MINNEAPOLIS — In her decades as a workplace-behavior expert, Fran Sepler has come across her share of galling behavior, from toenail clipping during meetings to an employee who persisted in addressing a post-maternity-leave peer as "Mommy."
The bad news for Sepler and other human resources folks: It's getting worse. Or more precisely, new problems are arising, and the old ones haven't gone away.
"We still deal with all the things we did before," said Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates, "but I'm amazed at how often I get called to deal with new things."
For example, even in an area that might have seemed fully mined — odoriferous problems — old standbys (too much perfume, B.O.) have been joined by the scent of unusual dishes, often ethnic, as workplaces have diversified and by spoiled food in office fridges as the down economy prompts more workers to bring in their lunches.
Technology has exacerbated exasperation, as well: jarringly loud talking on cellphones (and unattended phones' ringtones), cheap earbuds bleeding sound into nearby cubicles, or Facebook "friend" requests from casual co-worker acquaintances. Oversharing, either via social media or office chit-chat, is rampant.
And as more companies lump together vacation and sick days, anywhere from 40 to 55 percent of us sometimes come to work with a contagious disease, according to a 2010 study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Sepler cited many factors contributing to the avalanche of irksome actions:
•More "in your space" physical proximity with open seating setups.
•"All sorts of technology that creates noise and habits."
•Greater workplace diversity; "people whose norms and habits" might vary a great deal.
•Increased expectations of having some control of what goes on around us.
What are workers, and their HR departments, to do?
Minneapolis employment lawyer Ellen Sampson recommends "teamwork training" and rational policies. "A company might have a 'respectful workplace policy,'" she said, referring to a policy that reaches out "not in workplace terms, but collegiality terms. You can't cover everything, but you can set a tone."
Sampson also called it important for HR offices to have an open door. "It's routine for people to come in and say, 'I know this is not a legal issue. I just want you to listen,'" she said. "I call those people good advance planners."
What they often are planning is a conversation with a co-worker whose behavior is disruptive to them. While HR departments can handle some problems — see sidebar for Sepler's take on addressing some of the newer issues — the best first step usually is trying to deal with it on a more personal level.
That seems to be happening regularly at Toro, said human resources director Lee Ann Hartert. "We really try to foster and encourage communication, and for people to air concerns if they have them," she said. "I think a lot of things get discussed at the supervisor level."
The only certainty: Inaction will lead to more irritation.
"Conflict is a real struggle for people," Sepler said, "so in a spirit of tolerance, people will allow annoying behavior to continue. They think tolerating it is easier than addressing. That calculation is wrong: Nothing annoying ever goes away on its own."
EASY DOES IT WHEN ADDRESSING ANNOYANCES
Deal with it yourself, enlist your boss or go to Human Resources? Local workplace expert Fran Sepler suggests these approaches to annoying-workmate problems:
Talking too loud: "Whenever you are going to provide feedback, it's always best to rehearse it, to see how it sounds to hear what you're saying. Rather than saying, 'When you talk, everyone can hear it,' you want to give them some grace. So you say, 'I am sure you have no idea how sounds travel here, but I want to respect your privacy and I want you to be able to protect your privacy.'"
Loud or annoying ring tones, especially from unattended phones: "That one you really need to come to with a simple statement, that 'When your cell rings, I have trouble concentrating. I'm wondering if you couldn't put it on vibrate when you walk away.'"
Office fridge: "There has to be some collective responsibility for someone to take a leadership role to organize a cleaning day where everything is tossed. … An adjunct is people with ethnic food that people find disagreeable, so employees chip in and buy airtight containers and suggest that everyone use it."
Stinky cooked food: "In those cases you need to be assertive and again practice the message in your own head. Say, 'This creates a really strong odor that makes me feel not well, and I wonder if we can reach an agreement.' If it's a hugely objectionable scent and creating a medical issue, it might have to be solved at a higher level. But there also needs to be some degree of tolerance, that some unfamiliar odors may not be unpleasant, just unfamiliar."
Ear buds that bleed out: "It's like the cellphone where I might use a humorous approach. If you recognize the song, you say, 'I love the Grateful Dead as much as anyone, but I'm sure you had no idea that it's so loud.' Or you could tap the person on the shoulder and say, 'I appreciate your desire to listen to music, but it's so loud it's keeping me from being able to concentrate."
People who sing along to their music: "Again, this is where empathy plays a role and you say, 'Do you have any idea people can hear it? I know I wouldn't want everybody pretending it wasn't happening if I was doing that.'"
Clipping nails: "I have seen intervention by HR, but anyone can just say, 'We all have ways of taking care of personal hygiene, but that sound makes me upset. I wonder if you couldn't go to the restroom and do that.'"
We're not that close
Oversharing of personal information: "If you're a supervisor, you shouldn't be doing it, period. You just don't say, 'I had a really hot date' or 'I'm worried I'm putting on weight.' But if it's peer to peer, you can say, 'I really respect you, but I'd like to keep work work and keep the personal stuff personal.' It can get uncomfortable. In an extreme situation you can say, 'I'm not trained to discuss this so maybe you should talk to someone who is.'"
"Friend" requests from co-workers you barely know: "I would say, 'Thank you for the friend request. I'm trying to keep it to my closest friends.' The worst thing to do is to ignore it because then they think 'Do they hate me?' or 'Did I offend them?'"
Showing up at work sick: "That's a tough one, and you can run into potential claims if it's handled wrong. If somebody's sneezing and coughing, I hand the person some hand sanitizer and say, 'I really hope you're using this because I really don't want to catch that.' That's about as far as I would go. … I think that's something where HR is going to handle that with some delicacy."
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