Q. I work in a modern, open work environment in which several desks are grouped into "pods" defined by fabric-lined dividers. People have conversations, talk on the phone, and go about their business generally without a problem—it just adds up to a sort of productive hum. However, one coworker frequently makes it very difficult to concentrate. His job requires him to spend a lot of time on the phone, and he's blessed with a rich, resonant voice that carries like few others I've ever heard. Unlike most people, he makes no effort to modulate his volume. He also has a habit of holding loud conversations with colleagues in other pods and even routinely plays his phone messages over speakerphone. The rest of us in the office know all the details of his work (and doctor's appointments) and can repeat his standard phone phrases. He seems good at what he does, but he's making it hard for me to be good at what I do! I don't know him personally, and we have different bosses. Any suggestions?
Thanks. I enjoy your column and especially agreed with your call for Congress to improve its work culture in your piece on Olympia Snowe's retirement.
A. We know through studies and our polls at the Emily Post Institute that the number one complaint about office colleagues is loud telephone voice. Your colleague takes it a step farther by being loud in person as well.
I’ve come to the realization that most rudeness isn’t intentional and the person being rude is often not aware that he is being so. The alternative, that the rudeness is intentional, doesn’t make much sense. People simply don’t get up in the morning planning to be rude to others.
Nowhere do you mention that anyone has ever brought the issue of Loud Man’s voice level to his attention. The benevolent place to start is to assume that Loud Man is loud without knowing it. Because you don’t know him personally, you may not be the right person to talk to him. Identify someone among your other colleagues who is Loud Man’s friend, and try to enlist him to talk to him privately . It shouldn’t be an accusatory conversation, but rather a “bringing to your attention” conversation. “John, I wanted to talk to you about something that I hope as a friend you would bring up with me if the situation was reversed. It’s about how loud your voice is in the office. Were you aware you talk loudly?”
It’s important to ask that question to direct Loud Man to focus on his volume and then to get his buy-in to lowering it.
Another avenue to pursue would be to enlist your boss to initiate discussions in staff meetings about distractions in the open office area and how they can affect productivity. She should be specific, and include voice level on the list of culprits. Afterwards, the next time he is loud, someone nearby can suggest, “John, this is what Ms. Jones was talking about. Can you lower the volume? Thanks.”
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
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