People & Human Resources

How do you confront annoying co-workers?

Eve Ash /

Image from Olivet Nazarene University.

Have you ever been confronted by a co-worker about your annoying behaviour? Are you considered an annoying co-worker? Do you change your ways?

A recent survey of 2,000 American workers showed that when asked “Have you ever been aware that you’re annoying a co-worker, but done it anyway?”, an astounding 24% said ‘yes’. These people were most likely to work in entertainment and insurance. The survey found senior or managerial workers are much more likely to be identified as annoying someone.

Image from Olivet Nazarene University.

Managing annoying co-workers

Ideally you will talk to someone who annoys you at work, especially if their annoying behaviour hinders your productivity. The survey showed 78% of respondents said they have at some stage “confronted a coworker about their annoying behaviour”. Only 30% of people directly confront the coworker, most go through another colleague or the boss. Sadly 14% of respondents in the study said they have “publicly shamed a coworker” after being annoyed by them. The baby boomers are less likely to publicly shame a coworker.

Image from Olivet Nazarene University.

What is annoying behaviour?

What are the habits of annoying co-workers? Everyone has stories about this, ranging from a guy’s distasteful lip-smacking, to the protein-drink guzzler who tends to flatulate, the knuckle-cracking, the stinky sneakers under the desk, the loud voices, weird laughs and vocal mannerisms.

Every country, every city, every generation is on a spectrum when it comes to practicing mutual tolerance and consideration. These spectra and norms are also somewhat fluid — very few of us are paragons when it comes to how we impact others. Nevertheless, a workplace is a commons, which means there need to be agreed rules of use in order for everyone to progress and cohabit relatively peacefully.

When something really upsets you, it is best to give direct feedback to the person in a low-keyed approach or seek to have team house-keeping and peace-keeping rules that help build a positive culture. Here are five tips:

Refrain from accusation

Before you open your mouth or point your finger, take a good look at what’s going on here. Are you overreacting? What’s really bugging you? Are you contributing to this? Are you reacting to symptoms or causes? Perhaps request that you move desk. Wear ear-phones when possible. If the smell of the kitchen breakout area is too much, eat elsewhere (and look into a kitchen cleanup policy, for hygiene as well as odour reasons). Above all, don’t prejudge a person on their habits.  There could well be other issues you aren’t aware of. 

Don’t assume you have the monopoly on acceptable behaviour

In an increasingly globalised workplace, tensions between different nationalities or belief systems can erupt, and no amount of well-intentioned diversity mission statements can avoid this. If possible, call a special team meeting or use a team planning day. Bring in an impartial adjudicator who is well-liked and respected to chair the meeting. Involve everyone in charting a course of worthy behaviours and practices.

Be culturally aware

Someone may come from a country where something is unremarkable and acceptable. You might be tempted to loudly remark that it makes you feel queasy and irritated, but office relationships aren’t going to be too good afterwards. Anyway, what about your grating voice, shrill laugh or revealing clothes? Your unrestrained attitude to dress or speech could be causing others to similarly chafe. Show some moderation. If someone really is bothering you and others with their habits, discreetly raise it with them or with management, and ask if something can be (tactfully) done about it.

A note can help

An office toilet note was posted near the hand-dryer: “Do you do this at home? Seriously?” with photos of toilet paper and empty rolls strewn inside the cubicle. The nameless mucksters quickly ceased and desisted. Similarly, humorous kitchen signs about there being no such thing as dishwasher fairies generally achieve results. Aggressive notes waiting to be found inside fridges work less well: “Will the thieving moron who nicked my hummus keep their bloody mitts off or face my wrath?!”

These notices convey passive aggression — it’s better to have a company-wide policy regarding cleanliness, hygiene and use of communal facilities. Put it where it can be clearly seen in the common area away from the public. For fridge-raiders, maybe there could be a weekly chip-in, to buy some healthy snacks, or whatever for the fridge. Food is fuel after all; when you’re ravenous and working late you might raid the office shortbread tin once in a while.

Suggest fun approaches to office harmony

There are loads of witty cartoons and humorous memes that convey messages perfectly well. Be on the lookout for some (make sure these are sanctioned by those in charge) and share with the team where appropriate. A team gradually assumes its own collective identity, regardless of the various people who comprise it. Aim high and with gentle humour, and the message to others will be relayed and appreciated.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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