my coworker brushes her hair with a fork and cleans her false teeth at her desk

This was originally published on January 28, 2010.

A reader writes:

I work for a company that has the FDA (Food and Drug Admin) come in often for audits. Every single thing every employee does can be audited. Therefore, procedures are put into place that must be followed.

A co-worker takes many shortcuts and does not follow these procedures. I have pointed this out numerous times to my team leader and even went to Human Resources at one point. We have an employee handbook of sorts that states specifically that if an employee does not follow certain procedures, it is grounds for terminition. I have been told by my team leader and HR that this is none of my business and to “sit down and pay attention to your own work.” Another co-worker and I have documented proof, but no one wants to acknowledge it. Each of us have our own customers and many of them have said specifically they do not want her even to touch their forms.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, she has no sense of manners. She has sinus issues and snorts all day long. Ok, I know some people can’t help it and yeah, I can probably let that slide. She also talks on the phone…all…day…long. Literally, hours. These are personal calls. Calls to her mother, sisters, sons, friends from church. I know everything there is to know about who did what to whom, who isn’t paying child support, who is cheating on their husband…Again, this has been pointed out by not only me, but many other co-workers and again, nothing is done. Supposedly, she has been talked to in 1 on 1 meetings with the team leader, sent emails and also “reminded” in group meetings to limit her personal phone calls. After such meetings, she gets on the phone and complains to every family member she can call about how unfair it is that she has been pointed out unfairly.

Then there is of course the fact she takes her teeth out to clean them while sitting at her desk. She also uses a fork to brush her hair as well as talks with her mouth full of food, even if she’s on the phone with customers! She also listens to her radio (w/ headphones on) but has the volume up loud enough for everyone to hear anyway. And she makes these noises that honestly sound as though she’s about to have a sexual experience. Most days I feel like I’m working in the porno industry.

She says that if you were to come to her and ask her to stop something, she will. However, whenever someone has, she blows up and pitches a huge fit. One day she came to my desk and was very upset because I asked her not to do something that was not procedural. I said it kindly and have witnesses. She stood over me (I was sitting in my chair) and yelled at the top of her voice at me. She and another co-worker got into a shouting match with each other and the Manager of the entire department had to come down and break them apart. Again, nothing is done. I was reprimanded for asking her not to do something against procedures.

I love my job, really I do! But working with her is taking its toll. When she isn’t here, the entire mood of the department changes. She is a joke to everyone. Even my team leader has called her lazy in our 1 on 1 sessions. HR refuses to do anything. Management refuses to do anything. What can I do? Just grin and bear it?

I’m not sure what you can do if your managers are uninterested in dealing with it, and she herself yells at people when confronted.

Your real issue here is less about her and more about having management that won’t address an obvious problem. It sounds like they’ve made a decision — for whatever reason — to live with it. They’ve also told you clearly that they don’t want to hear from you anymore about it.

I don’t know why they’ve made that decision. Most likely, they’re wimps who don’t like having awkward or unpleasant conversations with people. Or, it could be that they don’t really care about having procedures followed. Or they do care but they’re addressing it with her privately and aren’t going to share that with you. Or maybe you work for a company that requires reams of paperwork to be assembled over many months before someone can be fired, and they’re in the process of doing that.

On the issues of her personal habits, as opposed to her work, it could be that no one has presented this to your manager in just the right way. Framed in a certain way, it could sound petty. It could be more effective to explain that her constant personal phone calls make it hard for you to concentrate on your own work and ask if you or she could be moved to a different area. (You might get her moved and/or your manager might take the info about her phone habits more seriously because you made it impersonal.)

But overall, it seems like your managers, for whatever reason, have heard your complaints and told you to stop raising them. That’s the reality you’ve got to accept.

And you know, you’re often going to end up working with people who annoy the hell out of you. It’s just the reality of having a job, most of the time. You can keep looking for ways to be direct with her about what she’s doing that bothers you, and maybe trying to get your coworkers to weigh in too, but this woman really doesn’t sound particularly open to feedback or personal change. Ultimately, you probably have to resign yourself to living with this, as long as you and she are both employed there.

But really, the best way to handle this might be to see her behavior as amusing instead of infuriating. You have someone brushing her hair with a fork and cleaning her false teeth at her desk, for god’s sake — are you really not entertained by this?

As I’ve mentioned before, my sister always advises me, when visiting annoying relatives, to pretend to be one of the many long-suffering characters in Jane Austen novels who have to be pleasant to and patient with irritating relations. It’s remarkably effective; it reframes things in a much more amusing (and bearable) context. If you’re not a Jane Austen fan, pretend you’re on a sitcom. This advice is good for all areas of life.

Good luck.

{ 82 comments… read them below }

    1. Karen*

      That’s the first thing I thought, too!

      But seriously…you have to wonder if people like this were raised by wolves.

