my chatty coworker won’t stop talking to me and panics when managers see us talking

A reader writes:

I have sort of a weird situation. I’ve been working at my job for around 15 years and the first 6 years or so had a coworker I’ll call Jane. Jane was very good at her job and was well regarded. She accepted an transfer to our factory but went through a family crisis before leaving and her work suffered for several months. Her manager at the time, Bob, was not pleased. Jane was at the factory assignment for around 5 years and did it very well, then quit her job to be a stay-at-home mother. Last year her family moved back to the area and she interviewed for and was offered a new job in our organization. We work in related groups; her manager and my manager are both under a manager named George. Her old manager, Bob, is now our VP and our grandboss George is his direct report and a longtime personal friend of Bob’s.

Jane has been back for around 6 months now. Not only did she have the adjustment of returning to the workforce after several years away, but she inherited several projects that were poorly managed in the past and where the previous project manager (who left the company) didn’t document critical metrics. She really stepped back into a mess and it’s a huge amount of work. Her cube is just a few cubes over from mine, and we’re near all of the managers’ offices.

I’m frustrated because Jane is at my desk 4-6 times a day to chat. Often it’s about work issues, to ask me who to talk to, or to ask about a policy that changed in her absence. She won’t ask any other coworker about new policies or procedures because she doesn’t want people thinking she can’t do her job. She often asks me for advice on how to approach a problem on her team or how to handle a crisis. Other times it’s to complain about her projects being in such a sorry state – which is true, but venting at me won’t change anything! Around half of her visits are about non-work related things; I don’t mind having conversations about our kids but there’s only so many times I can listen to her ask for advice in picking a daycare center or give her a referral for a dentist or realtor.

I’ve tried to be sympathetic, but I have a challenging job myself. Spending 5 minutes chatting with a colleague while getting my coffee is one thing, but Jane’s at my desk for typically 45+ minutes a day. The only way I can get away from her is if I pretend I have a meeting (which only works at the top of the hour or half past) or if I’m on a teleconference. If I’m working, she just sits down and starts talking at me. I’ve told her many times, “Sorry, I’m swamped today and don’t have time to talk” and her response is, “That’s OK, I just need to vent while you work” or “I’ll be quick.” (She isn’t.)

Jane’s reaction when she gets “caught” at my cube talking at me is also a problem. Every time a manager or VP walks past my desk, Jane visibly flinches and covers her face as if she’s been caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to do. She does this even if we’re talking about something work related! We have a pretty informal work environment and talking with coworkers about non-work related stuff isn’t uncommon. I’ve asked her to stop doing it because then the managers really WILL think we’re idly chatting all day, and she says she just gets nervous and feels like she should be at her desk working. Complicating matters is that Bob the VP still has a less-than-positive view of Jane, even almost a decade after she transferred. I worry that he’s going to start associating ME with her – especially given that many times when he walks past my desk, Jane’s there and acts embarrassed when she sees him. Bob and I have always had a very good working relationship and I don’t want that to change.

Plus, colleagues are noticing that Jane’s always at my desk. Jane and I are among only a few women in a male-dominated organization and I feel like the optics are bad when the two women ALWAYS seem to be chatting – even if it’s sometimes work related. I guess I don’t want the guys to think of the “gossipy women” stereotype. And she just won’t listen when I say I have to do my own work! Jane is pleasant enough but over the years I’ve noticed that she’s sort of an energy hog; she asks for favors or advice or to borrow things, and never EVER reciprocates. Frankly, I don’t have time to have a kaffeeklatsch several times a day, and I don’t want her constantly at my desk. It’s time for her to sink or swim in this role on her own and leave me alone to do my work. Any suggestions?

Oh gosh, you’re going to have to get much, much more direct.

I mean, you shouldn’t have to, but she’s made it clear that you do. You’re going to need to do all of the following:

* When you tell her in the moment that you can’t talk and she says she just needs a minute or she needs to vent (!!), say this: “No, I really can’t talk at all right now; I’m busy.” Then turn back to your computer and continue working.

That’s the part where I think you’ve been going wrong — you’re doing the first part of this (telling her you can’t talk) but then you give in when she overrides you. You’ve got to hold firm, even if it feels rude (and remember that she’s the one being rude here by forcing these conversations on you when you’ve clearly asked her to leave).

This should short-circuit her. But if it doesn’t and she actually continues on after that, then say, “Jane, I am on deadline. If this is important, please put it in an email to me instead.” (If you feel weird about saying that you’re on deadline when you’re not actually on deadline, reframe it in your head — all of your work has to get done by some point, and thus you are working on deadline.) Or you can say, “Jane, I cannot talk to you right now. You need to leave my desk right now so that I can get this done.”

* Address it more broadly too. Say something like this to her: “We’ve been spending a huge amount of time talking at my desk, and I want to let you know that I need to change that. I need to focus on work. If you have a question that you need to ask me, it’s fine to email me, but I can’t keep chatting during the day.”

* This should hopefully take care of it enough to make her weird panic reaction when managers see the two of you talking moot … but if it doesn’t, then address that head-on too: “I cannot have you react like that when you’re at my desk because it makes it look like I’m doing something wrong. If you really can’t help it, then I need you not to come over here to talk at all. I’m not willing to take that kind of hit to my reputation.”

If you’re willing to keep helping her in general, you can offer to set up a weekly coffee or something like that. But you don’t need to cede this kind of control over your day to her.

You’ve got to see yourself as in control of your time, not her.

{ 155 comments… read them below }

  1. Zip Silver*

    The damned thing is that she knows she shouldn’t be chatting all the time. 45 minutes a day is a whole lot of wasted time. I agree with Allison, just be direct with her.

    1. ArtK*

      OP said that most of the talk is work-related so I don’t see it as wasted. I think that OP should clarify with her supervisor about supporting/training Jane so that that time is allocated rather than being stolen by Jane. That also can help to head off the “women chatting” impression.

      I agree with Alison’s recommendation to enforce the boundary — if one says “I can’t talk now” but then allow them to talk, you’re not living your boundaries. Personally, I’d address the weird reaction right now as well and not hope that fixing the boundary will fix things. It does sound like Jane is insecure and she needs to address that.

      1. Newby*

        She could try to redirect to someone else if it is work related. “I’m sorry, I’m too busy with (insert task) right now. You should ask Bob about (work related question).”

        1. copy run start*

          This is what I’d do — point her towards someone else. Either she’ll need an answer badly enough to go to that person (thus breaking what has likely become a habit) or she’ll figure it out on her own.

