dealing with a coworker’s loud personal phone calls

A reader writes:

I share a cube wall with a young man who is a bit socially awkward. He doesn’t seem to understand normal boundaries and talks loudly about his personal life with his coworkers and on the phone all the time (and right now he’s doing an extended drumming session on his desk). His stories are the stuff gossipers dream of (jail! custody! legal fees! court orders! tax issues!), and sometimes I think he even talks about this stuff to vendors and clients. It’s very unprofessional and hurting his reputation with everyone sitting around him who isn’t on his team.

We have quiet rooms just steps away for exactly these types of phone calls (though that won’t help with the drumming). His team seems to find it amusing, and his manager has to be aware of the situation, since he sits near us and, as far as I know, is not hard of hearing. I’ve heard he’s brilliant at his job, so there’s no performance issue. He’s also very nice and friendly most of the time.

I’m not on his team — I’m not even in the same chain of command and I’m brand new to my job and the company. I have no relationship with his manager at all and I don’t have an on-site manager. I have noise-cancelling headphones and they help with the general chitcat, but not with the phone calls — I can still hear him. There are no open cubes for me to move to.

Since he has this general level of immaturity, and I’ve heard him get testy with insurance people on the phone, I worried about approaching him directly and just saying, “Can you please take your personal calls in the quiet room.” Several coworkers (on my team, not his) have said they feel sorry for me for sitting next to him, and they haven’t said anything because he’s such a source of entertainment for his team they think it would sour the relationship with everyone. I think he likes the attention he gets from his team.

I think the thing that is most distressing to me is not that it’s loud and distracting, but that his manager isn’t speaking up and telling him that it would be more professional to keep his personal life personal. It’s doing this guy a big disservice.

I’m stuck. Any advice would be appreciated.

You have three options: Talk to him, talk to his manager, or deal with it.

If you weren’t new, I’d say you should absolutely talk to him, and then escalate to your or his manager if necessary, but since you’re new, it’s a little dicier. Rightly or wrongly, when you ask a coworker to change their annoying behavior when you’re new, and when they’ve been doing this annoying thing without complaints for long before you got there, you sometimes risk looking inappropriately demanding or like you don’t adapt well to new cultures than if you made the same request after being there longer.

That said, in this case I think there’s no reason that you can’t nicely explain the problem to him. Say something like, “Bob, I’m finding that I’m having trouble focusing when you’re on the phone. I’ve tried noise-canceling headphones, but they haven’t solved it. I know you need to make calls for your job and I wouldn’t ask you to stop, but when it’s personal calls, I wonder if you’d be willing to use one of the quiet rooms.”

It’s still possible that he’ll get testy with you, of course — because it’s possible that anyone could get testy over anything — but this is a perfectly reasonable request with perfectly nice wording.

If that doesn’t work, or if you feel too awkward to do it, consider talking to his manager and ask for her help in solving the problem. Use the same sort of wording as above — explaining that you’ve taken measures on your own, like the headphones, but that the calls are long, frequent, loud, and distracting.

Or, your last option: Resign yourself to dealing with it, at least until you’ve been there a few months longer and might feel more comfortable speaking up.

But those are really your only options. You’ve got to decide which is the least painful to contemplate.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Matthew Soffen

    There is another option that you failed to mention. The person could talk to THEIR manager. And ask them if there is something that could be done (move them, talk to the employee, etc.).

  2. Elle

    When people do annoying things in the workplace, I generally find that my nerves get so frayed that even if I can zone out of the noise, I can’t zone out of the anger I feel at them. If you really can’t move, I would work on trying to get zen about the situation and not letting it derail you so much. I would also use the quiet rooms myself any time I really needed quiet.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit

      Ha, this is so true – it’s my own frustration that’s distracting, not the actual behavior. Which means that the solution ultimately lies with me (i.e., addressing my frustration). Sigh.

  3. Jamie

    I couldn’t even finish reading the OP’s letter. I got to the drumming part and couldn’t go on.

    I do not know why desk drumming is not a capital offense.

