A reader writes:
I currently work at a nonprofit and have been in my department for a year now. While I love my job, I am struggling with a coworker who does not know boundaries.
Quick background: I’m in my late 20s and look young, and my coworker, who helped train me but has the same position and title as I do, is much older, in her 50s, and has worked at our organization for over seven years. While she is a very nice person, she’s done some things that make me feel uncomfortable. It first started when I noticed certain things missing off of my desk, like my personal office supplies, and found that she had used them and taken them to her desk (this would be fine if she’d ask and bring them back, but she didn’t ). Another time, while I was working, she came over and, without asking, took a production schedule I had pinned to my cube wall off and walked off with it. The few times I’ve asked her if she could ask first before taking stuff off of my desk space, her response is usually a dismissive, “No, it’s okay.”
I also rarely take personal phone calls at my desk, but once in a while need to take a call with access to my computer screen (doctor appointments, financial planning, etc.) and try to do it at lunch time and as fast as possible. After some calls, my coworker has turned around to ask far too personal questions about them, like why I was going to the doctor and for what. I’ve tried to take as many calls as possible away from my desk, but it is sometimes difficult to get around that, and I know she’s always listening and ready to ask questions.
I’ve thought about bringing this up to our manager about her lack of boundaries, but he seems to put up with her and lets things slide—sometimes if he stops by my desk to ask me a question, she’ll butt in loudly to ask what we are talking about, and he normally laughs it off. I don’t know if I’m the one being uptight over all of this, but it’s made me increasingly uncomfortable, especially since her boundary breaking makes me feel like she’s treating me like a child. Any suggestions?
I would not bring this up to your manager. It’s really an interpersonal issue that isn’t impacting your work — it’s just annoying you. In the scheme of things, it’s not significant enough that you should take it to your manager, irksome as it is. You want to look like someone who handles your own stuff and doesn’t involve your manager in interpersonal things unless it’s really warranted.
Instead, you need to be more direct with your coworker if you want it to stop.
That means that the next time she takes something from your desk, you should say, “Please don’t take things from my desk without asking or bringing them back afterwards. I’m often counting on them being there.” If she brushes you off and tells you it’s no big deal, say, “Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal, I’d appreciate you humoring me on this. It really bothers me when things disappear from my desk.”
And the next time she asks you questions about a personal phone call, refuse to play along: “That was a personal call. I’d rather not discuss it.”
Keep in mind that while her taking things from your desk is something you can’t stop without her cooperation, whether or not you answer personal questions about your calls is 100% within your control, even if she keeps asking forever.
If you’re worried that telling her to cut this stuff out will cast a chill over your relationship with her, you can counter that by making a point of being warm and friendly to her the rest of the time, as long as she’s acting appropriately … but if you want this stuff to stop, you’ll have to tell her.
In fact, that’s the rule for most coworker annoyances: If you want them to stop, you have to say so.
If you try this and she continues anyway … well, you have an annoying coworker. She won’t be the last.
But in the scheme of things, this isn’t vastly out of the normal range of coworker annoyances, so it’s also worth just trying to get a thicker skin about it if it continues after you say something. Not because you should have to, but because from a purely practical standpoint, it will make your life at work happier.