Some people, probably most of us, are best enjoyed in small doses. And that’s what makes harmony in the workplace a real challenge. Forty hours a week working with a person who annoys you is a pain in the tuchas.
About a year ago I began posting the Fair Exchange columns on my website. This past week I did a quick analysis of which columns get the most interest — and it isn’t the ones that I fuss over and rewrite several times. The winner (by a landslide) is “Obnoxious employee? — deal with it before his co-workers do.”
I shouldn’t be surprised.
When you work in human resources there are perennial problems that you can’t easily escape. Difficult people, from the mildly annoying to the obnoxious — and the problems they create — are a large part of the HR professional’s day. The “Obnoxious” column (at bit.ly/19nSkZd) focused on the person who is intent on pushing people to the edge — someone who didn’t care if his actions upset the workplace. He was not a nice person.
Annoying people are quite often perfectly nice people. They have no idea their habits or personal quirks are irritating. The jokester thinks his co-workers enjoy his jokes. The overly solicitous co-worker really cares and wants to know all about your mother’s hip surgery. And who wouldn’t want to hear the story of a co-worker’s vacation (or cute grandchild, dog, illness, or plumbing troubles) over and over again?
People who bring up politics, pass judgment on another’s religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs), lecture or joke on any sensitive or controversial topic should know they will cause tension and be disruptive. The boss has every right to insist that employees focus on work and stay away from any topic that could cause tempers to flare or people to feel harassed for their beliefs. Most people realize that the workplace has to be a neutral zone.
But what do you do with the co-worker you have to listen to all day? He may be on the phone doing his job — but he is loud. You can’t get away from his voice and you have to hear the same phrases, puns and stories over and over and over. He is working hard, he is friendly and helpful — and he is driving you nuts.
Supervisors are obligated to speak to employees who bully, harass or provoke dissension or anger. But most supervisors don’t feel obligated to tell employees who are annoying others that their behavior is hurting their work relationships. And the shame of it is that an employee who does good work may miss out on opportunities at work because of a personal quirk he doesn’t realize is a problem for others.
The gossips, complainers and people with never-ending family dramas are probably unaware they would help themselves by talking less. The overly perky morning people who insist on a cheerful greeting and short chat at the start of the day don’t realize that some co-workers avoid them.
The tuneless hummers, whistlers — and even good singers — can usually accept a hint. If that hint doesn’t work, it may take everyone else whistling or singing along and they might get the point.
The person who takes tools, files or staplers without asking doesn’t usually respond well to warnings. But if co-workers do a bit of turnabout and pilfer and poach from his work space several times a day he might get the message.
The know-it-all is part of every work group. They want their expertise and knowledge recognized and the best way to do that is to make good use of them. But make sure you ask them to provide a bit of documentation or give you written instructions so you won’t need to bother them again. Make as much use of their vast knowledge as possible.
But how do you handle people who are off-putting because of the odor they put out? Telling someone to clean up the stinky mess they left in the microwave is not hard to do; telling someone they have a breath or body odor problem is difficult. Most of us steer clear of scent issues.
I once worked with a group of people who drank cup after cup of coffee all day long, resulting in some horrendous coffee breath. The only way I could battle back when I had to meet with them was to chew a great wad of the most potent and powerful chewing gum I could find — Big Red cinnamon gum. Which of us should be labeled “annoying” in this story? (When co-workers offer you gum or mints on a regular basis consider this: Sometimes a mint is just a mint; and sometimes a mint is a polite hint.)
Workplace camaraderie requires give and take, a little creativity, ignoring what can’t be easily changed and recognizing that sometimes the annoying person in the room is you — maybe even me!
Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at email@example.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.