    All of my advice contains at least one felony so I’ll defer to the more reasoned among us – but you truly have my deepest sympathies.

      1. CubeSlave

        I sit by a knuckle cracker. So awful. I honestly wonder how someone can think that is an acceptable sound to make in the office.

        That, and gum chewing/popping/snapping drive me bonkers.

        1. Up&Moved

          Had the annoying talker kitty corner & a finger nail clipper on the opposite wall. After addressing the talker’s issue with our own boss & addressed with talker’s boss on three separate occasions, we wound up moving the entire group instead of actually getting the talker to stop (for any length of time). Points of note : the talker and his boss each have 20+ years in the company, the talker claimed the 5 personal phone calls a day at raised volume were due to medical condition, and we have been “running lean” for so long nobody wants to ruffle feathers and be next “reduction in force” as a result.

    1. Long Time Admin

      One of my co-workers has problems focusing, and he will drum his fingers to help himself stay on track. It doesn’t last very long, but it still annoys the heck out of me. Knowing why he does it helps a little.

  4. jesicka309

    Do you work in my office? We have one such loudmouth who seems to think the whole office should revolve around him and his personal life.
    I used to sit next to him when he started, and no joke, he would sit there meowing like a cat, singing songs, having loud personal conversations with clients over the phone, drumming his fingers on the desk etc.
    At first it was kind of funny, as it was a quiet office and his exuberance lightened the mood, but I found it significantly difficult to do my work after a while (imagine taking a phone call while he sits there pressing the buttons on your phone because “it’s just Dan on the line,” and me having to explain that troublemaker was acting up)
    Sadly, these types are also the ones who get picked for client facing promotions because they’re so ‘personable’. I found that out the hard way, and have to see his team emails that read ‘SUP TEAM’ and hear him shouting gleefully with clients. It grinds my gears that was rewarded for that behaviour.

    1. Jamie

      Omg I had his American cousin! The pushing buttons while you’re on the phone because “it’s just (name random co-worker) although mine hooted like an owl and didn’t meow. But the drumming, singing, whistling…oh the whistling…the clinking of a spoon against a ceramic cereal bowl…how long can it take to eat cereal?

      I still have nightmares.

      1. Jess

        If someone tried to get close enough to be pressing buttons on my phone while I was on it, I would be swatting at them. If they did it a second time, I would hang up and very loudly use my talking to a preschooler voice to redirect them.

        A third time? Well, let’s just say if it happened a third time I know for a fact there would not be a fourth. Of course, I would also be out of a job and trying to argue justifiable homicide.

        1. Long Time Admin

          I went to Catholic school, and I know how to use a ruler!

          No one touches my phone (it hasn’t ever been a problem, but if it were…).

      2. Elizabeth West

        My person was a singer, made animal noises, hummed, and whistled. Also burped, farted and giggled. He was really good at the whistling and was so funny I actually kind of enjoyed it. He did it so often I just tuned it out after a while, and when he was gone on medical leave, I actually missed it. It was too quiet!

        Of course, I wasn’t doing anything that really required all that much concentration. If I was, I would have shot a tack at him on a rubber band or something. And we had the kind of office where you could just say “Bob, be quiet!” to people and get away with it.

        1. Rana

          What, are these people three years old?!

          I mean, geez, I have my own incidences of being goofy or silly, but at least I learned as a little kid that there are times when you have to put a sock in it, no matter how bored you are.

          1. Elizabeth West

            LOL! Around here, the more….rural…people are, the more likely they are to be stuck in that kid/high school kind of behavior pattern. I can so picture this guy in school being the class clown.

            I would still hire him if I ran a company, though. He was a fantastic salesman and took excellent care of his customers. I also got to listen to him talk to them and he really impressed me.

  5. Vicki

    OP – Try noise-isolating (not canceling) headphones. NC headphones are meant to block out continuous sounds like fans, airplane engines, motors. They are NOT designed to block Talking!!

    NI headphones dampen all sounds and help a lot with talky people, phones, etc.

    (When I have t work in a cubicle, I wear noise-Isolating headphones over a pair of soft foam 30-db earplugs. :-(

    1. Elizabeth West

      I’m going to remember this…I will probably have a cube and while the office seemed pretty quiet when I was taken through there today, I won’t be taking calls for people so it may be okay for me to have the headphones.

        1. Laura L

          Yay, congrats! I couldn’t find your other post (haven’t been reading comments closely lately), so I’m posting here.

  6. Anonymous

    I am the writer/communications person and I get stuck in a cubicle next to these people WITHOUT FAIL in every job I have. I enjoyed a little drum solo (Rush, maybe?) just this afternoon while trying to work on a feature I’m writing about one of the CEOs.

    Meanwhile those who don’t have to concentrate like a writer might aren’t in cubicles but are in offices.

  7. Angry Writer from above

    OH and let me just throw this out there — I never have the nerve to confront these people because I’m one of those “nice” people, which has got to change or I’m going to burst a vein in my forehead. But I’m the one who couldn’t muster up the courage to ask someone to quit farting, either. Sigh.

    1. LMW

      This is the OP. I am a writer/editor too. I think that’s part of why it’s driving me totally batty. I really need quiet to concentrate and all these extra words blaring in my ears make it hard to concentrate on my own words.

      1. Cassie

        Me too – I write a little in my job but even if I’m just drafting an important email, it is really distracting to have to hear everything else that is going on beside my cubicle. I sit in the center of our suite and not only is it near the water cooler, I can also hear my coworkers in the corner offices clearing their throats.

        A lot of the time, I end up leaving my desk and going for a walk – helps me “write” sentences in my mind.

      2. Long Time Admin

        Can *you* use the quiet room if your noisy co-worker won’t? We’re allowed to use any empty conference room when we need to concentrate more.

      3. Anonicorn

        Why do employers always seem to place their writers in cubes with people who don’t need that level of concentration? It was an annoyance I faced for years, albeit not quite the annoyance you’re faced with.

        Sometimes I found it helpful to just get up and leave. Take a walk. Or, don’t know if it’ll do any good, but you might try a white noise site/app like this:
        http://simplynoise.com/

        You said there aren’t any open cubes, but I wonder if you could trade with someone else? Maybe make a case that you work with SoAndSo more frequently and it would be useful if you sat near one another. Something like that.

        1. Angry Writer

          Good suggestions. I also listen to soma.fm with headphones — trancy, white noise type of music works wonders. Because if I listen to music with words, then I hear those and can’t concentrate!

  8. anon for this one

    I don’t have much advice to offer the OP, except to say that I am in a similar situation, and when I first started I thought it would get better and I never said anything (this is also my first job out of college so I am still learning). To be fair, at that point she was helping to plan her daughter’s wedding and I figured the phone calls would slow down after that. A year and a half later, she still constantly gabs on the phone–if anything, it has gotten worse. It is even more annoying because we “share” our office’s main line and it directs to both of our phones–meaning I often feel like her personal secretary (and am often forced to lie and say she is not there when collection agencies call, but that’s another story) and we do not have any place to go to for personal calls (or even to eat lunch). Our manager has witnessed this behavior on several occasions and obviously does not care (this co-worker has been here for 7+ years and I suspect always did this). I don’t know what to tell you other than, if you have the option to somehow say something or there is somewhere for him to go, or anything you can do, you might as well try for the sake of your own sanity. Perhaps if you notice anyone (especially his/your manager) referring to his calls as a source of entertainment or gossiping about what they heard, use this as an opportunity to say something about how it keeps you from getting your work done as efficiently or as well as you would like. Otherwise you can concede to my fate of hating the 8 hours I spend at an otherwise wonderful job because of one person. The only other thing I have considered is talking to someone at HR, which is totally outside of our department. Would this be an option for you? Or maybe therapy to learn how to not be so bothered by it (I have started calling places for quotes)? Sometimes I just remind myself that I am so lucky to have a life that is not filled with all of the drama she has. That usually keeps me distracted for a couple of hours. Good luck!

    1. Schnauz

      I thought once you informed a collection agency that they were calling a workplace and the calls are unwelcome, that they were required to stop calling the workplace?

      I’m a little confused. Do you have personal extensions so when you pick up the phone and it’s for her, you can transfer the call to her phone? Or does she have to call them back? If you have separate extensions, is it possible to petition your boss to have you or her issued with a direct dial number? If you can show that she receives so many personal phone calls, including creditors, that you’d be more productive if you didn’t have to answer her calls everyday then it might give you a separate line or highlight the inappropriately high number of calls she receives. I’m a little anal and a tad passive aggressive (I admit it), so I’d probably even keep a log of how many personal calls of hers I answered every day, show how of those I answer versus actual business calls and then present that to my boss. ;)

      1. Elizabeth West

        I think the creditor has to do it, but I’m not sure.

        That said, there are nasty debt collectors (and plenty of scammy ones) who pay no attention. One of my former coworkers was a victim of identity theft and a collector for something the thief had done kept calling and calling for him. He was told many times by the coworker not to call there, but kept it up until we finally lied and told him the guy had left the company.

  9. Matteus

    Wow, add frequent loud, open-mouthed food chewing, offensive B.O., and hyaena-like laughter and you have an office-mate I had a few years back.
    How pitiful is it when you, a (nominal) adult, have to be told to bathe more often by your supervisors.

    Luckily (I guess, depending on your point of view) he was also incompetent, and didn’t stay very long.

  10. B

    I am in the same boat and also a new person. I share an office with someone who is an over sharer to the extreme – bodily function explanations, children’s sex lives, comments on my food, everything is a rush/issue, and she walks in with coat on, starts talking, and doesn’t stop.

    I wish I had some advice for you but alas as the new person it’s tough to figure out how to work things. I plan to do the “it’s so difficult hearing on my phone with others talking, is yours like that?”

    1. Jennifer

      Yeah, another newbie here with the same problem. My area is literally called “the noisy office” and “the fishbowl.” We’ve got one person playing country music all day long without headphones (I don’t hate country, but I am so sick of hearing the exact same songs played every single day for 9 hours, 5 days a week And some of them are quite bad.). I could probably ask, but if I’m the only one with the problem, it looks bad.

      Adding to the fun, while I do have my own set of headphones and sounds set up, they also make us babysit the phone lines, so I can’t always use them–and yet, the country still plays. Plus the talking. I just got off the phone from sitting around on a 2-hour online class call and for the last hour, I just had racket going on behind me and people trying to ask me stuff.

      I miss my old quiet office where I sat in a corner and nobody bugged me alllllll day.

  11. MA

    I had the same situation at my office down to being the newbie and an immature, loud coworker with a different manager. I was going crazy because my job requires a lot of analysis, which for me equals quiet contemplation. I ended speaking with my manager, who is a very sensible knows when to pick his battles type of guy. We talked about the options (which included the options discussed by AMA) but in the end he suggested that I switch desks and let my coworker know that I would be moving to have a more quiet space. The day I decided to move my desk I let my coworker politely know that I needed a work space with less noise. I didn’t say anything specifically or point fingers, I just was matter of fact and polite about it. She was very polite about my decision and it never ended up being a point of contention. To top things off she actually stopped taking so many loud personal calls and quieted down. I know the OP doesn’t have another desk to move to, but I have hope the OP will find a happy ending!

  12. LMW

    Thanks for answering my question! And for all the advice/commiseration in the comments.
    I know you’re right and my best option is just to say something. I think the next time it happens I’ll quietly ask him to take the calls to the quiet room so I can concentrate. Or I’ll just set up shop in the quiet room myself (frowned upon, since they are supposed to be open for phone calls, but I doubt anyone would say anything). I’m still a little worried about the reaction I’ll get, but it’s either that or shut up and deal. (I haven’t spoken to his manager since I was
    introduced on my first day, so that would be the mot awkward option

    1. Anonymous

      Can you talk with your manager about using the quiet room first? Explain the situation, review what you’ve considered and ask for advice. If your mgr has your back re use of the quiet room at least part of the time, that would help you. If others nearby don’t need the quiet to do their work, you’re really going to want your mgr’s support. Best if your mgr can give a heads up to the onsite mgr about approving your use of that space. Good luck!

