How Do I Gag A Coughing Manager?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about boss coughing:

Can you help? I work in a large open plan office consisting 20 people. The majority of work for all of us requires a lot of research and concentration, which is difficult to maintain with phones ringing, office chatter, meetings etc. However, this much we bear!

About six months ago, a new female manager was appointed internally, and moved into our office. I heard from colleagues that she was a nightmare to work near, as she has a ‘nervous condition’ that makes her cough incessantly, to the point that she gags! This makes everyone else feel the same! I decide to give her a fair go, as she probably feels as uncomfortable as we do with the situation. Unfortunately, she sits in the center of the office, so all are forced to put up with it.

My patience has completely run out, and I fear my professional capabilities are now being tested to the limit!!! I am also a manager within the office, so feels it is my duty to sort this problem out. I have approached senior management about this, but no one seems to know how to tackle it, therefore the status quo remains!!!! Please help me before someone kills her! I appreciate that speaking with her may help, but I also wondered where we stood from a legal perspective? Many Thanks!

Signed, In Coughing Corner

Dear In Coughing Corner:

A situation such as you describe is incredibly difficult to deal with, for several reasons. I gather, from your email address, that you are from the UK, so some aspects of your country’s employment law may make a difference in your approach. Let me suggest some thoughts about possible actions.

1. You are absolutely correct to want to seek intervention about this in some way. Any sound or behavior that is repetitive is a distraction in an office and can be linked to work effectiveness as well as the mental and physical comfort of others. And when you think of the saliva that flies when someone coughs, you KNOW you don’t want that going on! Even though it is an awkward situation, an effort should at least be made to correct it.

2. It could be that the condition of your co-worker is something over which she has no control at all. If that is the case, she may have a number of employment protections that would affect the actions your organization can take. That should be considered by HR and attorneys if needed. For example, if may very well be that her coughing is an uncontrollable tic–or perhaps a symptom of a condition such as Tourette’s Syndrome. If that is the case, she may need both medical and emotional care as well as work accommodations, to prevent her condition from being a distraction. If that is the case, keep in mind that she would probably desperately like to be able to stop, but can’t! Often in cases of habitual coughing there is a strong feeling that phlegm is clogging the throat and as can happen with all of us, the need to cough becomes overwhelming. A variety of treatments are available to reduce these urges, some more helpful than others. They may include medications, stress reduction exercises and replacement activities that interfere with the brain’s desire to do the repetitive action.

The key is, however, that having a condition of that type is not something that must be ignored to avoid a liability. It can be investigated by talking to her about it, asking for a doctor’s evaluation and recommendations for how the employer can work with the employee to deal with the issue effectively. A good pattern of documentation is needed to show that the actions of management were not discriminatory and that everything was handled as confidentially as possible. Once the nature of the problem is known, your HR section or management team will best be able to decide what can be done. Among the accommodations sometimes suggested for repetitive behaviors are frequent breaks to allow the person to vent their behavior in a bathroom or away from others and even private offices. The necessary accommodations should be suggested by a medical or mental professional rather than asking the employee for personal suggestions, since these may be based on her preferences rather than what has been shown to be effective in other cases. A similar story: In one office there was a co-worker who cleared his throat in a gross way, repeatedly. This went on for months until one of the other employees finally talked to him about it. He said he had a chronic sinus problem. Since that wasn’t very helpful, she went to her boss with a diary showing he had cleared his throat in that loud way over 100 times in one day and that this had been going since the day he transferred to the unit. Her boss had been distracted by it as well and directed the employee to go to the company physician who referred him to a nose and throat specialist. It turned out that he had Tourette’s Syndrome and was put on a medication that relaxed his throat and kept him from needing to clear it so often, at least at work. He said when he went home he still had to do it, but it wasn’t so difficult to control at work as it had been formerly. He told the co-worker he genuinely had thought he had a sinus problem and had no idea that it was anything else. The examinations he was given revealed that he not only cleared his throat, he also had the habit of moving his tongue in his mouth involuntarily, but that wasn’t noticeable to others. So, there may be much more to this than a distracting habit.

There may even be a work-related allergy involved or a physical condition such as a stomach or esophageal problem, cyst or tumor or other condition the employee may not even be aware of herself and should have diagnosed and treated.

3. The approach taken should be one of wanting to both provide an effective work environment and wanting to assist the employee to be effective and personally successful. If she is doing a good job in every other way, that will be a benefit to the company. If she is not doing a good job apart from this condition, that fact should be documented and acted upon and her habits left out of the mix. You say she has a nervous condition generally and this may be something that affects her work. Her manager should be taking action about all of those matters.

4. A situation like this is not one that a company usually wants to confront unless there is clearly a reason to do so. You will likely find that other employees will need to be willing to put in writing the negative impact of the repetitious coughing. If it is possible for you to get an audiotape of it, that might be helpful, since often those who aren’t around something like that, tend to minimize its disruptive nature. You may need to keep a chronology for a day or two, to show how often it occurs. If possible, note if there is something unusual that sets it off–such as an upsetting experience or physical activity. Note also when it doesn’t occur. For example, does she do the same thing when she’s on the phone, eating or engaged in some focused work? That may give a clue to treatment also. If you know those who have worked with her from the very beginning of her time with the organization, ask them if she has always done this. If it is a syndrome, it will likely always have been present. If you can’t do the checking, suggest that in your letter to HR about it. You could help them by giving them ideas of things that might point to some solutions. One way you can do that is to say in your letter: “I wonder if we’ve checked on some of the following… Then list things that you think are options for this problem or things you think should be checked to get a better understanding of it.I realize all of that places a burden on you! But if you are concerned enough to write to us about it, that indicates it is truly disruptive! You may find that your efforts are not only helpful to the office but to the person as well.

5. If it turns out there is no physical or mental problem, the approach can be different, and should be focused on the cause of the activity and the employee’s responsibility to correct it. Once again, the quality of work in other areas will be important.However, as an employee who is affected by the noise, you should insist that HR and management realize that something must be done and that you can’t just ignore it any longer. As a manager yourself, you want to support other employees as well as this person, so you certainly can be justified to push it a little further than others might.6. What happens often is that something like this is so personally awkward that people hope it will go away. It won’t, as you have found out. The only solution is for those who can make a difference to gutsy-up and call the person in to say, “Cheryl, we’re really concerned about your health as well as the impact of your repeated coughing on the welfare of the office. It’s not only noisy and distracting, but is a health issue for everyone. I’ve noticed this is constant and doesn’t seem to be related to anything specific. What can you tell me about why you cough so often?” After she explains why she thinks she is doing it, the manager will need to decide if he or she believes it won’t be short-term. If change is needed, the policies of the organization can be used to direct the employee to have a physical examination and get a physicians note about the problem, the treatment that can be given and a timeline for improvement. The employee will still be there, so the problem will still be happening, but at least something will be done over time. And this approach is much less embarrassing to the employee and the manager, than hesitant, non-confrontation. The matter needs to be openly discussed between the employee and her boss and some kind of action taken. If the employee leaves the interview with only the idea that she should try to repress her coughing, the interview will have been a failure!If you have an employee counseling program, that could be another resource to recommend, if the manager feels there is no physical problem…or even in conjunction with medical care. Her nervousness may be handled best in that way as well.In the meantime, perhaps a more secluded area could be provided—maybe near a door or another room, where she could be directed to step outside when she feels she must cough in a prolonged way. If drinking liquids would help, perhaps she could keep water at her desk. Those are things you could recommend as part of your efforts to help.I hope these thoughts will provide some guidance for you. I would be interested in hearing what happens, if you have the time and wish to do so. Best wishes! Think and feel WEGO

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.