Annoying Sounds and Smells. How Do I Cope?

Question to Ask  the Workplace Doctors about annoying coworker:

I have a coworker in a 2 person office who has some habits which are annoying me. We work in an office environment sitting at our computer, typing and reading the computer screen. She cracks her knuckles several times a day. She taps the desk with her pen. Today she was chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles, creating smacking sounds. She chews loudly and she grazes (eats) throughout the day. Sometimes she has her headphones on so maybe she does not know that she is loud. Not to mention the smell of food is making me hungry too. She eats peanuts and popcorn very slowly as hunger savers, technique used in the program.

It is making me naturally fat because the smells of food are making me hungry and agitated. When my supervisor put me in this office, I thought the main reason her previous office mate requested to move was because she talked too much. So my supervisor gave me some tips of how to handle the talking. But how do I handle these other annoying sounds? I moved into this office 3 months ago and the sounds are driving me nuts.

I prefer a very quiet environment. Any ideas on how to approach this person about the sounds that are driving me nuts. I do not want to make her mad but it is affecting my concentration and my productivity at work. Are there any earplugs which are effective with this type of random noise? The cheap foam design does not stay in my ear. I have tried listening to white noise (rain) playing on my computer using a lightweight headphones. This works to some degree. But I have to have the volume up so loud to drown out her annoying sounds. Eventually, the white noise becomes too much for me to concentrate and the headset cord becomes tangled with my mouse and keyboard operation. I tried a better headset which is too heavy on head and becomes uncomfortable with my eyeglasses. Dealing with annoying sounds

Signed, At The End Of My Patience

Dear At The End Of My Patience:

Thank you for sharing your frustrations about this situation. We hear a lot from people who have coworkers who sigh loudly, whistle, hum, pray, talk to themselves, hit the keyboard hard, slam drawers, chomp on carrots or celery, belch (and worse) and do other things that eventually become incredibly nerve-wracking. Although there are a couple of things you can do to improve things; starting with telling your coworker how her actions are bothering you; this is a job for your supervisor to deal with. It sounds as though she needs to deal with it firmly and permanently, rather than only moving people around the office.

You can at least reassure yourself about this part: Your coworker’s behavior is not appropriate for a business office and certainly not appropriate for sharing an office. It sounds to me as though she either is wanting to make sure you ask to move, so she has an office to herself, or she has some social-adjustment problems, or she simply doesn’t give a darn about anyone except herself.

Whatever the situation, your coworker seems to go far past being somewhat distracting. Her actions are unpleasant, border-line gross, disruptive to you, and have required whole-office changes. No doubt about it, this is a supervisory responsibility. However, you will probably need to be the one to make a push about it and I hope you will.

There are a couple of things you do not mention, which will be important for you to consider. First, consider what kind of a coworker she is otherwise. Is she friendly, courteous, helpful, well-groomed, clean and productive? Or, is she lacking in some of those areas too? If she’s a good person otherwise, you are more likely to be successful in getting her to voluntarily change her behavior. If her behaviors is not very cooperative or if they are unfriendly or if she has trouble getting along with supervisors or coworkers, it will probably take more formal efforts to get her to improve. It can be done but it will take focused attention.Second, the nature of your workplace can make a difference. The size of the staff and offices, type of work being done and whether or not clients come to the office, all can have a part in the overall impact of the situation and how you approach it. If her actions could look bad to clients or could in some way hurt business, that is often more of a concern to managers than how coworkers feel.

First, talk to your supervisor, so she knows what you plan to do and what she will need to do as well. Be adamant that the situation is becoming intolerable and that you won’t be able to get your work done effectively if there aren’t some corrections. Emphasize the effect on work, not only because it’s valid, but also to get more attention from your supervisor. As you know from your own experience, it isn’t comfortable to confront someone about odd behavior. Your supervisor doesn’t want to either and is likely to tell you to try to put up with it just a little bit longer. But, if you make the point that work is harmed, that forces more action.If you are an effective employee who contributes to work and is generally well-liked, surely you would not be disciplined or fired because you ask for help in dealing with a problematic work situation. Also, you are apparently not the first person who has had problems with this employee. So, push this a bit and do everyone in the office a favor.

If the coworker doesn’t realize her actions are so bothersome, it will do her a favor too.You shouldn’t complain to everyone else repeatedly about this, to avoid the appearance of simply disliking the coworker. But, I do think it might be helpful to talk to the people you know have shared the workspace with her. It would be useful to know how much of this is new and how much was happening before and what was done about it. You may also want to talk to Human Resources, if your business has a section for that.When you talk to your supervisor or HR, be clear that small changes aren’t enough. Emphasize that you need a work area that doesn’t have distracting noise, except occasionally and in a reasonable way. Have a written list of the disruptive actions you described to us. One way to present it is to make it a week’s worth of noise, giving a list of the things she has done in the last week that were repetitious or distracting and how long each of them lasted. It will look somewhat petty as you write it, but head it with a paragraph that says you are only writing such a detailed list to accurately convey the many disruptive and distracting actions that are going on around you in a short amount of time.