          1. Not a fish*

            Having live with a wolf, I can say their hygiene is impeccable. With the exception of shedding when it warms up and the time she ate DH’s leather accessories for his uniform (she was still a puppy and his boss only smirked when he read the reason for the replacement order), you wouldn’t know she lived there – no smell, no barking , and no mysterious messes (poor thing was humiliated the day after eating the accessories and she got violent diareha.

            I would willing share space with anyone who was raised by wolves!

            1. RLS*

              +1! I was raised around wolves and wolfdogs. Mine sheds, and has some GI issues sometimes (he’s getting old, sigh) but otherwise he just needs a good brushing and a bath once in awhile – when I can convince him to get into the bathroom :/

    2. KellyK*

      Yep, my first thought too. Does she have red hair? Is her name Ariel?

      Don’t be too hard on her about the personal phone calls—after all, it’s not like her dad and her sisters can come visit, since they live underwater!

  1. Ruffingit*

    Wow. This situation is a great example of “live with it or leave.” Sounds like OP has done all that can be done to deal with this. The only thing I would suggest is that if co-worker comes to her desk to yell at her, she can stand up and say strongly “This is not appropriate and I will not tolerate you yelling at me this way. You may speak to me when you can do so with respect.” Other than that, I just can’t see any solution here except getting another job. You can’t care more than management does because they have the power to do something about this. If they refuse, well…there you are. Vote with your feet.

    1. the gold digger*

      A co-worker put out the Hand of Stop Talking to me when I asked her to turn down the radio, saying, “I need you to stop talking to me like that.”

      Which completely bewildered me because I was not screaming or anything. However, a friend said that I am rather direct, so perhaps I was perceived as bossy.

      So I apologized for talking “like that” and persisted with my request, explaining that it was really hard for me to concentrate with the noise.

      She informed me that they have always had the radio, it’s always been this way, and I don’t get to come into the office and change things. Then she said that if I had a problem with it to talk to my boss, not to her.

      Which did leave me speechless.

      1. Ruffingit*

        It’s a little much for her to have told you it’s always been that way and you don’t get to change things. That’s rude, which is ironic since she clearly thought you were the one being rude in the way you spoke to her, but I guess she thought it was OK if she was rude to you? Double standard. And crappy of her.

        1. the gold digger*

          Yeah. I wasn’t really sure what I had done wrong, as I thought I was being polite. But people can perceive things in different ways. I was just floored that she thought the solution was for me to talk to my boss instead of working it out with her.

          I went back a few minutes later and said that we were both adults and that we did not need to turn to our bosses to work things out. (What I did not want to say to her was that if I did go to my boss, he would kill the radio, as he had already done when she was on vacation. I really didn’t want to have to resort to authority to resolve this!)

          That didn’t convince her either. And the story became of great interest to everyone in the office, apparently.

          So now I am just taking a deep breath and killing her with kindness.

      2. JoAnna*

        “I was told that I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven, I told Bill that if Sandra is going to listen to her headphones while she’s filing then I should be able to listen to the radio while I’m collating so I don’t see why I should have to turn down the radio because I enjoy listening at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven…”

  2. Laura*

    OP, I am so sorry you have to work with this woman, and that management doesn’t seem to care.

    Hopefully they are working on termination in the background, but you can’t count on that.

    But…yes. Try to look at it for the humor, consider asking for a desk further from her if that’s reasonably possible, and look for a new job if you need to. Frankly, while it’s incredibly annoying, it’s also giving you comedy gold stories to share – at least when you’re no longer immersed in, and thus irritated by, the situation.

  3. Adam*

    I think the last paragraph is probably the most realistic solution to this, as sometimes people are just going to be weird so better to make a joke about it then let it drive you crazy.

    If Jane Austen isn’t your bag, picture yourself as Jerry Seinfeld gathering material for your act.

    “What’s the deal with using eating utensils for personal grooming? Which aisle of the store do I find that in?”

    1. Lindsay*

      I do too. I have a coworker that I loathe, and I started trying to picture her as a great aunt or something and I think it helps me remember to be very patient with her.

  4. Yup*

    I’ve totally heckled people who make/take excessive personal calls at the office. Just gotten right into the conversation with them.

    Coworker on phone: “And then he said he was leaving her, and she said he’d never find anyone as good as her–”
    Me, over the cube wall: “Good for him! She wasn’t treating him right anyway. He can do better!”

    1. Adam*

      I don’t know why, but this became all the funnier to me when I pictured you heckling with a thick New Jersey accent.

      1. Gene*

        Back 20+ years ago when cell phones were much less common and I worked where I could ride the bus to work, one regular got a cell phone. He seemed so puffed up with himself that he “had” to talk on it as much as possible on the 40 minute bus ride to show how important he was. I started sitting right in front of him and obviously taking notes on his conversations. After about a week of that I started correcting him, as in, “That’s not what you told Jenifer, you told her the Veeblefetzer account was due next week, not tomorrow.” Another week passed and he began taking a different bus and we could read in peace once again.

        Wouldn’t work now though.

        1. Artemesia*

          LOL. I did this at an airport once. This guy next to me in the crowded waiting area was braying into his phone about some big multi-million dollar deal and then shifted to something highly personal. When he paused for a moment, I turned to him and gave him some advise about the relationship issue he was discussing. He looked stunned and then said ‘EXCUSE ME, this is a personal conversation.’ I looked calmly back and said ‘Well, obviously not.’ And the waiting room actually applauded. My favorite ‘my life IS a sitcom’ moment. He did huff off to finish the conversation elsewhere.

          1. Puffle*

            +1,000,000 x infinity — “Obviously not.”

            Hahaha. The best. I love that everyone applauded! (Also, braying, lol.)

    2. CCi*

      Or pretend you’re part of the audience at the Jerry Spinger Show:

      “- So I told him to put on his pants and get out of my car…
      – OooOOOOoohhh, damn, girl!

      – You won’t believe what my boss just told me…
      – JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!”

    3. Anon*

      I worked with someone a few years ago who spent most of the day on personal phone calls in our cubicle farm. She always spoke loudly so I was accustomed to trying to ignore it; I could not, however, keep my jaw from dropping the day I heard her calling a salon, asking their price for a Brazilian wax, and scheduling an appointment. Engineering/construction office – there were men in cubicles all around us …. and yes, hilarity ensued as soon as she pranced out of the office for her appointment ;)

  5. Sourire*

    Ugh, how frustrating. I would love an update on this one, though it’s been 4 years, so who knows if the OP still follows the blog.

    Management refusing to deal with bad employees is the biggest issue I have with my current job, which I otherwise love. We have one employee who is a great person, but just not at all cut out for our line of work, despite her best and hardest efforts and another who is just a horrible/lazy worker who refuses to put any effort into her job. Management wont get rid of either one, to the detriment of our agency and the public we serve. It’s terribly frustrating – I will have to try to heed the Jane Austen advice when it comes to working with them.

  6. Blinx*

    Just wanted to thank for a most awesome Friday post! Makes me really appreciate my coworkers. Has there ever been
    an update?

  7. Mena*

    Sadly, your management is willing to tolerate this person so it looks like you have to also tolerate her. Perhaps you can get yourself moved away from her at least.

  8. Viv*

    Thank you for a great laugh! I think this person hits my top 5 on the “annoying office habits” list.

    On a serious note, since you’ve complained and nothing has been done, you have to live with it. A couple of her habits have me wondering if she has a physical ailment or two and if management might be aware of this. Therefore, if the throat clearing, for example, is part of Tourettes or a physical problem with her throat and sinuses, there comes a point where management worries about her claiming she is being singled out for a disability.

    We had someone from another company who shared our floor’s bathroom. She snorted into the sink, brushed her teeth while people were waiting to wash their hands and then didn’t rinse it out, and spoke loudly while on the toilet. One day while she was on the phone I started to whistle really loudly and she actually asked me to stop because she was on a personal call.

    1. Bea W*

      I worked with a woman who had some kind of breathing obstruction that made it sound like she was snoring. She was a good employee and hard worker but Big Boss (the main reason i left that job) would accuse her of sleeping on the job because of the sound and make insensitive comments. Didn’t matter that she was making the noise while visibly awake and working. It didn’t bother anyone else actually sitting nearby and working with her. We all knew she wasn’t sleeping and no one was mean to her because of it. I felt really bad for her when I found out Big Boss was telling other people she was sleeping at her desk.

    2. Emma*

      Often before I speak, I clear my throat because it feels phlegmy and otherwise I’d sound like I have a cold. Makes me wonder if I’m the annoying coworker AND if I should visit a throat doctor!

  9. BethRA*

    Any chance of getting your desk moved?

    You could also try to out-annoy her. Get some desk speakers and point them in her direction. Whenever she’s making personal calls or making mouth noises like a novocained troll, just turn the volume up.

  10. Bea W*

    I’d love to see an update on this one. Yikes. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this OP was working for a CRO. This scenario is too familiar. I wish I had a dollar for every hour of my life lost to cleaning up the mess and lack of documentation left behind by all the toothless Ariels enabled by dysfunctional management. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for an FDA audit of one of Ariel’s studies.

    1. Mel*

      Well, that is one other option – is there any way to call an audit down on her head?

      Mind you, I wouldn’t do that unless I already had another job lined up and am entirely okay with the damage it would do to the company and other workers. But it would be hilarious.

    2. Ruffingit*

      I wish I had a dollar for every hour of my life lost to cleaning up the mess and lack of documentation left behind by all the toothless Ariels enabled by dysfunctional management.

      I have GOT to stop reading AAM while eating. Need to clean my screen now. This is the best comment all night!

  11. Lizabeth*

    I would love to see video on this one combing her hair with her fork…
    But it sounds like OP has “struck out” with management and nothing she says or rephrased will changed anything. Has the coworker been “caught” by the FDA audits as not doing procedures properly? If they keep her in spite of that, get thee to a new job…

  12. expecting2fly*

    I can see popping your teeth out to clean them at your desk, that’s pretty normal. But a fork cannot possibly be an efficient tool to brush one’s hair.

    1. fposte*

      I beg to differ. Dental hygiene is not an at-the-desk thing, no matter who grew the teeth originally.

  13. Labratnomore*

    This is a great one. How have I never read it before?

    I did want to add something though. If you are working in an FDA regulated industry and you have a co-worker not following procedures that needs to change. 21 CFR part 211 requires written procedures, and that they must be followed. Not following those procedures is breaking the law! If there is any possibility that there may be harm done to someone who uses your products because of her behavior and your management will not address the issue this needs to be brought to the FDAs attention. They have an anonymous whistle blower line to report such things, and there are laws that prevent retaliation if your employer found out. Also if you know of inappropriate behavior, you are equally guilty in the eyes of the law and management approval of that behavior is not seen as a reasonable defense, and won’t keep you out of jail.

    The personal habits are annoying and I would agree to find the humor in those, but if people’s safety is in danger this is a much bigger issue.
    OK done with my rant now!

    1. Kara*

      And I have no idea why the site keeps listing my name like that. I changed it for the salary post earlier this week and it seems to think that’s what I always want to post as. Ugh.

  14. another anonymous*

    Good advice here, as always. The wannabe-Ariel reminds me of one of my college roomates. She was a terrible roomate, always microwaving fish sticks in the communal area, shaved her legs without shaving cream or water while sitting in our room… but once you are no longer dealing with her, it does become comic gold. She would also do the “headphones on but really loud” thing, playing a certain song on repeat literally a hundred times. Ahhhh, good times.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Has nothing to do with anything, but what was the song? I hope it was tolerable. I had a dorm neighbor (thin walls) who played Des’ree – You Gotta Be a million times. All day, every day. I liked the song, but man I got tired of it.

    2. tcookson*

      My college next-door neighbor played John Denver, “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” 18 hours a day. That was twenty years ago, and I still have that song stuck in my head. Good thing I like that song.

    3. another anonymous*

      Both of you have good songs, but they would get old after being on repeat. The song was Aha’s Take On Me. It is such a good song that she couldn’t ruin it for me, I still like it. But I definitely didn’t want to hear it while she was my roomate. I would wake up at like 3 am on a schoolnight and she’d still be listening to it.

  15. Another Cat*

    Is there an ethics line OP can call? Maybe if the FDA audits the heck out of the company, they will finally act…

  16. holly*

    i wish there was a follow-up to this. i loved the suggestion in the original comments from the auditor and wonder if the co-workers did that. maybe the answer is farther down in the original comments!

  17. PoohBear McGriddles*

    Hoe. Lee. Crap. This woman must be made of Teflon. Or have lots of dirt on management.

    BTW, the porn industry probably has better hygiene that this woman.

  18. Vicki*

    The thing that bothered me about this letter (and the responses) was that no one seemed to be addressing the most important part:

    “I work for a company that has the FDA (Food and Drug Admin) come in often for audits. Every single thing every employee does can be audited. Therefore, procedures are put into place that must be followed.”

    It’s one thing that Crazy Co-worker brushes her hair with a fork and cleans her false teeth. That falls into the category of “it’s weird, it doesn’t affect your job, try to ignore it.”

    But Crazy Co-worker doesn’t follow procedure. That could lose the company contracts, lose the company money, bring the company fines… you do not mess with the FDA. The rules that say that “if an employee does not follow certain procedures, it is grounds for termination” are there for a good reason — to protect the business.

  19. Us, Too*

    “Every single thing every employee does can be audited.”

    This sounds a bit exaggerated. Surely it means “Every single thing that impacts the way the product (drug, etc) is created can be audited.”

    I have worked for a medical device manufacturer and was never told that literally everything I did was audit fodder. For example, though I expected to be audited for washing my hands properly before entering the clean room (as per documented clean room procedures), I had no similar expectation for many of the other daily things that I did as a human being: breath, use the bathroom, direct my eyeballs towards items I wished to see, etc – all were NOT documented.

  20. Robin Gottlieb*

    Just found this website, so just read this now. You mention that some customers have complained about her. Next time that happens, you or your co-workers could be subtle and suggest they write a complaint to the powers that be. Maybe that will wake them up.

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