President,  Berman Larson Kane
President, Berman Larson Kane

Career Report
October, 2007 — Issue 92

Lowering the Volume in the Next Cubicle

Loud talkers are among the biggest pet peeves in the workplace, but dealing with them calls for tact not confrontation. In a Q&A feature carried by The New York Times, careers columnist Eilene Zimmerman provided the following insight on the topic, while offering tips for employees affected by loud talk and advice for those who may be contributing to the problem.

Your co-workers sometimes have loud conversations near you, and they don’t seem to realize that the noise is keeping you from concentrating. What should you do?

Rather than involving the boss, it’s best to deal with the issue yourself, according to J.T. O’Donnell, co-author of the syndicated column, “J.T. & Dale Talk Jobs” and co-founder of Blue Kilowatt, a career coaching firm in North Hampton, N.H. Say something like: ‘Guys, I’m having trouble concentrating while you are talking. I’d be so grateful if you could take the conversation down the hall.’” If they listen to you, make sure to follow-up and thank them.

Is it possible that some loud talkers aren’t aware that they are loud?

Yes. People who have an impaired inner ear because of aging, genetics or exposure to noise may not be able to hear how loud they are, said Hamid Djalilian, an assistant professor and director of otology and neurotology at the University of California, Irvine, medical center. Dr. Djalilian, who studies the ear, hearing and balance, said: “You set your voice level based on how well you actually hear yourself.” Employees need to be sensitive to such situations as they weigh options regarding a noisy neighbor.

What about personal phone conversations at an employee’s desk? How loud is too loud and how personal is too personal?

A good rule of thumb is for employees to use a “library voice” while on the phone and to keep chit chat to a minimum. Yet, while it’s inevitable that people will take care of some personal business at work, you shouldn’t have to listen to your neighbor plan her wedding for three hours a day, or talk about his romantic date last night, Ms. O’Donnell said. “We all have cell phones,” she added. “Take the call out to your car, the lunchroom or an empty conference room and have personal conversations there.”

What is the best way to tell a loud co-worker about your concerns?

Be direct and diplomatic, but never attack someone personally. Focus on the action that’s bothering you, not the person, and don’t make value judgments. “Most reasonable people are willing to alter their actions, especially if you have an alternative plan in mind,” said Richard Cellini, a lawyer and executive at Integrity Interactive in Boston, which provides online training in business ethics. “But if you start questioning their motivations or values, you’ll find them more resistant.”

Also, keep your tone light and breezy; after all, this is not a life-threatening situation, added Kerry Patterson, chief development officer at VitalSmarts, an interpersonal management and leadership training company in Provo, Utah. And steer clear of terms like “obnoxious,” “uncaring’ or “insensitive,” Patterson said. “Those are ugly conclusions and that’s not the issue anyway.”

Is it possible that you’re oversensitive?

Yes. And being too sensitive to noise usually has less to do with your hearing than with your psyche, explained Dr. Djalilian. Anxious people tend to be more sensitive to noise because of hormonal changes that result from that anxiety, he added. And some people are just easily distracted.

When should a manager become involved?

It’s always best to try to resolve problems with co-workers yourself. That way, employees working in close proximity wind up setting the terms of the protocol themselves, said Brendan Courtney, senior vice president at Spherion, a staffing company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

But if you’ve tried and nothing has changed – or if your colleague is now angry with you – it’s time to go to your immediate supervisor. Managers can set aside a place, like a conference room or empty office, for conversations between two or more people and for private phone calls.

Another way to manage a dispute is to work together to set noise standards for a group of cubicles. “Get everyone in a pod of cubicles together and set some ground rules,” Patterson advised. “This way you take the pressure off individuals to confront others and make it a group standard instead.”

News from BLK

Bob Larson, CPC, president of Berman Larson Kane, will be addressing the annual conference of NAPS, the National Association of Personnel Services, which is being held this month in San Antonio. As Chairman of the Board of NAPS, Bob will welcome the more than 800 participants who find this conference to be an invaluable venue for professional networking and education.

Susan Cocchiaro, CTS, PHR, recently participated as a panel member at a meeting of HR/NY, the largest member chapter of SHRM in the country. The meeting was focused on career development, specifically the value of certification vs. advanced degrees, and was attended by members of HR/NY.