Keep in mind that you are being reasonable to want a less distracting work environment. It would be unreasonable in most offices to expect things to be very quiet all the time, but your requests for change are reasonable.*It’s reasonable to ask that highly fragranced food not be eaten in a work area, except rarely (such as a special occasion.). Popcorn is notorious for smelling up the whole office. Peanuts and other food may be OK, but most cooked food has an odor and even “good” smelling food can become a bit nauseating. Or, as you point out, can make others miserably hungry. There is no “right” to have food of any kind, but this may need to be an office policy change. *It’s reasonable to ask that food or gum not be chewed so loudly it can be heard by others. Gum chewing should never be heard and certainly there should be no repetitive cracking, popping or bubble blowing. That is such a common complaint that everyone know it is considered rude by many. That is why I tend to think she either wants to drive you out of the office or simply does not care. Making noise with gum is not something that she could say she had no idea was distracting. * It’s reasonable to ask that repetitive noises should be stopped if they don’t have anything to do with work. Tapping on desks and doing other things of that nature, are not necessary for your coworker to get her work done and they distract you a great deal. *It’s reasonable to say that her diet is her own issue, not yours. She shouldn’t graze at her desk all day and you shouldn’t have to listen, watch and smell the food that she is grazing upon.*It’s reasonable to not hear personal noises; and cracking knuckles is one of them. There is no medical reason it has to be done in the office, it’s a very grotesque sound. My experience has been that people who do it, use it as an attention-getter. (Like we’re all sitting there thinking, “Wow, she’s so special!”) *It’s reasonable to say you don’t want to have white noise forced into your ears all day, just to give you some concentration time. White noise can be as damaging as any noise, if you turn the volume up and leave it that way for hours. Besides, why should you have to go to such extremes to deal with something that would not be accepted in most other offices?After you make it clear to your supervisor that you consider the problem to be extreme, ask her if she will help you by doing something to make big changes. She may make another personnel move or may take stronger action. Or, she may ask you to talk to the employee yourself before she intervenes. If so, consider asking her to be present when you do, so she can be aware of what was said. If you talk to the coworker alone, let your supervisor know about it before and after.

Be firm about saying that once you’ve talked to the coworker, if that doesn’t help, you’ll definitely need supervisory support because you don’t intend to drop the subject.That brings you to your conversation with the coworker, if you talk to her directly. You will still be working in the same office with her after the conversation. So, keep your words and tone friendly and courteous, with a focus on wanting to have a good workplace. If you keep the focus on work and the workplace it keeps it from being so personal. Whatever her response; anger, tears, frustration; stay even-toned but clear that many things must change in order to make the office workable. I like the use of specific words that convey a thought. You’ll see in the example I give that although I use phrases like “distracting” and “disruptive” I also use “unpleasant” and “nauseating” to be more direct.Don’t plan a speech, just have one or two short phrases to convey how you feel and why, and asking for her help to make things better. The shorter and more to-the-point you make it, the easier it will be for you to say. And, the easier it will be for her to respond to it. For example, “Lisa, we’ve worked together for three months now and I’m getting more and more distracted and bothered because of all the unpleasant noises and food smells in this little space. Can we talk about it?”

If you know her well and like her a lot, you could make your comment more personal, “Lisa, you know I like you lots and want us to stay friends, but I’m getting more and more….etc.”Then, stop and let her respond. You will be tempted to say much more, but try to avoid doing it. When you stop, your coworker will either talk or ask you for more information. Either way, it starts the conversation without you having to have something memorized. Another thing in favor of the very short beginning is that it is easier to just say it and get it over with. If you wait for a time to give your two minute speech, you’ll never get it done. It’s almost just a blurt. But, once you’ve opened that door at least things are in the open.She may ask you to give examples. Rather than go down that path right away, consider just making a statement about how you think the office space should work. “Rather than giving you a list of things, which just sounds negative, let me tell you how I see our obligations when it comes to working in a small space like this and see if you agree. I think we have to pay attention to our actions and be careful to not do unpleasant or disagreeable things that can be heard, seen or smelled by the other person. We shouldn’t impose our personal habits and preferences on coworkers. Everything I’ve read about workplaces says that’s a good guideline. What do you think?” If she pushes for examples have general ones for her, ”

Generally the problem is that it’s unpleasant and nauseating to smell food, hear you chewing food, hear you tapping on the desk or cracking your knuckles or making other noises. I feel like I’m in your dorm room instead of our office.”If you have an example of something she has eaten that hasn’t been a problem, mention that as a way to give a positive example. If there has been some day recently when things were good, mention that. “Yesterday, we worked and got a lot done, without any personal noises, food smells or anything unpleasant like that. It was a good day. That’s the way it should be every day.” The one thing I would avoid in all of this is negotiating something that really isn’t the best result anyway; or letting your supervisor mediate something like that. For example, it won’t help for her to agree to not eat popcorn or chew gum, if she replaces those with something else. If food is allowed in that workspace, there should be some guidelines that are restrictive enough to avoid problems.*No food that is known to create odors (popcorn, fish, spices, even things like orange peel.) Those can be eaten in the break room or outside. *No chewing, eating or handling food in a manner that can be heard unreasonably by others. (One employee wrote about a coworker who scrapes a plate with a fork, slurps through a straw, uses a nutcracker and does other things of that nature, just to get reactions.) Another thing that can become very bothersome is rustling a bag every few seconds to get a pork rind, rice cracker or some other diet-magic food.The bottom line is that every employee has to be a good citizen of the space, both in appearance and in sounds. As I said at the beginning, you can do something by talking to her directly. However, this is a supervisory problem that should have been handled already and certainly needs to be handled now. Further, it should not be improved just for the short-term, it has to be changed forever.

We will be interested in knowing what happens with this. Sadly, it seems that most people, no matter how frustrated they are, will not confront the situation directly. But, honestly, this can be improved dramatically or stopped altogether, in a short amount of time. I’ve seen it happen; but I also know can be very challenging to get to that point.Best wishes to you.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.