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Squelch the belch

Q. How do you handle an obnoxious co-worker who belches with her mouth open and as loud as possible as if she just downed a pitcher of beer? She doesn't say excuse me and justifies it because it is a "God-given" natural bodily function. Management ignores it. She can be heard over the phone. Yes it is that loud!

L.W., Mechanicsville, VA

A. I can think of a number of “bodily functions” that are natural, and yet I wouldn’t think of doing them in public. Even if her belching is the result of a medical condition, she should be able to keep the noise of belching from disturbing others. Excusing one’s self for burping is a basic manner that most people learn in childhood. Ms. Belcher has missed the point entirely by arguing that she’s going to continue belching regardless of what others think. By not excusing herself, she implies that her behavior is intentional. The problem is in business it’s the opinion of others—clients, bosses, co-workers—that counts. Because her belching is disruptive, the focus shifts to her belching, not to getting work done. Externally, her belching may cause clients to develop a negative opinion of the company. (Client: “Are all the employees this rude?”) If she belches loudly and offends a client she is talking to, all the excuses she can make won’t make up for the fact that the client could be offended and business may be affected. The first step to changing her behavior is to talk to her directly. Unfortunately, as she has already stated her justification for belching, it doesn’t sound as if she will listen.

The real problem you face isn’t with Ms. Belcher, it’s with management. No workplace can afford to let a situation fester that affects morale and productivity. It seems almost unbelievable that management would ignore this behavior, if not because it’s affecting the work atmosphere then because it could directly impact the business’s success if clients are offended. Either management is clueless or management belches as well. If management belches, you'll need to try to convince them of the business implications of this behavior.

Then again, management may be clueless. Don’t assume management is aware of and ignoring the situation. Talk to your manager, preferably with a couple of co-workers to back you up. Let her know that Ms. Belcher’s loud burps are affecting workplace productivity and potentially hurting business. If management refuses to address the situation, you are really left with only one of three choices: learn to put up with the belching, seek a transfer to another department, or begin looking for a job at a workplace that doesn’t condone this type of behavior.

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