A Serious Workplace Problem
Do you eat "odoriferous" lunches at your desk, with fumes that force your co-workers to flee? Do you bestow nicknames on colleagues without their permission ("I'm going to have to disagree with you there, T-Bone!"). Do you paper your cubicle wall with pictures of yourself with famous people, sprinkle your conversation with technical jargon or sign off your office voice mail messages with cutesy rhymes?
Are you, in short, an annoying co-worker? Maybe. But everyone, from "Dilbert" to your next-door neighbor, has a funny or even horrifying story about obnoxious office behavior. Cheryl Turney, a technical writer with MSA Media in Point Breeze, has been forced to wear earphones to block out the hyena-like laugh of a fellow "a couple of cubes away from me. It sounds like someone hysterically crying, having an asthma attack and inhaling aerosol fumes all at once. Even worse, he finds a lot of stuff funny."
Then there's the fellow at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield's offices Downtown who always lays in wait for Robin Chiocchi on her birthday, since he felt it gave him an excuse to seize her and kiss her hard on the mouth. "It got so I was dreading my birthday," said Chiocchi, now a self-employed employee benefits broker based in Wexford. "And it wasn't just me. Any woman there was fair game if it was her birthday."
Go ahead, laugh. But annoying co-workers are a serious workplace problem, draining productivity to the tune of millions of dollars a year, according to numerous surveys. One study for the Gallup Organization claims that negativity among co-workers costs the economy $300 billion a year.
Annoying co-worker behavior "is one of the main tensions organizations struggle with today," said Robert Kelley, adjunct professor of organizational behavior at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. "How comfortable should our work environments be? Is your job about the rat race, or is your office a humanitarian place, a little cocoon where you feel protected?"
In this age of open cubicles and offices without walls, where wary workers post "rearview" mirrors to their computer terminals and are forced to eavesdrop on private conversations that many of them would just as soon not hear, annoying behavior seems to be on the increase, say some experts. Or it could be that more of us just have shorter fuses.
The rise of the "cube culture" over the past few decades -- affecting an estimated 70 percent of office workers -- may be seen as an improvement over rows upon rows of metal desks in a large room, but cubicles bring along their own set of workplace issues: greater social isolation along with little increase in privacy. And unless the walls reach from floor to ceiling, noise will travel. "Decibel levels are the single greatest issues we have," said Rosemary Droney, an account manager at Mt. Lebanon Office Equipment, which works with companies to develop work spaces that maximize employee productivity and comfort levels. "It creates tension in what should be a collaborative situation, which means productivity and morale can just go out the window."
Options for resolving this include the placement of dense, soundproofed panels between those in an open work area to muffle the noise. Earplugs are another option, favored by such people as Tess Petropoulos, a secretary in the Department of Immunology at the University of Pittsburgh.
She got them after one of her co-workers "talked incessantly about the kitchen she was remodeling. If you said good morning to her, she would launch into a tirade about, 'Should I go with cherry or walnut wood?' Not only did she tell me, but she told everyone else the exact same thing at different times, which in our office meant you heard it four times. "Of course," Petropoulos added, "it's almost two years later and she still is redoing her kitchen and she cannot decide between cherry or walnut wood."
Droney hears these stories constantly. Sometimes, she said, it helps to cluster people with loud voices together, although "someone can be loud, but sensitive to other people's volume." "In the end, what it comes down to is patience and flexibility. Sometimes you just have to buck up."
But could it be that people are simply becoming more annoyed by their co-workers more easily? Yes, said Noah St. John and Denise Berard, who work with companies to improve employee relationships in the workplace. In the old days of single-breadwinner families, men could come home and vent about a tough day at the office, but these days, with both parents working and raising families, stress levels have increased and along with it, shorter fuses at the office, suggested St. John, author of "Permission to Succeed".
Indeed, added Kelly, "organizations have been forced to become more competitive, and as a result that cutthroat attitude is trickling down into the workplace today." When that annoying co-worker becomes a real distraction, is it the boss's job to intervene or the co-workers'? "It's better handled one to one rather than by the supervisor, otherwise you just escalate it up unnecessarily, sort of like the kid who runs to the teacher" to tattle on someone, said Bill Byham, chairman and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions International, a worldwide human resources development company, and author of the book "Grow Your Own Leaders."
The best companies "have an ethic of sharing both good and bad information," he said. When an employee turns in a good performance, the boss sends him a note. "In our office we call them 'stars,' for situation/task/action/result." On the other hand, there are negative "stars," but "they're far fewer. The bottom line though, is, if you build up an ethic of trust, there's more open discourse."
Nonetheless, too often, many managers prefer to ignore annoying behavior even when it reaches intolerable levels, added Rex Gatto, founder of Gatto Associates LLC , an independent consulting firm based in Mt. Lebanon that specializes in a variety of human resource training and development services for today?s workforce.
He noted that he's frequently hired by companies to get rid of "some of the most ignorant, mean, distasteful people you can imagine." "A lot of people overlook most of what goes on," he said. "Most executives will get angry about a difficult employee, but they won't deal with them."
The annoying co-worker isn't just fodder for comic strips -- it's a favorite topic in business schools, from the boss who annoys people because he can to the back-stabbing co-worker. Then there's the employee who's into "all-around-personal power," said Gatto, "which is why I take your stapler and don't return it, because I want to force you to come to me to get it back."
Another category could be added to this list -- the clueless co-worker eating a steaming bowl of blue cheese soup or the raw onion salad at his desk. He or she doesn't have any idea he's annoying, "and that's actually the easiest type of situation to deal with," Kelley said.
Understanding these motivations may become more important as the team model becomes more frequent in the workplace. While more and more employees must be able to work well with others, those who work best solo can also be important contributors, experts have noted. Silence and privacy may be crucial -- Microsoft, for example, provides all employees with private offices.
Ideally, though, the best workplaces are ones in which the walls are torn down, said Kelley. "You can't hide, you can't plot and be devious," although the general pandemonium makes it harder to concentrate more. "The way you lay out your office depends on the kind of work you're doing. Employers have to ask, 'What's the nature of the work and relationships at work that we have that we need to be successful?'"
Many companies are trying to figure that out by evaluating employees -- both current and prospective -- more carefully, said Byham, whose company evaluates between 10,000 and 15,000 people a month. "We're not doing it to get at petty annoyances," he said. "What we're using it for is to get at traits that will cause people to be ineffective. If you have a boss who's a micro-manager, for example, you're looking over your shoulder all the time. Not having ownership of your job can cause turnover, communications problems and all kinds of really bad results."
All these experts agreed on one truth: The annoying co-worker will always be with us, as will the annoyed co-worker. But companies must be careful to nip potentially damaging conflicts in the bud before they escalate into a crisis, said Byham, recalling an incident at J.C. Penney's headquarters years ago. "There was this programmer who would come in every morning carrying this large brown bag. He'd set it by his desk, take it to lunch with him and go home with it every night. No one ever saw him open it, which led to a lot of conversation about what was in the bag, and it caused the biggest crisis in the company. People were speculating that he had the head of someone in it that he had murdered. "So we talked to him about it and we just told him it was causing problems, and he stopped bringing it in." What was in the bag? "I can't remember," said Byham with a laugh. "But it's amazing what can annoy people."
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