What Can We Do To Stop a Meddling Coworker?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to stop a coworker from meddling, interrupting and interfering in the work of others. 

Question:
I work in an office of around twenty people. One member of staff causes problems for the rest by constantly snooping and interfering. She eavesdrops on every conversation and feels the need to comment on matters that are no relation to her job or department. Every decision I or anyone else makes is questioned by her, despite the majority of matters having no effect on her.

It is driving us all insane as we have no privacy and are being questioned by a lower ranked member of staff on a daily basis. Our office manager turns a blind eye to these kind of things and avoids any form of dispute. Numerous polite requests for the person in question to mind her own business have been ignored. How can we handle this individual?

Response:
In summary, a coworker (female, I gather) asks questions and gives opinions about the work of others, to the point of interfering and being a work distraction. In the past you and others have “politely” asked her to mind her own business. I expect, if it was polite, it was just a hint—and she didn’t take it. You don’t say what her job title is, but you do mention that she is a lower ranked member of staff. That could mean less tenure or being a support position to the rest of you or having a job title that is considered lower in grade, or a combination.

Here are some things for you and the others to consider:

1. This is a reminder that some of the behaviors that are encouraged in career-building classes (show your interest and engagement) are the very behaviors that can create problems at work. The same thing goes for team-building efforts. There is a lot of talk about empowering employees, to the point of generating the very situation you’re describing. The truth is that not all members of any team have the same roles or tasks. Someone completely outside an area can provide a perspective, but it will not be based on knowledge or experience.

Human nature being what it is, if they have been sincerely asked for their input, it will usually be welcomed. If they try to push their way in, they are seen as pests who should be taking care of their own work. That may not be completely fair to an interested employee, but it is a reality of work in a busy office.

2. This also may be a case of an open-office, where people from several areas of the business have their work spaces, but by tacit agreement, they do not involve themselves in the work of other units or departments. Your coworker may have missed the “tacit agreement” part. She may never have even been told about her work boundaries. Unfortunately, it sounds as though it will be up to the rest of you to let her know about it. (Just make sure she is not being encouraged by some of you. If that is the case, they should be the ones to tell her that the back-and-forth about work is just between them.)

For example, one office with which I’m familiar has marketing spaces next to legal spaces. No one would think it appropriate for the marketing people to overhear a conversation about a legal issue and walk around the cubicles to suggest a better way to handle a lawsuit. However, a year or so ago a new  employee in Legal, peered over his cubicle after hearing a marketing phone call, to comment on it. If he had waited until another time, it would probably have gone over OK, but it gave the appearance that he was just sitting there taking it all in (which he probably was.)

The Marketing manager heard him and said, pleasantly, “I appreciate your interest, Kevin, but every department in this company is so different that except for things we’re mutually involved with, we only have time to pay attention to our own lanes. No offense, just wanted you to know.”  That was the end of it and they’re all amicable—and the new employee now understands the situation.

That “stay in your lane” concept is always a good one and can be used in a variety of ways.

3. Your coworker’s apparent motive and approach will make a big difference in your response. If she is outspoken most of the time and her comments imply that you don’t have the insights she has about the situation, that’s one thing. If she is pleasant otherwise and seems to just be trying to be part of things, that is something else.

I have also observed that in many offices at least one person at a lower level views themselves as the All-Knowing One about every other level. They listen and watch and question and comment and soon they have sufficient insight to engage in conversations about almost everyone’s work. If they use good judgment, this can be a positive thing, but if they don’t, it can make them very disliked. Sometimes it is done to build a career but often it is just wanting to elevate one’s role in an office.

Even though you can’t know exactly about her motivations, give it some thought. Does she seem to be trying to elevate her role past her current job title? Is she very talkative and just talks about anything she can find to talk about? Does she seem to think everyone is her friend and they like to hear her thoughts? When she was newly hired, did she handle these things appropriately? If so, when did it change? Is there some reason for that?

4. By now, everyone is probably so hyper-sensitized to the irritation of her questions and comments that the slightest thing is enough to give you the “Here we go again!” feeling. It’s very easy for an irritated bunch of people to go from being put upon to being mean-spirited. Your Office Manager may be picking up on that and feel that you are being excessive in your complaints and that the coworker is actually not doing anything wrong. Your documentation, which I’ll mention in a minute, may help that perception.

