have short time. “Before you start telling me about the last night’s game, I just wanted to let you know I have to head out at 9:00 for a meeting so I won’t be able to talk too long.” It puts the talker on notice to try to keep things short, and then you won’t seem rude if you have to cut them off.

If you need to interrupt, do so with a positive statement. “I can’t believe you were able to make it to work after such a late night out – I’m impressed….but, I guess we better get to work now.”

You can also interrupt apologetically. “I’m sorry to have to cut you off, Mandy, but I am really under the gun to get this report done before noon.” A commitment to follow up later can also ensure that the friendship remains intact. “I’ll stop by your desk after lunch to hear the rest and to see your pictures!”

Being proactive with your chatty co-worker can be very helpful. Instead of waiting until he/she shows up at your desk in the morning, approach them in the break room or at their desk. This puts you in the position to leave, rather than trapped at your desk waiting for him/her to leave.

The Worst Smells

An offensive smell at work might be a co-worker’s lunch of leftover curried fish to eat at his desk or an employee who sprays perfume (too much) when she arrives each day. A bad smell in the work place needs to be addressed right away. It is most common in these situations that a co-worker very likely does not know that a problem exists. If her perfume makes your eyes water because it’s so strong or irritating – really, she may not know.

To approach a co-worker about an odor, you might want to try a humble approach. With a humble approach, you are asking them to make the change to accommodate you. For example, you can say something like “I know it may seem like a small thing, and maybe I am more sensitive than others….but….if you would be willing to…” You can even put the blame on allergies when it comes to heavy perfumes or other scented items a co-worker is using.

For a food odor, avoid criticizing your co-worker’s choice of food. Focus instead on the fact that it carries a strong aroma that lingers more so than other foods. Make some reasonable suggestions – perhaps he can eat lunch in a break room or outside at a picnic table, instead of in the work area.

When addressing these workplace annoyances, you’ll need to carefully choose an approach – depending on the situation, your personality, and your relationship with the other individual. Remember to be respectful, recognizing that it’s not easy to be the person receiving feedback. Honesty is important, but being respectful in the delivery of the message is also important. There is value in having a conversation about it when you plan it in advance – don’t wait to reach your breaking point.

Post by Cheron Smalls (COMM ’98). Cheron has over 15 years of experience as a Human Resources professional, and is currently the Human Resources Director for a large law firm based in Richmond, Virginia. Cheron is passionate about sharing career tips with others (especially recent grads!) and writing on both professional and family-oriented topics. Connect with Cheron on LinkedIn or follow her on Pinterest.

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