        1. seejay*

          Yep, if Jane’s at the point of “sink or swim” as the LW indicates, it’s really way past the point of the LW’s responsibility to keep sucking time out of her for help. Sure, there’s the occasional question that needs answering, but it sounds like it’s way too much at this point. If Jane needs this much help still, she either needs more support as the workload is too much just for her, or she’s in way over her head experience/qualification-wise… and neither of those are the LW’s problem anymore, at least to the point of sabotaging her own job and/or reputation. :(

      2. OP*

        Basically, she wants me to be her sounding board on all of the issues she’s dealing with – how to tell her boss about the previous project lead making up numbers or not documenting a problem – and I don’t have the time to hold her hand.

        My role doesn’t include any supporting or training of Jane, nor would it logically include that (we’re not in the same group). If I told our mutual boss’ boss that I was spending, say 30 minutes a day helping Jane, he’d flip out.

        1. NW Mossy*

          Do you have the kind of relationship with George (I assume that’s who you mean) that would allow you to feel comfortable doing that? If you don’t think you can go to George, can you go to your boss and do the “I’m soliciting your advice on how to handle Jane, here’s the impact on my work from her” thing?

          Also, it’s worth asking yourself how you’d handle it if it was someone other than Jane. If you’d willingly call out someone you don’t know well on this behavior, it’s a sign that you should treat Jane the same. If she’s not developing appropriate strategies to succeed on her own, it’s not your responsibility to step in and paper over that gap.

        2. AMG*

          1. Can you say, “I am not as familiar with that as Wakeen; let’s go ask him.” Then, take her to Wakeen’s cube and walk away once they are discussing.
          2. Also, have you told her that George would be angry if he knew how much time you are spending helping her? Tell her! And tell her you don’t want to get either of you in trouble so here are the other people you need to be speaking with about the various topics.
          Finally, do you have headphones and a smartphone? Sometimes I pretend I am on a conference call when I’m really just listening to a white noise app or nothing at all. Since it isn’t my desk phone, people can’t tell.

          1. k*

            Sending to the correct person, or at least someone on her group, is a great way to go. She needs to get comfortable working with the people in her group without assuming they’ll think she’s bad at her job.

          2. Sparrow*

            I have to agree with your second point here. Given that Jane seems to rely on OP for “insider” information about how to approach and engage with folks in the office, it seems, “George would not be thrilled about the amount of time you spend at my desk. That needs to change or you risk your reputation with him and put mine in jeopardy, too,” is exactly the kind of information she should find useful.

        3. Aunt Margie at Work*

          Be prepared for her to ask, “Why? What have you heard? Are we talking to much? Did someone say something to you? Who told you?”
          Stop that dead. “No. Nobody told me. I need to spend less time talking because of my own work.”
          Then don’t say anything else.
          You have to stop using more words than necessary.
          -No, sorry, not now.
          -No, sorry, can’t.
          Everything you add to that gives her an opening to talk. Which is what she wants. It’s all she wants. Don’t give her a chance.

        4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          You need to be brutally direct and consistent.

          “No, Jane, actually, I cannot work while you vent. Please leave my desk so that I can concentrate.”

          “Jane, these are decisions that you need to make as part of your responsibility over your project. I cannot continue to be your sounding board.”

          “Jane, I really cannot have a personal conversation with you right now, as I’m on deadline.”

          No room for argument, no room for overriding, repeat as necessary.

        5. ArtK*

          The fact that your boss would be unhappy to find out that Jane was taking up your time is *exactly* why you should talk to him about this. “I’m getting lots of questions from Jane. Up to 45 minutes per day. How should we manage this?” This is a management problem, since they hired someone who is insecure in her job, and management needs to deal with it.

          I realize that you probably don’t want to “throw Jane under the bus,” but look at what you’re doing. You’re sacrificing your productivity and possibly your reputation in order to protect Jane. Would she doe that for you? Not according to what you wrote in the original post. While I like to be helpful to my colleagues, I always make sure that I’m ok first. Make sure that you’re ok before you keep helping Jane.

      3. Becky*

        I wonder if there are internal resources that OP can redirect her to. I have a coworker who sometimes asks questions about things that are easily found out if you do a little research.
        Coworker will ask a question and I will automatically respond “Have you checked (your email/the knowledgebase/JIRA/ the other server environments as appropriate to the question)?”

        1. Dust Bunny*

          That’s what I was thinking. She sounds like she got thrown into the deep end and the company is not providing support that she needs, either because they don’t know she needs it (because she’s hiding it by talking to the OP all the time) or because they don’t have the policies or personnel in place to provide it.

      4. SusanIvanova*

        Work-related can still be a timewaster. Coworker Coffeecup could spend 30 minutes talking about something that could be handled in 5.

      5. Kate*

        Actually OP said that around half of it is not work-related. Which means Jane is spending 20 minutes a day at OP’s desk socializing.

  2. Emac*

    Can you wear headphones at your desk? That might make it easier to reinforce the “can’t talk now” message – after saying you can’t talk, you can turn back to your computer and put your headphones back on.

        1. seejay*

          Yep, I wear earbuds when I ride a bike. They’re either on really low or not at all. They have two purposes: blocking wind so I don’t get earaches and makes it *really* easy to ignore randos on the street yelling unwanted commentary at me when I pass by. I can hear traffic and people approaching me in general, but it makes it really easy to avoid harassment or unwanted comments and to ignore people when you need to.

        2. TootsNYC*

          yep! I put my headphones on sometimes to listen to something specific, and then I forget that they’re on and just sit there with them on my ears but silent.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        OP, this phone number is one I use to deter obnoxious co-worker. It plays Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give you Up” and then hangs up. Put it on a hot-key and redial as necessary. (248)434-5508

  3. Marisol*

    OP: Sorry, I’m swamped today and don’t have time to talk.
    Jane: That’s OK, I just need to vent while you work!
    OP: Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. I need to give this work my undivided attention. [big smile] OK? Let’s catch up later. [Turns away from Jane and toward pile of work]
    Jane: But I just need a minute–
    OP: Jane. [looks her in the eyes, kindly but firmly] I. Can’t. Talk. Now. [turns toward work again]
    [Jane is visibly hurt as she turns away. OP is aware of this and feels bad, but knows she made the right choice.]

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      It’s perfect! The only thing I’d change (and only because I was once an elementary school teacher) would be to remove the “OK?”. I would want her to know it wasn’t an option.

    2. Aunt Margie at Work*

      And I have to agree with Sabine, too. No niceties. No extra words. Here’s what I need, take it…full stop.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Yep, I’ve done that. It’s not being rude although it might look like it; they were rude first by sucking up your time.

      2. Marisol*

        It would certainly work without the “ok.” But bear in mind that the niceties are meant to be conversational softeners and as such, are disingenuous. Two lines later I have the OP full-on interrupting Jane. Interrupting someone mid-sentence to deliver a sentence slowly while looking someone in the eyes is about as direct as it gets. So no, there’s no negotiation going on here, at all. I disagree that the mere utterance of an upward-inflected “ok” is really undermining, given all the other text. I think you guys are reading too much into that word. But sure, it can be taken out–it’s not essential to the communication.

