Employee Making Distracting Sounds

Question:

I have a co-worker who only makes sounds as she walks by my desk. Others have noticed also. she will make a dah,dah,dah sound or click her tongue or whisper under her breath. She used to tap on my desk as she walked by and I would think she needed my attention.

After asking she would say, I don’t know what you are talking about. I told her she may not realize she was doing it, but would she please stop because I keep thinking you are wanting to ask me a question.

I tried the noise making she is doing in the same way, thinking she was saying something to me. It is only at my desk in passing to hers.

Signed,

Disturbed and Distracted


Answer:

Dear Disturbed and Distracted:

Almost always when something petty but mean-spirited like this is happening there is something else going on–an ongoing contentious situation, a feeling of paying someone back for something they are doing or have done, attempting to be funny for coworkers who are in on the joke, or mocking something the employee herself has done, as a way to teach her a lesson about it.

You know best what the situation is, but it is unlikely you and this employee have a good working relationship otherwise. While you’re dealing with this you may need to deal with that problem at the same time.

It may also be that the coworker is by nature an unpleasant person. If so, she is probably having problems with other employees as well and should be stopped.

I think your best course of action is to write your concerns to your supervisor. Ask him or her to assist you in stopping the coworker from the repeated behavior that is distracting you and others at work.

Keep the approach that it seems she has targeted you for the disturbing noises, but it could be that she is doing this to others you don’t know about. Give your supervisor the names of people who have said they have noticed it.

It would be helpful to say about how many times a day or a week this happens, as a way to put it in perspective. Mention that you have talked to the coworker about it already and that is why you are now going to a supervisor. Be adamant that you can’t deal with it on your own and you need assistance. (Otherwise you may be told to try to “work it out”. I think it’s too late for that.)

Two things I think you should avoid doing:

1.) Don’t do it back to her, since she will use that to show she is not the only one involved. 2.) Don’t continue discussing it with coworkers. For one thing, if they find it distracting they should say something and they are your friends they should already have talked to her about it or offered to go with you to your supervisor.

As a final thought, before you do anything you may want to talk to your very best friend in the office and ask her to be honest with you about anything you could be doing that has added to this situation. I’m not saying you have, but I think it’s always wise to consider that. Clearly you think you are being targeted, so there is a reason for it in the mind of the employee.

I recently had a similar letter from someone who assured me she had done nothing to cause a coworker to treat her badly. However, when she asked a friend the friend told her that she was overly emotional about many things and talked far too much at work about her family, friends and away-from-work activities. It wasn’t right of the coworker to “punish” her by being snippy and rude. But that often is how things happen.

Ask your friend about your work habits, your usual conversational habits, your interactions with the problem employee or her friends, or your actions when you are in the area of that employee’s work space. See if there is something you should do less of, more of or never do again. At least that way you can let your supervisor know you have considered every possibility to explain the actions of the employee.

If you can’t get the help of your supervisor you will have to speak directly to the employee. If you do that, your best approach will be to send her an email so you have it in writing. Tell her you are very willing to talk to her about it but thought the email would make it less confrontational. Tell her what you have noticed and remind her that you’ve mentioned it before. Then, ask for what you want: “I would appreciate it if you would stop making the distracting noises that bother me and others around me. If there is something else going on that we need to work out, I would like to know that. Maybe we can talk about it with our supervisor present.”

That won’t be pleasant, I know. Hopefully it won’t come to that. But if it does, send a copy to your supervisor and see what response you get from the employee. If neither your supervisor nor your letter gets results, you will need to go higher in the organization. My personal feeling is that this should be stopped by a supervisor, but who ever does it, it SHOULD be stopped and the underlying problems handled as well. What sounds like a small thing (distracting noises) is nearly always the symptom of much bigger behavioral issues.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.