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Not all office noises are controllable

A recent letter from a woman who was stressed out by her co-worker’s bodily noises generated quite a reaction from readers. Here are some of their comments:

After reading your column about the noisy officemate, I have concluded that you either work in a very sheltered environment or have superhuman tolerance beyond the reach of most people. For nine years, I have been forced to listen to my co-worker’s loud and constant cough, which is both annoying and disgusting. He says he has allergies, but the truth is he’s a heavy smoker who refuses to quit.

In your response about the noisy co-worker, you failed to mention that her frequent coughing and throat-clearing might be due to a medical disorder known as Tourette’s syndrome. People with Tourette’s have physical and verbal tics which they are unable to control. I have an adult child with this problem, and it is a constant struggle.

Some people make physical noises intentionally. I worked with one woman who drank lots of soda and belched constantly. One day, when I was on the phone with our vice president, he heard her belching in the background. He informed her that this unprofessional conduct reflected badly on our department and must stop immediately. That’s when we learned that she actually could control this behavior.

You should have considered the possibility that the noisy co-worker might have an untreated medical condition. One of my relatives could not get through a sentence without clearing her throat, which was very distracting in conversations. The problem was solved when her doctor determined that this was actually a symptom of acid reflux.

I was offended by your response to the person whose cube neighbor makes bodily sounds. In an open work environment, everyone should consider how their actions affect others. One person in our office does not bathe regularly and has an extremely offensive odor. Management has talked to him about this, but he refuses to change.

The real problem here is a spineless supervisor. If this supervisor had enough backbone to confront the noisy co-worker gently and directly, the problem could be resolved. As long as the supervisor refuses to help, the colleague will not feel safe addressing the situation herself. The leader always sets the tone for the group.

When an employee truly has a physical problem, their co-workers have no choice but to accept the situation. However, if someone is being intentionally rude and obnoxious, human resources needs to get involved and take appropriate action.

When people are attempting to concentrate, extraneous noises can be extremely irritating. However, expecting complete silence in shared office space is obviously unrealistic. The general rule, therefore, is that uncontrollable sounds must be tolerated, while disruptive behaviors need to be addressed. Managers should help to define the difference and resolve any conflicts that arise. And now, perhaps we can all just try to get along.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” Send in questions and get free coaching tips at www.yourofficecoach.com.

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