How Can I Stop The Humming and Gum Cracking?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about humming or cracking chewing gum.

I am an office manager for two doctors. Two of my employees are always humming or cracking chewing gum. It bothers me because it is a small place and is very disruptive. Can I call them aside and let them know that this behavior is unacceptable?

Signed, Distracted

Dear Distracted:

Yes, you certainly can tell the two employees to stop making distracting noises. You work in a medical office where the noises could also distract patients and visitors. It’s unprofessional for a setting in which physicians work. And, it bothers you, so it might very well bother others. It could even be that one of them hums to bring attention to the irritating gum cracking or vice versa!

Unfortunately, both situations would be easier to deal with if they had been stopped the moment they started it. Now, they probably do it as a habit and don’t think about it at all, so it will be more difficult for them to stop.It also sounds to me as though you don’t have a very warm or friendly relationship with the employees. If you do, that will help you somewhat, because you have a history of being helpful. If you don’t, you still have to do what is right for the situation, but it might be resented more.

Keep in mind though that no one would fault you for asking someone to stop humming or cracking gum, so you’re not being picky Let me suggest a couple of ways that might make it easier for you to deal with it.

1. According to the relationship you have with the physicians and how much they care or want to know about what happens in the office, you might want to briefly inform them of your intention. That would accomplish three things–it would alert them in case the employees complain later. It would probably gain you support, especially if you mention that the noise continues even when patients are waiting. And, it would reinforce for the physicians that you are doing your job as an office manager.Knowing most doctors in those settings, they don’t want to get involved themselves, but they do like to know things are going smoothly.You might also find you’ll need their support if the two employees don’t make a change. In fact, that is something to consider. What WILL you do if they don’t stop? I doubt that will be a problem, but it’s good to consider.

2. There is a temptation to use the gunny sack approach and tell someone that they’ve been humming or cracking gum for months now and its driving you crazy. Don’t do that if you can avoid it. People get embarrassed to think someone has been noticing something for months but not said anything. They react to the embarrassment by being angry.You may have to discuss the history of the problem if she or the other employee protests a lot. However, the easiest way to deal with it is to make the first time you talk to them about it the first time you mention it.Use a friendly, confidential tone as though you are sure she isn’t even aware of it and you just want to let her know how bothersome it is. So, you come into the office and Carol is cracking her gum already. Walk over to her or just say it, in a friendly tone of voice, as though you’re letting her know for her own good, “Carol, cracking your gum like that is really distracting and bothersome. Stop doing that, OK?” She might say she wasn’t or she didn’t notice. Repeat yourself, “Maybe you didn’t notice it but I certainly did and if patients had been in the room they would have. Just don’t do it anymore, OK?”

Consider bringing some hard candy and offering her some. “Would it help if you had candy to munch instead of gum to crack? Here’s some and feel free to get it any time.”

In a few minutes you hear Vicki humming. Walk to where she is and say about the same thing, but you might need to change it if she heard you say something to Carol. Once again use the confidential and helpful tone, “Vicki, you might have heard me mention the gum cracking to Carol. Humming under your breath is just as distracting and bothersome. Don’t do that here in the office, OK?” If she questions it repeat it as you did the other comment. Let’s say she says she enjoys humming because it’s a way to show that she’s in a good mood. (I’ve heard that from people!). “Oh, well, I’m sorry but it’s distracting and bothersome. So, don’t do it here in the office, OK?” If either of them push back a bit, you are very safe in saying that your job as the office manager is to manage the office and the things that happen in it.

You could remind them that cracking gum and humming are both things that almost anyone would say was annoying, so you don’t think you’re going overboard about it. But the bottom line is that you have now mentioned it to them and you’d appreciate them reacting courteously by not bothering people with those behaviors.If there are other employees they will probably be thrilled that you’re doing something. But, even if they aren’t thrilled and even if every employee sulks, you’re doing the right thing for a professional office. However, it’s no fun to work in an office where people are angry with each other. So, now might be a good time to make sure your office has opportunities for employees to feel like a team. Consider using this as a time to have five minute huddles to talk about office needs, supplies and resources that would be useful, problems that have been solved or needed to be solved.

You don’t need to call a meeting, all you need to do is stand by someone’s desk and say, “Hey everyone, let’s gather around Carol’s desk today.” Then, go over the things you wanted to mention. Huddlng takes much less time–only a few minutes. And, it gives people a feeling of camaradarie.

Carol and Vicki will probably do their bad habits again. This time when they do, just lean back or walk over, according to the configuration of your workplace and say, “Carol, you’re cracking your gum again. Don’t do that.” But only remind them a few times. Then, you will have to go to a higher level which will probably mean a written reprimand about what they are doing. There are no laws or regulations about it so you can handle that as your doctors or you think best.The important thing for you is to not let them do the behavior again.

When you make an exception they will think you don’t care after all. Stick to it until those two habits are out of their lives, at least at work.You may have to refer to past times (“I’ve noticed this for along time and kept hoping you’d stop on your own.”) But, at least you don’t need to start with that.Best wishes as you deal 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.