Co-Worker Plays Music and Managers Haven’t Helped!

Question:
I have a co-worker who has been in our office six months. I have been there ten years. She plays her music right next to my cubicle and I’ve told her many times I can’t concentrate with her music on. But she doesn’t care. I’ve gone to my managers and all they say is well we can hear you when you talk or laugh way back here. Nothing is done about the radio or the disrespect this girl shows towards me. I’m at a loss. Is there a law about this anywhere? I am a federal employee so I’m not sure if the laws are different.

Response: There are no laws that apply to an issue such as you describe, unless some aspect of it came under EEO regulations about harassment based on a protected status (gender, faith, ethnicity, etc.)

If you work in a federal office perhaps there is an executive above your supervisor or manager. That person would probably want to know about a conflict, especially if it is taking away from work effectiveness and is getting worse. According to your relationship with that person, you may be able to talk to him or her directly or include them in the email I’ll mention below.

If it appears the matter is so extreme as to require intervention by the HR section of your agency, you could contact them. However, it doesn’t sound as though the matter would be viewed as being that extreme. (Such as it might be if the other employee only played music with lyrics that apply to you or if she waited until you were on the phone before turning up the volume, etc.)

If you communicate again with your manager or supervisor and try other in-house methods for dealing with it, it might then be necessary to contact your agency HR. As you undoubtedly know, that can be viewed very negatively by local offices.

You did the right thing by first talking to the coworker directly then going to your managers. I’m surprised and frustrated on your behalf, that they didn’t take the matter more seriously. Their response about hearing you laugh or talk “way back here” makes me wonder:

Is it possible the coworker uses the radio as a way to drown out the noise of conversations and laughter, which she considers to be disruptive? Might she have complained about it and the manager told her to get a radio and use it to help her concentrate?

Is it possible the managers think you and others are too loud, so they aren’t empathetic about your complaint?

Could it be that the coworker has lowered the volume in response to your complaint, and managers think she has done enough to make the music acceptable?

Although I can understand that loud talking and laughing can be disruptive and might need to be toned down, I don’t view it as the same as music. For one thing, music or a radio station is constant, conversation is not. Music lyrics can’t be ignored, so they are more distracting than routine comments about work. If a radio is used, it will have advertisements and comments by announcers or callers to the station, which are much different than casual communication between coworkers.

There is also the matter that if you talked courteously to the coworker and told her that the music was distracting to you, she is not being a cooperative member of the office team if she continues to play it at the same volume.  What if everyone in the office decided to listen to their favorite music or to play a radio tuned to their favorite station? That would be incredibly disruptive and create terrible conflict!

I think you should send an email to your most direct supervisor, so you will have documentation of the communication about this. In it, say that you are once more bringing the matter to their attention and hope that the office can be made more conducive to work for everyone. Reiterate the history of the situation and what you have done to deal with it.

Then, refer to their comments that they can hear your conversation and laughter. Say something like, “If you meant that I’m equally  disruptive, I would like to have a chance to talk to you about it, so I can do my part to tone down the noise in the office. However, I would also like to see the same effort applied to the music noise.”

If other employees have complained, perhaps they would join you in this cause and write their own emails about the effect of this conflict on the office. If your office has staff meetings, this would be an ideal topic for discussion, in the spirit of having an effective office.

If you send an email, with reasonable comments, your supervisor or manager won’t be able to easily ignore it. If you ask for another time to talk about it, they will discuss it with other mangers or supervisors in the office and perhaps will realize that this could become a much bigger conflict if they don’t handle it correctly.

In  the meantime, you may want to consider wearing comfortable noise blocking earbuds or headphones. That’s not ideal and you shouldn’t have to do it, but it might make things more tolerable if your managers decide radios are OK. Or, you could play your own radio or white noise machine.

Perhaps you could find a better location for your workspace or see if someone would switch with you. You could include that request in your email.

I wish there was a definite solution to your problem, but I’m afraid it will be up to your manager or the executive person in the office to make changes. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how you handle this and what are the results. You may be able to help some other person in a similar situation.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors