telling your boss she talks too loudly

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my nearly perfect first job, largely thanks to your just plain awesome advice, for about 6 months. It’s a great atmosphere, I have great bosses, but there’s one small thing I don’t know how to handle, or if I should handle it at all.

My department head, who I work with closely, tends to talk loudly when she really cares about something—like when she’s reprimanding another employee. Even with her office door closed, the eight people who sit in the room outside her office can generally hear some of what she’s saying. I know she doesn’t intend this and probably has no idea, but I would be mortified if I were having a serious conversation with her about my work and my coworkers could hear parts of it. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like my place to say anything and I have no idea how I would. If no one else feels the need to say something, should I let it be?

When I first saw your subject line, I thought this was going to be about telling your boss she talks too loudly generally. This is much easier!  (I would be very sympathetic, though, if that had been the case; I have worked with some loud talkers — the ones whose volume is for some reason just calibrated way louder than everyone else’s — and it sucks.)

In this situation, unless your boss is outright insane, she would very much want to know this thing that you’re wondering if you should tell her or not. You’re feeling sensitive about this because you know it’s caused by her loud voice, but imagine if the cause of the issue was just really thin walls or odd acoustics — and if she had no idea. You’d probably be much less hesitant to give her a heads-up, and of course she’d appreciate it.

You really only need to say something like this:  “Hey, I wanted to give you a heads-up about something you have no way of realizing: When you’re having sensitive conversations in your office with someone and have the door closed for privacy, you can often be heard out here. I don’t know if we have thin walls or what, but I figured you’d want to know and probably didn’t.”

(Of course, if you have the type of relationship with her where you can be really candid and just say, “You talk really loudly when you’re reprimanding people,” that’s even better.  But that’s not necessary if you don’t.)

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    I once made a joke about it to my bosses — I said I could hear them especially well when they were whispering and isn’t it funny how sound travels in odd ways in this building? They got the message.

  2. Jamie

    I would definitely say something, and I would absolutely refer to the thin walls (or air ducts, building oddities…whatever works) and not mention how loud she is.

    She will be more conscious of her volume, which is what you want – and unless she designed the building she can’t take it personally. It’s one of those perfect (but rare) win-win situations where you can say something while avoiding a personal critique and still get the end result you need.

    Another reason to say something…when she finds out, and she will (maybe when reprimanding someone whose been on the other side of the wall), she’ll be irritated that no one told her. I would be.

    No one wants to be told they have spinach on their teeth – but everyone would rather have it pointed out discretely right away than discovering it by accident later – doing the math between the eating and discovery is no fun, and you’d be mad at everyone who noticed and didn’t tell you.

  3. clobbered

    If you are unsure of whether your boss is doing this deliberately or not, you can bring it up indirectly – like find a reason to talk to her in private, and then walk into her office, close the door and remark “let me close the door – not that it makes a difference, boy, the walls must be made of paper in this building, huh?”. And then carry on your conversation in a low tone of voice.

    But aside from that, I am in a similar type of building (we have what I like to call “placebo doors” – they are useful as a visual indicator that a meeting is going on, but provide no sound insulation). The most important thing for me is to respect the *intent* of the closed door. So if the person in the next office is having a closed door meeting, I will put on my headphones, or start a conversation with a co-worker, or go get a cup of coffee or whatever it takes so that means I am not sitting there listening to it. So perhaps you folks could come up with a similar tactic.

    I have to say I am a bit taken aback by an allegedly perfect job where employees are frequently reprimanded though….

  4. Talyssa

    This reminds me of my previous organization where we were going through huge layoffs — and the layoffs were based on a directive to bring salary costs under a certain number per month. The 3 senior managers would lock themselves up in one guys office and discuss who was and wasn’t going to be on “the list”. People moved on and off the list constantly over a couple weeks — and unfortunately our project management intern was sitting in a cubicle that shared a wall with that office which had incredibly thin walls. She spent 2 weeks so stressed out that she made herself physically ill – she was so upset that she knew who was getting laid off in advance. Managers should be really conscious of what kinds of conversations they have where — most office buildings (at least, around here) don’t have thick insulated offices, they just erect some cheap drywall to give more privacy.

    1. Anonymous

      She spent 2 weeks so stressed out that she made herself physically ill – she was so upset that she knew who was getting laid off in advance

      Couldn’t that (and indeed, the OP’s initial query) be solved by a quick read through of Il Principe?

  5. Anonymous

    I’m on the other side. I get increasingly louder and louder when I get excited about the topic of conversation and I appreciate it when someone tells me to turn the volume down. I just don’t realize that I’m to the point of yelling!

  6. Liza

    I was the boss on the receiving end of the news. It wasn’t my voice (I don’t think) but a ventilation pipe that did a perfect job of carrying my voice directly into a work area outside my office. Everyone knew the problem with the office, but I had just joined the company and didn’t know. A programmer, who is NOT known for his tact, just came to me one evening (hours after my last closed-door discussion) and simply said to me: “You don’t know this but that ventilation pipe goes straight to over my desk. As a result, my team and I can hear everything said in this office perfectly, even when you talk quietly and the door is closed.” While I was mortified at what might have been heard (my office is a safe zone so conversations are rather… frank), I was happy to hear that news. No other manager has sat in that office since.

    Feel free to apply any part of that story in the appropriate situation!

  7. Rachel

    I’m going to disagree. I don’t know your boss but I’ve had some crazy bosses and I know that 6 months in I wouldn’t be making waves with the boss. I can’t believe that none of the 8 other people haven’t mentioned it in the past.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If she does it as something helpful rather than a complaint, no reasonable boss is going to see her as making waves. And I would bet money that the other 8 people didn’t mention it precisely because people are so often unclear on where the distinction is.

      1. Charles

        Hmm, I think I might agree with Rachel on this one. Six months in is too soon to say something like this; especially since others are aware of the situation and have said nothing. (or have they said something and it went nowhere?)

        I would be more likely to “recruit” another staff member who has been there longer and knows the dept head better to say something; or at least get some feedback from other, more senior, employees on what they think should be done or said.

        P.S. AAM, I think you often make the “mistake” that many bosses are “reasonable.” In my mind a reasonable boss would/should be aware of her “loud voice,” the employee should not have to say something as this situation wouldn’t exist if the boss were competent.

        Now, if she is going deaf then it might make sense that she is not aware of her loud voice. But since she is not loud in normal conversations I don’t think that is the case here. It sounds more like she is not in control of her emotions. That might be a sign of a “bad” boss, and just 6 months in the OP might not have seen the boss’s “bad” side yet.

        1. lorrwill

          As a manager trying maintain confidentiality, I would want to know and would not shoot the messenger weather they had been there 6 months or 6 days – if they deliver the message in a respectful manner. This is where excellent soft skills come in.

          I would be disappointed 6 years down the road to be hearing about this for the first time, however.

          I think it depends on one’s management style and how the message is delivered. From reading the OP, I don’t get the impression this department head is doing it on purpose as a passive-aggressive way to maintain command and control.
          (Some do you know, yell behind closed doors to intimidate those on the outside.) And it seems this person is approachable. I think AAM is right.

  8. jmkenrick

    I agree with AAM and most other people.

    Also, I wanted to comment as someone with a loud voice. When I get excited about a topic, my volume tends to skyrocket – and I almost never notice until someone points it out.

    If she does have a loud voice in general, it’s probably been brought to her attention before (especially if she has siblings), and a gentle comment about thin walls will remind her to pay attention to it.

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