        1. Teclatrans*

          While “OK” feels like a softener and does perform like an act of caring, it really plays the role of showing that you *expect* her to be okay with it, and that is not open for discussion.

          I can see omitting it if you feel like you would have some inclination towards needing her to be okay with it and seeking her okayness. In that case, definitely omit it.

        2. Mephyle*

          Agree. And this kind of “OK?” isn’t asking “Do you agree?” so much as “Do you get it?”

  4. ouchie*

    I have a theory. Disregard if it doesn’t fit your scenario.

    Either Jane is a “talker” or she’s not and you are her “social outlet.”

    For some people, the work environment may be the only adult social interaction they have. When that is the case, it’s very difficult to get the individual to shut down “small talk” and work. We all need social interaction.

    My fear is that, based on what you’ve said of Jane, this is exactly what is going on. You may well be her only adult female social outlet. That’s very, very unfair to you as you are just trying to get your job done.

    If that is indeed the case, I would recommend against going to coffee as that will only encourage her to view you as her social crutch. Instead, I would ask her to a “one off” working lunch. There I would do a few minutes of small talk to find out what she does for hobbies and outside activities. If there’s something you can encourage her to do to have other social outlets, this will help you.

    If she’s been a SAHM for a while, had family crises, and moved around, it’s highly unlikely she’s got a great social network of girlfriends. Even if she does, it may be that she just can’t chat with them on a daily basis.

    1. Newby*

      It might help to set up a weekly coffee. Then, anytime she tries to talk about non-work things or non urgent things, the OP could tell her that she doesn’t have time right now, how about they discuss it at the weekly coffee. This is assuming that the OP wants to give her that time (she should not feel obligated). It can feel less rude to deflect to a scheduled time than to cut someone off completely.

    2. Yes, and...*

      I agree. I work in an academic setting and it’s not uncommon for people to have to move for the job without knowing anyone in the area. The only people they know are colleagues, and it gets very lonely. I myself have been that very lonely person, so I aim to be sympathetic-but-fair. Things that work for me:

      1. Research shows that every time you are interrupted, it takes a lot of time to get your head back in the game. I’ve told colleagues that drop-ins wreak havoc with my concentration (and hey, do you want to see the research? I’ll email the article to you! It’s fascinating!), so please either email me or set up a meeting with me.
      2. For people I like, I’ll say, “I can’t talk now- let’s grab coffee later.” And then during the coffee break, I hear about day care/parking woes/traffic nightmares/etc. Every now and then, we do lunch. Sometimes people need an outlet, and work relationships are important to me.
      3. For people who don’t get it but aren’t daily visitors, I’ll listen for a few minutes and then stand up, saying, “I’m about to get coffee/head to the restroom/go ask Fergus a question. Let me walk you out.”

      The one time I had a confluence of factors that led to a Jane, I asked her to go for coffee (neutral ground), and explicitly laid out #1, with a promise of regular informal get-togethers. If OP does not like Jane, then holding firm with #1 is the best bet.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        Yeah. I was thinking I’d take Jane for coffee. Only to explain to her what the OP laid out in her letter to Alison, and that is has to stop. But the OP shouldn’t agree to meet weekly to talk about daycare if the OP doesn’t want to. It’s not her responsibility to be Jane’s friend.

        It can be done kindly, but it has to be direct and firm, or Jane will never get it.

    3. OP*

      She definitely doesn’t have a group of friends around here outside of work, and there’s really no one here at work who she knows either (aside from the execs who remember her from before – both for good and bad!). I get the impression there’s a lot of stress at home, too.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think you do care that is why the issue. Try to hang on to the fact that her problems are big enough that one person can NOT possibly solve them for her. From your description it sounds to me like she is definitely floundering.

      2. RoseRed*

        I think it’s actually very kind of you to care about this. No it’s not your job but I do think a workplace where everyone cares about their colleagues well-being is a nicer place to work.

        Having been that lonely person myself (first job had me work in 5 different departments in five different countries in 2 years!) some things that helped me were:

        – Can you organise any sort of wider company wellbeing event? You could publicise any employee support options (my company offers free counselling for example)

        -similarly I’ve set up ‘time to talk’ breakfasts in my office. Once a month the company provides juice & muffins & we have a sanctioned half hour for bonding as a wider team.

        – Finaly as mentioned those friendly introductions to others. Is there a project management guru you could subtly ask to pick up with her and help her feel she has that network of friends at work?

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    You/your employer has a much bigger problem on your hands: Jane doesn’t know how to do her job, and she may not be able to rectify that. Of course that’s not your problem, but it should be someone else’s and soon, if it isn’t already!

    Is there anyone higher up in management you can candidly and discreetly talk to about this? Not the problems you outline in your letter because AAM’s advice already addresses those but the overall problem of Jane in general. If these issues aren’t addressed now, the consequences of her incompetence will spread.

    Please don’t think of this as tattling or ratting Jane out. You’ve described some very real problems here, and if I were in leadership, I’d want to know. The other added bonus of informing higher ups is that it will distance you from her antics. The next time an exec walks by you two, s/he’ll have a better idea of what’s going on and how you’re not at fault.

  6. Emilia Bedelia*

    I’d specify a time limit- if she says “I’ll be quick”, say “Ok, you have 30 seconds”, and keep track. Once it’s over, say “Sorry, I have to get back to work.” Push the blame onto that pesky clock.

    I also like the idea of setting up a weekly coffee session- that will give you a place to redirect any of her less pressing issues to, and a bonus is that if you have a set time limit (say, 30 min) for coffee, she may triage her problems so that you only hear the important stuff that she really does need help with.

  7. animaniactoo*

    “I just need to vent while you work”

    “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me. It distracts me too much and I can’t afford that.”

    1. Zip Silver*

      I had a roommate who would vent to me while I was watching TV. I used to fall asleep to the sound of her voice, and she’d keep on going, knowing full well that I was asleep.

        1. Zip Silver*

          She was actually a pretty good roommate. We’re still friends, and she ended up marrying my buddy

  8. Clever Name*

    I’ve worked with so many Janes. My male officemate is a mild version of Jane. He lives alone, and it’s pretty clear on some days that he’s been just waiting for me to get in so he can talk to me. One day, he peppered me with questions and requests for input the instant I walked through the door. Unfortunately (for him) I had some phone calls to make and other stuff to get done. When he paused to take a breath, I picked up my phone handset and said as I was dialing, “I’m so sorry, but I have to make a phone call now…” His response was, “Wait, but I wasn’t done talking to you” (!). I said, “Well I’m done talking to you” and continued to make my phone call. I felt really rude, but sometimes people who make these kinds of demands on your time leave you with no choice.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Ugh – being peppered with questions and such the moment I walk in the door is a major pet peeve of mine. I’m not a morning person. I really need about 10 minutes to put my stuff down, get logged in, change from outside shoes (or boots in season) to office shoes, put my lunch in the fridge, and otherwise get my day started.

      Plus, if I’m not yet logged in to my computer, I probably won’t be equipped to answer the question anyway.

      1. Jamie*

        Yep. Unspoken rule is if my purse is still on my shoulder any questions need to be about something literally on fire.

        1. Windchime*

          This is how I feel, too. I need a little time to get switched into work mode before I can handle a barrage of questions first thing. So annoying.

        2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

          Agreed +1
          Not only does it need to be literally on fire, I need to be literally the only person with the ability and desire to extinguish it…otherwise I might just get cozy by the fire ’cause it’s just so freakin’ COLD IN HERE!

        3. Kyrielle*


          Unfortunately, my children cannot seem to learn this and I have to take lots of deep breaths. Coworkers are presumably not grade school age and should be able to be more polite about this.

    2. MashaKasha*

      I sat next to a Jane for a few years and she drove me bananas. She would not talk TO you, she’d talk AT you, about everything that came into her head, all day, every day. Like a talk radio playing in the background. Great person to hang out with now that we no longer work together, but boy was I hating my life back then. Jane had a lot of seniority over me, so I never cut her off in any way. I was afraid to.

  9. Gen*

    My boss is like that, except he likes to sit down and explain how much work we need to do and how urgent it is, often for an hour at a time several times a day. We’re working 11-14 hour days and weekends but when we’ve roughly timed his chats he can take up to 3 hours of our day. Alas he’s C level so the best we can do is try to keep working and nodding sympathetically while he talks. Definitely take the opportunity to shut this down if you can!

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I think someone needs to say something to him, even if he is C-suite. Three hours is goddamn bonkers.

  10. Jamie*

    I went deer in the headlights just reading this.

    I have the opposite problem of having to go out of my way to convince people it’s okay to ask me something if I look busy – so I had to develop a “I’m approachable even though I’m furiously typing” face (which is a work in progress – right now it kind of looks like a constipated panda face if the panda was forcing a pained smile…but I’m getting there.)

    (My silent crisis mode face still scares everyone off as it should, that comes in handy.)

    Alison is of course right, you can’t let her override you when you cut her off. You need to hold firm with a face that says you can’t believe she’s still talking…the same look you’d give her if she started combing her hair with the fork she used at lunch. Befuddled. A look that says, “is this actually happening?” And turn back to work. If there is a call you need to make pick up the phone, turn your body back toward your monitors if possible, sort intently through paperwork, etc.

    And she is clearly in need of some kind of go-to for legit work related issues. If she felt more competent at the work stuff she may still be chatty but she probably won’t need to cling to you as a desperate lifeline. She needs to bring this up to her manager and be proactive in getting the information, training, or direction she needs to learn her job. And being proactive about wanting to improve can go a long way toward changing a negative impression. Every time she comes to you with work related stuff that’s not your wheelhouse just tell her she should speak to her manager, and immediately turn back to work.

    Be careful not to go all bitch eating crackers and make sure you do engage with her whenever it’s appropriate for work related reasons.

    1. OP*

      She legitimately needs a go-to for work stuff and it can’t be me. I’m in a different role and don’t even know half of the things she’s asking about.

      Unfortunately for Jane, because she worked here many years ago there was no one assigned to get her up to speed on new policies and procedures. She didn’t ask her manager for more guidance and direction because she felt she HAD to hit the ground running, and she feels like now it’s too late and will reflect negatively on her.

      I suspect that she has a serious case of imposter syndrome going on. She’s a lot more capable than she feels.

      1. AD*

        You nailed it right on the head, OP. Jane needs to go to her manager for these in-depth questions or for guidance on training. That’s on her – not on you.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Say that! “Jane, you need a go-to for work issues, and it can’t be me. Please take this to Ferquin.”

      3. Drew*

        That’s something else you can tell her, gently: “Jane, I’ve been listening to your questions for a while and it’s clear to me that you’ve actually got this, if you’ll stop to think about it for a minute. Anything that’s still confusing is something that Boba is way more qualified to answer anyway. I appreciate your vote of confidence, and I’m always up for a quick chat if we’re getting coffee at the same time, but I’ve GOT to get back to this spreadsheet before I lose my place. See you later!”

      4. TootsNYC*

        This might be something you could encourage her to do (go to her boss and ask for someone to help her w/ the stuff that’s changed in the meantime and also in her new role).

        In some circumstances, I think a colleague could even make that overture to the boss as well.

  11. TJ*

    She may not be able to help the panic reaction. I do that too, even when I’ve done nothing wrong — for me, it’s a PTSD thing, and I can’t control it (I wish I could). But I guess the difference is that my manager knows about it.

    But yeah, agreed that there needs to be a conversation with management about training, and that you need to enforce the boundaries you’re setting.

  12. WellRed*

    I’m having trouble visualizing the flinching and covering her face. Does she think if she covers her face no one can…see her?

    1. kc89*

      If she can’t see them then they can’t see her??

      Not sure where the confusion is. /jokingjusttobeclear

    2. AMG*

      This reminds me of when toddlers are potty training and they hide their faces when they are pooping so nobody can see them.

      1. Zombii*

        Anyone else ever notice the tendency of (some) SAHMs to interact with adults as if they’re interacting with children? Especially when they’ve been completely starved for interaction with other adults in a child-free environment? (I could be imagining this but it seems like something my sibling did, for about the first 5 years of their kid’s life.)

    3. Trillian*

      I wonder if her boss has already had words with her about the time she spends at OPs desk, and that’s the reason for the guilty performance.

      1. OP*

        It’s likely – she said her boss told her that she’s always at my desk or at Wakeen’s desk (another person she knows from 10-odd years ago. If I heard that from my boss I’d immediately view it as a sign to cut back on socializing.

        I think deep down she knows that the time spent at my desk is excessive and she doesn’t like getting caught. The flinching and face-covering just draws MORE attention to the behavior! I’m going to be very firm in telling her that the reaction needs to stop, but I’m hoping as she spends less time at my desk in the first place it will eventually become a non-issue.

        I’m not opposed to a 5-10 minute chat while I drink my coffee once or twice a week.

        1. Artemesia*

          Every second she spends at your desk YOU are spending not working and it is going to be very corrosive to your reputation. It may already have cost you dearly. You need to do whatever it takes to get this clearly differentiated from you including not allowing her chat and talking with your boss about her need for a go to/training contact. Don’t let it damage your career.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes — this is at the point where you need to act quickly and decisively, OP. 45 minutes a day — even half an hour a day — can’t be making you look good.

    4. Mookie*

      Ugh, this is going to sound cold-hearted (and it is), but behaving like that — a pre-emptive, camp Oh No You Caught Me! routine — is obnoxious and makes Jane look unprofessional and defensive and like she’s trying to head off a legitimate criticism because she’s in a place right now where her self-esteem has simply bottomed out. Behaving as though conversation with a colleague is verboten and requires a reprimand is something only someone very, very new to the workforce (or with a history of serious toxic workplaces) would find advisable. It might be a tic she just can’t quit given her current insecurity, so pointing it out to her as Alison has suggested might make her more conscious of how it appears.

    1. The IT Manager*

      You understand the relationship the LW is describing, don’t you?

      But, and this was discussed at last week’s open thread, I think, it sounds silly when you say it out loud so you probably shouldn’t

      1. Hmmm*

        You do realize that people drift in here day in and day out, and don’t necessarily read every single post? Or are coming here for the first time? Or maybe have better things to do on a Friday (like…work) than hang out in an open thread comments forum?

        Abruptly shutting someone down like that is not helpful.

        1. Bolistoli*

          I agree. The open threads just have too much in them for me to parse. I can figure out what grandboss means. But, even though it’s shorter than typing boss’s boss, I find it more mental work than I can accomplish at times. Plus I agree that it sounds silly, and probably shouldn’t be used outside of an informal chat like this one (as in at the office actually referring to a boss this way). :)

        2. Hannah*

          Abruptly shutting someone down like that is not helpful.

          Nope, it’s not helpful, it’s rude, unwelcoming, and it has made the site much less enjoyable lately.

          1. Zombii*

            I half-agree, because I have a severe loathing of commenters posting short observations, especially ones intended solely to criticize, when there was no valid reason to let that observation escape the confines of their skull onto a public forum (although gods know I do it myself frequently enough)—but one person doing it is no reason to respond by doing to same thing back at them.

            Rude, unwelcoming, and unnecessarily defensive posts have definitely had a general uptick here though, and I’m not loving it.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Eh, there hasn’t really been an uptick (there was in the fall for a while, but it’s settled down). There’s always been a small number of them, which I think is just how it goes when you have a large group of strangers all talking together anonymously. We do pretty well overall though.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I’ve only seen it here, but I find it helpful in defining the relationship. Boss’s boss or boss’s boss’s boss gets too confusing. Grandboss / great-grandboss is better, I think. (Just among us–I wouldn’t call my boss’s boss’s boss that!)

    2. Michaela T*

      I actually found it helpful here. Sometimes when people are outlining their work hierarchy in the letters I get totally turned around.

    3. Turtle Candle*

      It isn’t a word that I’d use IRL to discuss my own workplace, but it’s extremely useful as a fast shorthand in casual situations where people don’t know the names of the individuals involved, and very few people seem to be genuinely confused as to what it means. Also, I think Alison has asked us not to nitpick this kind of word choice?

      1. TootsNYC*

        I wouldn’t use it formally, but I’ve used it in a conversation with my husband, and I might use it in an informal conversation with a colleague.

        It’s slang. It’s funny. And it’s clear.

    4. galeforcewind*

      Ahhhh, the foibles of a living language. Made me do a spit-take, I love the word so much. So clear and so funny!

  13. Turtle Candle*

    LW, one thing I would prepare myself for if I was you is that she probably will be hurt. She may express this in a number of ways–she may sulk or get snitty or snappish or lash out. It would be different if she was simply oblivious (some people who are just bad at reading social cues will take it with perfect calm when you finally express yourself directly–although some people also use “I’m bad at social cues” as a smokescreen and also respond badly to a direct ‘no,’ because some people just don’t want to hear ‘no’), but she’s not; she’s already both actively deflected your gentler attempts to get back to work and indicated that she knows that she’s talking too much. So chances are good that she’s going to take being cut off… not well. She’s already not dealing with this well.

    I say this not to indicate that you shouldn’t set this boundary. You absolutely should; in fact, I think you very much need to, because you’re right that this is likely to impact both your productivity and your reputation. But because sometimes when I set a boundary and the person reacts with hurt, my instinct is to backpedal because, you know, I’m a nice person and I don’t like to hurt peoples’ feelings. But you can’t afford to backpedal now: I suspect that if you soften, she’s going to take that as a reason to go full speed ahead on the chatty express.

    It can be easier to go into it knowing that I’m likely to get a hurt response, so that I’m not taken aback by it in the moment. If I know that someone is likely to get upset or sulky or whatever, I can sort of roleplay in my head how I’m going to respond–that if she protests, I’ll cut her off with a “I really do need to get back to work;” that if she stands there looking sad and awkward I’ll smile and then turn firmly back to my computer; that maybe a pair of headphones would help. Thinking about it in advance and planning for it in advance means that I’m less likely to give in to the awkward in the moment.

    (I don’t know if this is likely to work at your workplace, but when it is a reasonable work request–when the person has a genuinely good reason to be talking to me about it–but I need to focus and can’t keep being interrupted, is to redirect to email. This also allows me to triage: things that really are urgent I’ll reply to pretty quickly, but things that can wait, I can put off until later so as not to break my flow. If this is possible, you’d still need to be firm: “Okay, Jane, please send me an email so that I can get back to you,” and then when she pulls the but-I-need-it-now or but-it’ll-just-take-a-minute, “I’m busy with something right now, but if you send me an email I’ll get back to you later.” But this is a workaround for when the question is appropriate but you want to train her out of constantly interrupting you and standing around your desk talking. Not feasible for every workplace, but it’s been very helpful to me.)

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I think this is true and wise. Right now Jane’s got a habit going where the OP is kind of a security blanket, so Jane is going to be thrown by not having access to the OP the way she wants. Another possible approach is to grab Jane preemptively one morning to say nicely that you’ve realized how much interruptions disrupt your focus and you’ll only be available for them from 1-2 each day; if she approaches before then you can wave her off with “Not till 1, Jane, no exceptions.” I offer that up because I think Jane comes to the OP the moment the thought comes into her head, and if she has to wait she’s likely to work some stuff out on her own.

      1. AMG*

        I like that–OP is able to preemptively avoid the fallout from Jane losing the security of running to her all the time.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Yes, that seems like a good idea as well, especially for the genuinely-work-related-but-I-still-don’t-want-constant-interruptions-and-chatter part of it. I’m a subject matter expert on a fairly important but poorly understood thing at my workplace; it’s complex, so many people legitimately don’t have time to learn the ins and outs of it while still keeping on top of their other work. For a long time, I was frustrated because any given question was reasonable, but the net effect was that I was getting an interrupting ping every fifteen to thirty minutes, and thus had trouble getting into the zone to do my other work (and I couldn’t just cut off entirely because it was genuinely part of my work; it just wasn’t the entirety of my work, and I had to get the rest of it done at some point too!).

        What I ended up doing was negotiating with my boss where I would go DND on work IM/ignore email for a couple of set chunks of hours, one in the morning and one in the evening, and would reply to email/make myself available on IM for time in between. It worked wonders–I was available to be the on-call expert with reasonable turnaround time, and still was able to focus on other work in between.

      3. Willow*

        Argh. I had a boss like that. He would call me the moment something popped up into his head. Then again in a minute. Then in 30 seconds. All while he was sitting 30 feet away in an open office.

  14. regina phalange*

    Actually, the advice about turning back to your computer really helps. I’ve done that before when people come to my desk to ask me something and I’m in the middle of something else. I also work with one of my friends and have had to do that before when she drops by unannounced (we have IM at work so she could ask before coming over) and I’m in the middle of something. I felt bad the first few times but apparently you need to do that to take back control of your time.

  15. Lord of the Ringbinders*

    ” …and she says she just gets nervous and feels like she should be at her desk working.”

    Honestly, I think you need to agree with her when she says this…

    1. Red Reader*


      “I can’t help it, I just get nervous when they walk by and I feel like I should be at my desk working!”
      “Well, maybe if you went to your desk and worked, you wouldn’t feel so nervous.”

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        I seriously would have had to bite my tongue in two to keep myself from saying exactly that!

    2. Trillian*

      From me, she would get the look. The one that says “did you listen to what just came out of your mouth”

    3. Mephyle*

      My offerings: “I think you’re right, you should.”
      Or: “Let yourself be guided by that feeling.”

  16. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    If she asks for favors or advice or to borrow things at any time, don’t give it ever, stop feeding the beast. I think she uses those to keep you in a place of serving her. Become a broken record of “No, sorry, I can’t” “It’s not possible for me to do that,” “I don’t have any advice for you,” “I can’t really help you with that,” “I don’t have any extra” “I need to hang on to this,” “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me,” with no excuses as to why — because that will give her an opening to argue and negotiate with you. If she keeps demanding a reason just keep repeating the same phrase…”No, I can’t.” And don’t soften it with “right now” unless you want her to keep asking. If you give in at any time, she’s learned that with enough persistence, she can get what she wants. There will probably be a burst of the behavior where she ramps up the requests, but if you become unaccommodating on all of the little things she’ll eventually move on to someone else. Stay polite, but be an absolute black hole for her requests/demands — nothing goes out — not even sympathetic noises.

  17. Mimolette*

    I had a coworker who would talk CONSTANTLY and to everyone. She did not understand “I’m busy” at all. What many of my coworkers and I would do is just not engage most of the time. So, if she came up behind me and started talking, rather than turn around and have a conversation, I would continue to do my work while giving her short answers. So for example:

    Chatty Cathy: “Hey, did you see the episode of XYZ last night?”
    Me: (Still furiously typing) “No, sorry.”
    Chatty Cathy: “OH! Well it was great! ABC happened and I have this great fan theory that AB is related to RST.”
    Me: “Oh…sorry I’m swamped right now.”

    I would consider it more of a last resort because it is a little rude, but it became clear that this particular coworker would only let up if you showed her (not told her) that you were not providing the audience she wanted.

    1. Drew*

      My go-to on that is “NO SPOILERS!!” which conveys “haven’t seen it yet” and “don’t want to discuss it” in a way that works in my geeky workplace. Since I’m in an open floorplan, not even a cubicle wall to block the conversation, I have to be more direct or it would never end.

      I’m the jerk who actually puts up “On deadline; please send email rather than interrupting” signs on my computer and puts on the Really Obvious Headphones Of Distraction Deflection when I want to focus on what I’m doing. If (WHEN) someone comes up anyway, I just point to the sign without taking even one headphone off or giving any other sign that I’m paying attention to them. If they persist, they get the “I’m sorry, but I have to get this done and I’ve already had too many interruptions today. Shoot me an email and I’ll look at it the next time I take a break,” still without removing headphones. (The “Stranger Things” soundtrack is fantastic background music, btw, for those of us who like having something playing in our ears that isn’t actually going to capture our focus.)

      Best part: it’s working. Some of the repeat offenders are now Skyping me or sending email rather than walking up to me and hoping their presence will be enough to garner my full attention.

      1. tigerStripes*

        I don’t think putting up a sign like that is a jerk move – sounds like self defense in a way.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I would always listen to soundtracks when working. Singing distracts me and so does talking. I like the sign idea too–I had one up at the entrance to my cube with a picture of the Gates of Moria and “Speak friend and enter” at the top. Later, I added “Or knock if I’m wearing headphones,” because people would just say hey and then come in and scare the crap out of me. The knock I could hear through the music.

  18. Jesmlet*

    OP, you just need to dig your heels in and insist that you don’t have the time. Tell her if she has a specific question she can put it in an email, otherwise you need to focus on your work. If you’re feeling particularly frustrated, when she emails you a question that’s better asked of someone else on the team, CC them and reply that they’re a better person to speak with. She seems insecure about what others are thinking about your chats, maybe bring it up and explain why it’s unnecessary for her to be at your desk so often and how it can be perceived. Last ditch effort would be to loop in someone higher up and suggest that she get some extra training on changes in policies because she’s been asking a lot of questions and people may have assumed she knew things since she’d been there before.

    I sympathize, I’ve been the office babysitter before, but to someone who had been there exactly the same amount of time as me (I kid not, same orientation group, same exact job title and everything). It sucks and you might feel like a jerk for brushing her off, but her using you as a crutch isn’t helping anyone.

    1. Drew*

      I love the email redirection option. “Sorry, Jane, I don’t know that off hand. Cosmo handles that for us, so I looped him in; y’all don’t need to keep including me unless something comes up that requires my expertise again.”

  19. Stellaaaaa*

    I would probably start saying something like, “I don’t know the answer to that question. Here, let me page your manager and ask.” Jane has latched onto you because she knows you won’t “tattle” and let it be known that she’s shaky on the job.

  20. Elder Dog*

    Remove the chair.
    If she asks where it went, tell her people were talking to you too much and you’re concerned about being able to get your own work done.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, that is my kind of solution. Even without the statement, making it physically less comfortable for her to hang out with the OP is going to be useful.

    2. Turtle Candle*

      Ooooh, yes, I had missed that there was a chair in the cube. Yeah, if you possibly can, remove it.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        But it is a cube; if it’s one of the shorter ones people will just drape themselves over it and keep talking.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Sure, and I absolutely don’t disagree that the message needs to be expressed directly and quite possibly very bluntly. It can just be helpful to reinforce that message with other things that make chatting less convenient.

    3. Serin*

      Oh, I did that once, and got blessed relief from the chatty co-worker for, let’s see, four work days. That’s how long it took him to hunt it down and bring it back.

    4. Mookie*

      You know Jane’s just going to drag her own chair over so they can have a nice chat about which people are talking to the OP too much.

    5. Bethlam*

      When I worked at a bank’s operations center, my office was on the first floor in the hall everyone in the 3 story building used to go to the branch or out to the street at lunch, and I constantly had drop-ins, including a version of Jane. I started putting work related items (boxes of marketing materials, etc.) on my chairs to keep casual visitors from making themselves at home.

    6. Jennifer Chats With Thneeds*

      So much this.

      And if you can’t remove it, pile it high with stuff — work-related or personal. That way you have a moment to intervene before she can plop herself down. Don’t let her take root.

  21. MommyMD*

    Use your words and politely but firmly tell Jane you have work to do and the constant interruptions are putting you behind. Don’t apologize and don’t make excuses.

  22. Viola Dace*

    I would be more intentional about telling her to stop. Start by saying, “I’m not going to be able to spend time talking at my desk anymore.” This telegraphs that the talking has been noted by the boss (as the talker fears) and that it has to be shut down. Getting it out first will make any subsequent attempted interactions easier to stop. “Remember what we discussed? I’m not able to talk.” And you have to say that exact same thing every time. Do not vary, do not hesitate, do not apologize, do not promise your availability at a later time. It’s called fogging. And it generally works pretty well.

  23. CM*

    I think it’s worth approaching it more broadly with Jane, as Alison addressed in one of her bullets above, rather than just turning to your computer each time she comes in. This could be combined with the weekly coffee suggested above — like, “Jane, I’m worried about how it looks for you to be at my desk all the time, and I need to stay focused on my work. So I won’t be able to chat at my desk anymore, but would you like to get together for coffee once or twice a week? I’m usually free Thursday mornings.”

  24. oranges & lemons*

    Since Jane already seems to be aware that she really shouldn’t be spending so much time at your desk, I wonder if it would get through to her if you said something like, “Jane, your spending so much time at my desk isn’t doing either of us any favours. You really need to talk to your boss about this, not me.” Sounds like Jane is floundering and maybe calling that out directly would help.

  25. Cheesehead*

    OP, I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed, but as one measure, can you possibly make your cube less hospitable for her to stop by and stay? If there’s a chair that she likes to plop herself into, take it out or put something big on it that she can’t move. Rearrange some things so that there’s just nowhere comfortable for her to hang out.

    And I realize that it doesn’t inherently solve the problem. But I just thought that it might be a more subtle measure to help you tackle it; if it’s not as easy for your cube/workspace to be a sanctuary for her, then maybe it will be easier for her to receive the ‘I can’t talk now, I’m busy’ message that you’ll be sending.

    And realize that while you feel for her lack of training, it isn’t your problem. It’s Jane’s. And she has to deal with it, somehow, in a way that doesn’t involve you. So some versions of “I can’t help you with that, and I have my own work that I need to concentrate on now” and “I have my own work, and I just don’t have time to hear about your workload too” will likely have to be a frequent visitor in your upcoming conversations.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      I think this can work nicely in conjunction with a straightforward message. I think that it’s probably going to be necessary to be super blunt with this person regardless–but moving a chair out of your cube or putting a great big potted plant or something on the chair can also help. If nothing else, if she comes in and then goes to fetch a chair or remove the plant from it or whatever, that gives you a natural break to say, “Actually, I don’t have time to talk now.”

      I once had a coworker who was really bad about interrupting me and then taking up a ton of my time, and it made a huge difference just to reorient my space so that he couldn’t try to just ‘catch my eye’ or whatever–I had my back to where someone could approach from, and I wear headphones, so he had to stand there going ahem AHEM AHEM EXCUSE ME? At which point it was a natural opening for me to barely look back over my shoulder, lift up one side of the headphones, say “Sorry, can’t chat now–send me an email!” and then turn back to my computer and pretend I couldn’t hear him until he went away again. (I wouldn’t have gone to these lengths, except he was one of those people who didn’t respond even to direct “I do not have time to talk” messages; neither hints nor directness worked. So setting things up to make it as easy as possible for me to simply ignore him was what I was left with. Sucks, and I’m glad I’m not in that position anymore, but it did work.)

    2. OP*

      I can’t remove the chair from my cube since I do have visitors who need to sit so we can discuss actual, relevant work. I can leave my gym bag on it, though! If someone other than Jane comes by and needs to sit I can just grab it and chuck it on the floor.

  26. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    I’ve had to deal with this in the past. My first step was sort of a warning, delivered by email: “Wakeen, we’re spending about an hour of every day with you talking to me, and my productivity is down because of the constant interruptions. I like and value you as a person, but I am not going to be spending as much time talking to you moving forward. That means no more chats in my office, period, moving forward – when I’m at work, I will not engage with you. If you have a work-related question, please email me. If I’m eating lunch in the break room, you’re ”

    Then it was just repetition, repetition, repetition. “Wakeen, as I told you, I’m not going to make time to chat with you moving forward.” “Wakeen, I am on deadline and need to work without interruption today.” “Wakeen, please respect my request that you not come to my office and talk at me.” “GOD DAMMIT WAKEEN DID I STUTTER”

    Well, maybe not that last one. Like my handle states, I’m not mad, but occasionally irritable.

    1. Crazy Canuck*

      I wouldn’t knock it. I have gotten very effective results from an ice-cold “Did I stutter?”

  27. Planner Lady*

    A coworker of mine, who sat next to me, had a very similar issue – except that most of the talk wasn’t work related. My coworker could get bailed up for up to 45 minutes a day (our manager is quite flexible as the workload for our team can vary wildly throughout the week and the year) talking about shared fandoms. My coworker found it hard to shut down Fergus, as he really enjoyed his company and they were friends outside work.

    In order to save him, I started setting a 10 minute timer when Fergus started hanging around Harold’s desk, and after that time would politely ask them to move into the breakout area for personal conversation as it was making it hard for me to work. This would immediately result in Fergus leaving Harold’s desk and getting back to work without offense.

    It might be worth getting a third party to speak up like this, as it can often have an effect where you realise that your behaviour doesn’t just impact yourself.

    1. Drew*

      My office has a variation on this, for a couple of known conversation hogs — if someone sees that someone else has been cornered, they’ll send a quick Skype or email saying, basically, “Do you need a rescue?” Or we’ll just walk over: “Sorry to interrupt for a second, but I need to discuss the latest teapot sales projections with Jane when y’all tear loose.” If Jane needs the lifeline, then it’s an easy way for her to say, “Actually, now’s a good time while I’m already thinking about it. I’ll be right there/Come on in,” whatever’s appropriate.

    2. Willow*

      Love this! I have done similar when people’s chatting on the way to/from the bathroom gets too distracting. I’ll actually just pop my head around the cube wall and say, “Go away!” And they will!

  28. Not So NewReader*

    If you have difficulty putting your foot down, at least target the venting. NO venting. Ever. Tell her you are not a dump site. If she has a quick question then fine, otherwise no long conversations and no conversations that are not solution oriented. (Looking for solutions is a good pest deterrent for habitual venters.)

    A softer approach you can say that you realized that you have been listening to her vent and you see it is not helping her at all. Then let her know she may ask you a brief question then the conversation is over. Happily that should also end the “guilty as heck” look with covering her face when caught, as she will not be standing there long enough to get caught.

    I really think you have the patience of a saint. Remember what went wrong at square one, she decided not to ask her boss questions because she did not think it was right. That is her choice NOT yours. When we make choices like this we had best have Plan B and that plan cannot be “drain my coworker”.

    I like the email idea because that gives her a written answer to look back at. You should not be answering the same question twice. I think it’s fine to say that if the need arises, too.

    Honestly, if she does not stop tell her that you will have to go to your own boss to ask him to hammer out a plan with someone, because you cannot do this anymore. Usually this cures deafness and the person actually hears this message. Notice you may or may not go to your boss, you are just letting her know the seriousness of the situation.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      Oh yes, your first paragraph resonates so much with me. I have… I guess… resting nice face? I have a face and demeanor that make people think “oh, here is a sympathetic ear!”, apparently. And in some circumstances I am happy to be a sympathetic ear: when a friend was having a divorce, when a coworker got in a car accident and just needed to unload for ten minutes over coffee about how shitty her insurance company was being, even–for my best friends and closest family members–a few minutes of “traffic sucked and I stubbed my toe getting out of my car and then I dropped my groceries and the apples went everywhere.”

      But at one point I realized that resting nice face/the sympathetic ear was making me the dumping ground for EVERYONE’S bad moods and shitty days, which wasn’t good for my own mental health or my general productivity. So I decided that for everything but genuine high-level tragedies and/or everyone but my very nearest and dearest, I was DONE being Venting Central Station. It was really hard, because when I’d been the designated sympathetic ear for so many people for so long, they responded pretty poorly to being cut off.

      But sometimes you have to do it. I’ve had success just saying, “Sorry! I’m not up for listening to venting much these days, it’s bad for my [attitude/mental health/productivity/whatever seems appropriate for the relationship].” People absolutely push back; usually I can get them to stop with a repeat of “It’s just not something I’m up for these days” with a smile. If they push further, sometimes I have to fall all the way back to, “This really isn’t up for debate” + disengage. (This will piss some people off; be prepared for that. But it’s worth it.)

      Being the venting dumping-ground isn’t cost-free even when it doesn’t impact your work life. I’ve learned that the hard way–and it’s valuable to know how to cut it off.

  29. Turtle Candle*

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I think that while the whole thing is obviously awkward and unproductive and stressful for you, the actively cringing when managers and VPs walk by seems particularly dysfunctional. For one thing, as you say, it calls attention to her behavior–even when that’s behavior when she clearly would rather minimize. For another thing, it’s just odd and unprofessional and strangely childish, like… hiding from the babysitter? To me it’s even weirder and more notable than the chattiness. I’ve known a lot of chatty employees; I’ve never known any who cringed and flinched away from managers when chatting.

    I’m hoping that by setting firm boundaries around time and holding to them, the flinching and covering her face with her hands (!!!) will become a nonissue. But if it doesn’t, I think I’d continue to consistently mention it in the moment, as you say you have done already. Like:

    You: Please stop doing that. It really makes us both look like we’re doing something we shouldn’t.
    Her: I can’t help it, I’m so nervous/I know he wants me at my desk/I know I should be able to do this on my own/I feel guilty for [whatever]….
    You: Well, if that’s how you feel, then that’s a good sign that you probably should be spending more time on your own work/at your desk. And I need to get back to my work, too. [put on headphones, turn away]

    And do it consistently. Every time. If her question is a valid work question (vs. a hand-holding work question or a social work question) you can add “Email me with what you needed an answer to and I’ll get back to you when I have time,” but otherwise, you can just cut it off.

    This will likely feel like a seriously jerkass move the first time you do it. Hold tight to the fact that it isn’t. Her behavior is bad for both of you. Indulging it isn’t good for anyone in this situation. I’m hoping that cutting her off on the chatting will make this a nonissue, but if it doesn’t, I think it’s wise to address directly. She knows she’s doing something wrongheaded and dysfunctional; you do not need to wave away her odd reaction.

  30. Sassmouth*

    Try this: every time she walks over to your desk: stand up, walk her back to her desk and ask her to email you and tell her you’ll get back to her when you have time. She’s not coming to you to get information: she’s doing it because it feels good, it’s a temporary reprieve from the stress she’s feeling. Take away the rewarding “I’ve escaped” feeling and she’ll cut out the behavior post-haste.

    I doubt you’ll have to do this more than three times, as she’s not a toddler

  31. LiptonTeaForMe*

    I am incredibly blunt sometimes to the point of rudeness at times as folks sometimes cannot seem to understand anything but that. I have a gossipy coworker as well and I finally lost it one day for the same reason the OP is having issues. I flat out told her to leave me alone, I don’t like you or your excuse making gossip behind other people’s backs, nor your vindictiveness, I am not here to socialize. I will answer work related questions via Instant Messenger.
    She still seems to think I was joking…but thankfully leaves me alone much of the time.

  32. LarsTheRealGirl*

    A lot of the advice you’re getting is to be very direct and specific with Jane – go with that. Things like “just turn to your desk and give short answers”, “move the chair away from your desk”, “make your area less hospitable” etc are just passive aggressive ways to avoid being direct and don’t belong in the workplace.

    I had a guy like this that I shared an office wall with who would come in to talk ALL. THE. TIME. and not just to me, to everyone. You’d say “I’m busy, can’t talk now” and he would say “oh that’s okay” and then sit down and start talking (like, wha???). It finally took “Is this work related? No? Okay, then I need you to leave my office.” ::awkward silence:: “No. Really. Right now. I need you to walk out of my office.”

    I feels rude but its not – they’re the one’s being rude (and aggressive) by not taking a direct no for an answer.

  33. Soundstream*

    I work for the Air Force — I’m a civilian — and unfortunately this issue comes up often with other civilians. Right now I’m working with a senior engineer that changed his schedule to a late shift (4 PM – midnight) because various people and one coworker in particular would simply not leave him alone (constantly asking questions and just talking too much in general). He did all the “confronting techniques” mentioned above and they still didn’t work, and management refused to deal with the offenders, so this was his solution. Let’s just say that I don’t bother him unless it’s absolutely necessary, and we communicate mostly through email.
    Since an alternate schedule probably isn’t an option for the OP, why not look into getting Jane’s desk moved? Preferably right next to her manager, so he can’t help but notice that she’s never there working. Also, making her walk a long way to the OP’s desk would discourage her excessive visits as well. If that isn’t an option, the OP can resort to headphones or strategic phone calls (have a coworker call the OP whenever they see Jane coming). Having her desk further away also helps when she does stop by, since the OP can say, “Hey, isn’t that your phone ringing?”, which should send her off running. (My office still uses landline phones for security reasons.) These suggestions may be a bit extreme, but they could be something the OP might consider if Jane still doesn’t get the message.

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