      1. LMW

        I’ve considered that, but I don’t want to set a precedent for using it as my own office. Right now we have a really nice flow that people use the room for watching/conducting webinars or taking phone calls that should be private. They aren’t reservable and are used on an as-needed basis. There’s usually at least one available (we have eight for about 100 people on the floor). It’s a system that seems to work really well and I don’t want to be the one that screws it up!

  13. Bob G

    I completely agree with Matthew, the OP does have a 4th choice (and the one I’d recommend) to go to their manager. I understand their manager is not on-site but if they explain it in the same manner they did in their post the manager should understand the issues. I’d hate to find out that one of my direct reports caused problems with another team (potentially) without even bringing the issue to my attention and giving me the opportunity to address it with the other team’s manager first.

  14. Girasol

    I requested a move to an abandoned cube (layoffs, you know) to avoid the glare in my old office. There really was glare from an awkwardly placed light, but the move was mainly to escape remote child rearing. “Did you do your homework? Stop hitting your sister. What did I…WHAT DID I TELL YOU? No. NO. You heard me. You just wait till I get home.” And then Officemate would turn to me and say “You’ll never guess what my kid just said!” I also heard the entire divorce proceeding, all the discussions with the lawyer and “You’ll never guess what that he’s done now! Well, just let me tell you!” I suppose that’s just how the new “work life blend” works. But complaining of glare saved me from ratting on a single mom and from dragging a girly drama into the boss’s office. Ergonomic requests are no-brainers.

  15. Anony

    I have the same exact problem. I sit right across from this girl who is extremely bubbly, preppy and outgoing. She constantly talks on the phone about how drunk she got over the weekend. Now I’m stuck having to hear her talk about nothing but her wedding all day. She is very loud and annoying but obviously doesn’t realize it and doesn’t care that other people around her. I have been tempted to put an anonymous note on her desk telling her that no one wants to hear about her drunk weekends.

    And then the person sitting next to be is a native speaker who talks in his language all day on the phone and leaves the loud speaker on when he’s on conference calls. I’m not trying to be racist b/c he is really a nice guy but hearing him on the phone all day loudly is rough.

    I’m sure you are not the only one dealing with this and I’m glad I’m not the only one. I took AAM’s last advice: deal with it. It’s what happens when you find yourself in a cubicle environment. It took me months before I got “use to it” but I have learned to deal with it and use them as funny conversation topics.

    1. Lily

      I can deal with someone speaking in a foreign language all day; if I can’t understand what is being said, then it doesn’t distract me. Someone speaking in a language I understand would get on my nerves!

  16. Anon1970

    Talk to your manager. Earlier this year, when our office moved, I was reassigned to a different department. I went from finance to field operations and it took me awhile to get used to the background noise. I did have an issue though with my co-worker who shared the common wall between our cube. He’s slowly becoming hard of hearing (he even admits it) and is a very loud talker. After about six weeks, I went into our manager’s office and basically explained to her what was going on. I’m glad I did. Her office is directly across from his cube, she knew how loud he could be and they had discussed it on several occasions, about him keeping the volume down. She let me switch cubes without incident. We’re now on opposite ends of the row, different sides and I got a window view to boot.

  17. LG

    AAM you must totally be relishing your work at home in your PJs ability about right now. I know I am envious of it. But I’m seriously considering my own work from home or work away from the crazies business. These stories combined with my own experiences (perfume must have spilled on them types) make me doubly sure i’m on the right track.

  18. LMW

    Thanks again everyone. You’re making me feel like I’m not overreacting by being a little annoyed. He actually hasn’t had one loud personal call since I wrote the letter, so maybe it was just situational bad behavior over a few weeks (I can hope anyway). In any case, I just found a new apartment with the perfect space for a home office, so once I’m a bit more settled in, I’m going to talk to my manager about working from home more frequently so I have the quiet to concentrate. Thanks!

  19. surrounded by insanity

    I wondered if I wrote that… and then I remembered there is only one of them! I have three in my office and have another who moved offices.

    With most of mine they are loud enough I can tell people I’m speaking to on the other end of the phone can actually hear them due to the pauses in the conversation and even questions about what is going on in the office around me.

    With the latest one (a new starter) I actually went to my boss within 2 weeks and said “I can’t expect you to know its effecting me and my work unless I tell you about it”. I actually wondered out loud if there was any chance of him being given an office.

    The others have all been here far too long for anyone to *dare* to tell them to stop. I actually spend a considerable portion of my time trying to schedule my phone calls when the above people are out of the office for a few minutes!

  20. CubeSlave

    Whomever came up with cubes and the open office space concept have obviously never had to sit and work in one. I would LOVE for office dwelling workers to sit in a cube and try to concentrate on an important project while people click, clack, crack, bang, crunch, creak, sniffle, sneeze, slurp, tap, and talk a few feet away from them.

    1. Jamie

      To be fair, most office dwelling people didn’t get a private office right off the bat.

      And to be honest the only reason I got mine was that I needed quiet in order to work and it wasn’t possible where I was sitting before. This was years ago, but when I brought up the change issue to my boss he asked me why I hadn’t just picked up and moved into a (mostly) empty office. It never occurred to me (at that stage in my career) that it was an option.

      So in some places the seating is about who is most comfortable where so it doesn’t hurt to bring it up with your boss.

  21. S.G.

    Guess every office has one of these. Mine is one of two women I share a very small office with. She NEVER stops talking. She can’t think – I need to go make a copy of this – she has to say loudly I need to go make a copy of this. She uses the speaker phone, even though we’ve told her it is distracting, especially if we are also on the phone. And then there are her cell phone conversations. Everyone in a five office circle knows more about her sex life, her cheating ex husband, and how horribly her daughter is raising her grandchildren. Our office mate is very expressive in her responses — pulling a drawer out so far it crashes to the floor, talking over her on her own cell, and commenting back on whatever conversation the loud one just had. When it gets to be too much, I hide somewhere for a quick zen breathing session or take a walk to make copies or send a fax. Calgon take me away!!!!

  22. rebecca s

    Even after repeated warnings in our office, the same two individuals continue to “loud-yell” business and personal conversations. They don’t feel the rules apply to them. They are so self absorbed in themselves that they don’t notice how rude and annoying they are. They refuse to believe that many of us are unable to concentrate because of their behavior; they think that because “I” have spoken to them, I am the one will the problem and they just continue to yell to each other, from across the entire office, within their offices, and on the phones, in English and in other languages. It is an impossible situation and I cannot see how it will ever get resolved. I have tried noise isolating headphones and I can still hear them, and this is even with shutting my door!

  23. deb

    My issue is with a co-worker who whispers on the phone all day, personal calls, singing and praying…she pretends to be very religious…I have seen her at parties, its all an act. Problem is she told the boss that she had too much work so she was relieved of most of her duties and now has even more free time, her goal obviously in the first place. The boss values her??? although her quantity of work is ridiculous, she gets NOTHING done from 8-5 then stays til 7 or 8 because she needs to catch up on her Facebook etc. What is unfair is that the rest of us are busting hump all day while she slacks off. I am able to get my work done in 8 hours with these distractions, take a lunch and leave promptly at 5. I am finding that I have become more hostile daily though dealing with this and would really like a solution. Should I approach her? She isnt loud but I feel like I am spying because I can hear despite the whispering, I hear EVERY WORD. Our cubicles are only separated by a short wall and we are literally about 2 feet apart, both of our computers are the same position on the desk. I have file cabinets etc around my cube so rearanging is not an option…HELP??? I love the job but hate the cube.

    1. G

      That is so hard!!!!!….I understand!!……Try to look for another job sounds like your co-worker has it good there she’s not going anywhere. Stay strong! Seems like those of us who love our jobs and actually WORK find ourselves in those situations…I wish managers would open their eyes!

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