My New Hire Is Frequently In My Way

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about interpersonal distance:

I own a small biz, recently hired someone. This person always needs to be walking in the same path as me, which means she walks into me or has a near miss, at least 5-6 times per day. We work in an open space (2200 sq ft) yet if I am in one area, she needs to be in same area at the same time, and wants me to get out of her way. For example I was making something and she wanted to pass a rolling ladder that would run over my work. All she needed to do was go around another way. But I had to stop what I was doing and explain that if she did this she would destroy my work. Which she did the day before. So she stood there waiting until I told her to do something else. The person is 27 years old. Has extreme difficulty following basic instructions. I’ve had to show her how to do the same things over and over. Doesn’t write things down even though I’ve told her to do so, asks me to repeat instructions over and over within minutes of giving task. Wearing cheap perfume, so much that the entire space smells of it. It’s inappropriate. I am more creeped out about her constant running into me. She could be in the bathroom and I step away from my desk and there she is running into me. I’m on the opposite side of the room, and I turn around and there she is needing to get by. What would cause someone to do this? I am her boss. Does she really not understand what personal space is? What is happening here?

Signed–In My Way

Dear In My Way:
You are an owner-boss of a small company with a new employee, you say “who walks into me or has a near miss, at least 5-6 times per day.” Also you say you must repeat instructions over and over, and that she wears a cheap perfume that the permeates the entire space. Your question is: why doesn’t she understand what personal space is?

Before addressing your personal space questions, please understand that from this distance that I won’t pretend to walk in your shoes. I don’t know your business and what job description or commitment of employment you have made to this woman I will call Ms. Sally. I empathize with your situation of having hired a 27 year old woman whose incompetence and invasion of personal space prompts your question. I assume you are uneasy about firing her because you feel she badly needs a job. Yet your description of Ms. Sally’s problems with following instructions coupled with her invasion of space begs the blunt question: Why haven’t you sent Ms. Sally on her way? I assume there must be some good reason why. Is it that you have too kind a heart to be a boss who must make the difficult decision to fire her or is it that you can pay her less than you would have to pay for more competent help? Perhaps it is that you find it difficult to really say anything that might hurt her feelings such as that her perfume smells up our entire space. Whatever the reason, the issue is: what is best for your small business? If you keep her, can you train Ms. Sally who is slow to follow instructions and do you want done? Do you want this woman who gets in your way as a permanent employee?

Resolving the matter of training her to respect personal space perhaps is a matter that can be minimized by delegating what she is to do where and when. If that can be made clear and if she is gradually learning the ropes of your business, you might resolve the minor irritation of odor by a rule that you want a fragrance free work space-one that would not bother others who come into your business.

Now I’ll speak to the space questions you pose: “What would cause someone to do this? I am her boss. Does she really not understand what personal space is? What is happening here?” Your few words indicate you know that distance speaks. In the workplace, how close you come to a boss is generally a farther distance than you would come close to a coworker you like. Less distance at work signals compatibility, friendship, cooperation and sometimes threat. Whereas a larger distance between individuals signals difference in power, annoyance or dislike.

Learning what is appropriate distance for different situations is cultural and psychological. Ms. Sally might have a cultural background that has programmed her to feel comfortable in a closer distance that is normal for you.

In the U.S. distance for zones vary for Public : > 12 feet (3m); for Social : 4 – 12 feet (1.5m – 3m); for; Personal : 1.5-4 feet (0.5m – 1.5m) and for Intimate < 1.5 feet (< 0.5m). Apparently Miss Sally doesn’t understand that there is an invisible bubble she should not invade and that her frequent physical closeness to you her boss is distracting. She might be culturally and psychologically  dependent on authority. When I was a professor of organizational communication in Belgium, I twice interviewed Geert Hofstede, author of Cultures Consequences. His study of the IBM company in 60 different countries points up a power-distance difference. Although IBM had policies and practices that were intended to be generally similar wherever IBM was located, he found considerable difference of how employees felt about distance between a boss and a subordinate. In addition to cultural values that may cause Ms. Sally to invade your personal space, possibly the fact that she shadows you might indicate she is psychologically dependent on authority.    

I’ll not extend these remarks on nonverbal communication. Suffice it to say, you will have to decide if you can train Ms. Sally about what is appropriate for the different zones within your company. You’ll have to decide if she can learn the jobs you have hired her to do and if she can understand what distances are expected within your workplace.

Young Ms. Sally’s job and well being is in your hands, at least for now. Helping her to understand the strengths versus shortcomings of her performance is a responsibility of management. Because I sense you are a sensitive and must be a savvy business woman, I predict you will communicate what you must say about her performance with good sense, good will and good character. How you express your decisions for her stay or be on her way will shape how she feels and thinks about herself now and in the future. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS the blessing I wish for you and your business. Please in a few weeks share how all this works for you and I will pass that on with this post.

–William Gorden