Is there anyone who doesn’t mind the coworker’s questions and comments? If not, why not? I ask that, because if all twenty coworkers have been troubled by her behavior, all of you could write to the Office Manager and the sheer bulk of concerns would get her attention. Twenty people griping mildly now and then won’t get results, but something organized probably would.

Someone must be keeping this going and it probably is one or more of your coworkers. This may be more your concern than theirs. Consider talking to them again, to find out their viewpoints and if they will support you if you attempt a direct effort to stop it. (If it’s like most places, they will not want to be anywhere around there when you do and will sympathize with her afterwards.)

5. If you liked her otherwise, I think you would find a way to tolerate her comments—and in fact, probably wouldn’t be offended by them at all. You’d be happy to chat about issues during the day and get her input. But, I’ll bet she has other qualities that are keeping people at arm’s length. Be aware of that, to remind you that it might not be her questions and comments that bother you, it’s just her.  There is probably nothing you can do about that. One thing is certain: As long as she is an employee everyone should at least be civil and friendly in appropriate ways, but civilly firm about not letting her be a source of distraction or frustration.

Be clear in your own mind about her job description and the effect of your work on hers. I worked in an office where several people complained that an “elderly” female employee (fifteen years younger than I am now!) was always second-guessing them and asking them about their deadlines, etc. Our manager got tired of hearing the subtle gripes to him and finally said, “Hey! She has to answer questions when you’re gone and she knows you’re always in hot water for forgetting things. So, if you don’t want her to ask you questions, do your work right.”

It may be that her work has nothing to do with yours and vice versa, but make sure she doesn’t think otherwise, based on her job description or directions from the Office Manager. If she works in a different department, as you mentioned, she may have a different supervisor or manager than you do. Your manager should be working with that one. If she won’t, you may need to ask if you can speak to that person…and that might get your manager’s attention.

6. If you are satisfied that you are correct to be irritated and frustrated, develop a plan and follow-through. The first step is to talk to your manager. Skipping this step can put you in a situation of being an aggressor and make you appear to be in the wrong.

1.) For a few days, keep a log of the times she has asked questions or commented on your work. Write down the exact words. Be able to show that, for example, she made twenty comments about your work, but no other employee commented on your work. Or, that she asked about something you and another employee were talking about on five occasions, but no other employee did so.

It is very important—as it has been all this time—that you (or anyone else who wants to stop her behavior) do not give into her requests for information. Don’t let her wear you down, so that eventually you listen to her advice or provide her with more material for next time. Stay non-committal. “It’s too complicated to explain right now.” “You aren’t involved with it, so you won’t be able to help.” “Not your problem.” “I don’t want to talk about it.” “It’s our group’s issue.” “Brenda’s the only one I have to explain this to, so there’s no point in asking me about it.” “This hasn’t got anything to do with your department anyway, so I’d rather not waste our time rehashing it.” “Why are you getting involved?” “Why is that something you need to know?” “Is there a reason you’re asking me about it”

As part of your documentation, be able to say that you did not answer her intrusive questions or give her the information she wanted but didn’t need.

2.) Show your manager the documentation and say that it is distracting and frustrating. That way you are not focusing on just being irritated, you are talking about an effect on work, which is the manager’s responsibility. Look at how much energy you have put into it already!

Tell your office manager that you intend to make an appropriate but direct comment to the coworker, but if that doesn’t work, you will come back to her in writing about it. Even if the office manager doesn’t want to get into the middle of conflict, she can’t easily ignore a written request to help you with a work distraction. Very few employees put their complaints in writing, which makes it easy for managers to ignore them. Once there is documentation, they know they have to do something.

By the way, here is all your manager would have to say to stop this situation, “Hey Kim, let’s talk. I’ve been noticing you getting more and more involved in the work of this department and jumping in on conversations to make comments or ask questions about things that have nothing to do with you. It’s distracting to the team and irritating too. Stop doing that and don’t do it anymore.” Then she should stop. No speech is necessary, just say it and wait.

Whatever else gets said, your manager has made her statement and there is no going back on it and no misunderstanding it. It’s not a hint. “Stop doing that and don’t do it anymore” is a good definite comment.

3.) If you are going to talk to the employee, according to how sensitive you want to be, consider the approach I often recommend for long-standing problems: Make the next time, the first time it has happened. What should someone have said to her when she first started what is now a habit?

“Umm… Kim, excuse us please. We were in the middle of a work conversation that doesn’t involve your job, so could we have some privacy?” (Then move further away.)
“We don’t need your help on this, Kim, so you don’t need to get involved.” (That could be said pleasantly.) (Then, move a bit away.)

“It’s too time consuming to explain this to you and it’s nothing you need to be involved with anyway. (Then move away.)
“Kim, I’m trying to have a business conversation with Ben. Stop hanging around like that, like you’re a spy getting secrets.” (Move away.)

“Our work is completely different than yours, so there’s no point in either of us trying to develop ideas for each other. Let us work on this within our group.”

“I promise not to get involved with your work if you’ll promise not to get involved with mine. That will probably keep us both happier!”

Do that “first time” conversation at least once. Then, the next time it happens you can ratchet your response up a notch, because she already knows you are not open to her involvement in your work conversations.

4.) When you talk to her the next time, limit your comments to a brief statement of what is bothering you and what you want her to stop doing. Be firm about it, then stop talking. Just make your case and turn away and go back to work or back to your other conversation. If she wants to discuss it, tell her to talk to the Office Manager, not you. She may cry or be angry, but if you use a civil tone and have a witness standing by, you will be OK. This will be a tough conversation, but it’s the only way to make this stop. It’s too late to hope for an easy chat.

Some possible statements, according to how direct you want to be (the tone of all of these could be from kind and patient to irritated to very irritated, according to the situation.)

*Kim, this is what I’ve already talked to you about. It completely derails my train of thought to stop and answer your questions about my work. Do me a favor and don’t put me through that anymore, please. If you need to know something about it, I’ll let you know. (It doesn’t matter if she thinks you’re weird, just get your point across that it’s very stressful or distracting or something.)

*Hey Kim, I didn’t want to say anything while Beth was here, but this ties into what I talked to you about earlier. Both of us would have rather been able to have our conversation without you becoming involved in it. (Then, just don’t say anything more. She will respond in some way, and you can make additional comments, like: “In fact, most of the business conversations in the office don’t involve your work and it’s a distraction to try to include you in them. If you can be included, you will be, but I’d rather you not assume you should jump into any of mine, ever again. I really don’t like it.”

*Kim, as I told you earlier, it’s really distracting to have you commenting about or questioning things you aren’t involved with, like you just did when Ben and I were talking about that contract. I don’t want you to do that anymore. So, please stop, the next time you’re tempted to become part of a business conversation of mine.

*Good grief! I feel like I’m being grilled about my work by a boss! (This can even be said with a semi-smile.) You’re doing that more and more lately and I don’t like it and neither does anyone else. Don’t do that anymore. (One way to say something about a long-standing problem, is to say it has gotten worse lately, then attack the whole problem right then. You could add that to any of the other comments.

*Kim! I’ve tried hinting to you three times in the last two minutes that I don’t want to discuss my work with you. So now I’ll just say it: I don’t want to discuss my work with you. Stop asking me about it. It’s a huge distraction and very frustrating.

Of course, if you’ve already tried those levels you could say, “OK, that does it. I’m sick and tired of you butting into my conversations. Leave me alone or I’ll make a formal complaint about you and how you meddle in everyone’s business. You drive us crazy with that kind of thing all the time, so stop it.”

That would be harsh, but would certainly bring things to a stand-still in the office!

Be prepared for a difficult few days or weeks after you talk to her, whatever you say. She may be genuinely hurt or very angry, but something will show and it may make you feel badly or make you angry yourself. Just stay focused on work and if anyone asks you about it, say that you spoke to her and it’s over now. Keep in contact with your office manager, to show that you were not just having an angry reaction, you were trying to solve a problem.

I wish this coworker had been dealt with the first time she overstepped her role, or the second time at the latest. She wouldn’t be a problem now, if she had been. But perhaps these thoughts will help you deal with it and help everyone else too. One thing is for sure: She’s done it for so long that she thinks it’s fine. So, the only way to stop it will be let her know it’s not fine. It will be painful, but it will make life easier over time. (Remember my prediction though: Some of your coworkers will invite her back into the very conversations they are now complaining about.)

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. We always find it helpful to hear what works and what doesn’t.

Best wishes to you!

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors