my boss wants constant chit-chat and makes fun of us if we try to focus on work

A reader writes:

I have an uncomfortable work situation that I hope you can help me with. I work in a small work area that’s part of a large office; there are several of us sitting fairly close to one another in a “U” shape, so there’s little privacy with anything we do at our desks.

My issue is with my boss. His office shares a wall with our U-shaped work area, so he is just three feet away from where all his direct reports are working. He hovers around us even if it’s very obvious we are working (headphones in, rapid typing in our database or in an email window, etc.). He sees no issue with demanding our attention whenever he feels like he wants it, and if you ignore him, it fuels the fire. He will target anyone who refuses to give him the attention he wants and will make fun of them (usually by making fun of their name/how it’s pronounced, or something else he thinks of). He will needle at us until we have given him our full attention and he can finally talk about whatever it is he wants. Nine times out of 10, he’s not coming over to us to ask about anything work-related. I can’t tell you how many times he’s come over and hovered so he can talk about a new snack he tried or to complain about something that happened outside of work.

It’s irritating even when he’s coming to ask a work-related question (making no mention of how he’s clearly interrupting any work being done or, even worse, if we are eating lunch at our desks), but when he does this it’s not only distracting, it gives me anxiety. I’m the type of person that when I’m immersed in a project, I need to keep my focus so that I can finish my work. I’ve tried to politely tell him that I’m not free to chit chat at the moment, and that’s only resulted in sarcasm and him playing petty pranks on me like lowering my chair while I’m working.

I’m sure it’s just a matter of bringing it up at a check-in, but I need the words to use so I don’t sound as frustrated and judgmental as I feel about the situation.

Is he by any chance a pre-teen who is wearing his dad’s suit and has somehow managed to get hired as a manager? Maybe as an elaborate practical joke by some kind of Punk’d reality show? (My pop culture references have been frozen in 2004.)

He sounds beyond annoying. Not only is he interrupting you to fulfill his cavernous social needs, but then if people try to focus on work, he messes with their chairs and makes fun of their names?

Is he, uh, clear on what he’s been hired to do? Is he in any way a good boss? It’s really hard for me to picture how you’d take this guy seriously if he tried to give you feedback about your work or in, say, a goal-setting conversation.

Anyway, you want words to use to talk to him about this. I will suggest some words, but whether or not they’ll get through to him is probably a crapshoot. I’m not going to say there’s no chance — I do think it’s possible that you could shame him into realizing that no one thinks what he’s doing is adorable or fun — but there’s at least an equal chance that he’ll just redouble his efforts.

If you want to give it a shot, I think you’re right to bring it up at a check-in rather than in the moment when it’s happening. Say this: “When I’m immersed in a project, I need to stay focused on my work, which means I can’t always participate in social talk. When I’ve said that in the past, you’ve treated it as a joke, and will do things like make fun of people’s names, or mess with my chair, or X or Y. It makes it really hard to focus on work. I’m asking you, as my boss, to understand that I’m trying to prioritize the work I’ve been asked to do, and to take me seriously when I say that I don’t have time to chat, or when it’s clear that I’m trying to focus on something. Can that be our understanding going forward?”

I’d focus on that part of it for now. I think you need to pick your battles with this one, and asking him not to interrupt you with work-related questions may or may not be reasonable. It probably is, but that’s not your biggest issue with this guy right now anyway and that can be a harder case to make. Since 90% of the interruptions aren’t work-related (and are far harder for him to defend), focus on those.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 169 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    One of many reasons that open offices suck.

    Are there conference rooms you can hide in when you need an uninterrupted block of time to work?

    1. AD*

      This has nothing to do with open office plans and everything to do with a juvenile manager who pranks his team members(!?!) if they ignore his efforts to chit-chat. The manager has his own office, according to the letter.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I mean it’s harder for a worker bee to avoid interruptions in an open office.

        Of course the manager sucks (and in OP’s shoes I’d be looking for a new job), but hiding out in a conference room can help as an interim measure, if that’s possible. If the boss doesn’t see OP, he can’t interrupt OP.

        1. OhNo*

          I think that depends on if he just looks for anyone to interrupt, or whether it’s more focused and he wants to chat with one person specifically.

          If it’s the former, anything that gets you out of the line of fire (including moving to a conference room) would work. If it’s the latter, a concrete wall probably wouldn’t stop this guy, let alone a conference room door.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I would normally agree with you, but I used to have a boss who would stand in the doorway to my office and trap me while talking about literally nothing of import, let alone anything related to actual work. I have a feeling this guy would be similar.

    2. (Another) B*

      Agreed. I spent 9 years in cubes/my own office and now I work in an open office and I HATE IT. Even if no one is actively distracting anyone else it IS distracting in and of itself.

    3. Feathers McGraw*

      I work in an open office but I don’t work with juvenile twits. I don’t think the office layout can be blamed here.

      1. sstabeler*

        It’s not that the open office is to blame as such, but because someone particularly juvenile (I’m thinking more co-workers than managers- mainly because normally managers are more mature, so less likely to still be juvenile pranksters) both needs to take a bit more effort to prank you (and frankly, I’d say it’s harassment, not pranks- it’d be dubious if it was a co-worker, but the manager is giving you a task then actively interfering with your ability to do it.) since they need to go to you office, go in, go to your desk, mess with you, rather than go to your desk and mess with you. That, and sometimes, out of sight, out of mind can be your friend.

      1. Margot Terror of the Schoolbus*

        Mine was, “Is someone trying to fake out Alison by writing in about an episode of The Office?”

    1. Anonymoose*

      + 1

      He seems passive agressive to me. ‘Hey you’re not paying my self esteem enough attention, lets strike out at you as penance’.

      As for the wording, I would change ‘the work you’ve asked me to do’ to ‘work you’ve hired me to do’. He can always change his stance that he’s now ‘asking’ you to socialize, but you can’t really negate the fact that you’ve been hired to…..well, WORK. Ugh, honestly, I would probably leave if it were me. He won’t get any better, and in the long run you’re basically just torturing yourself. Also keep in mind that people this immature/passive aggressive usually make terrible references and are incredibly petty when you quit. So, kid gloves this one.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        I think it’d be funny if they all banded together and started not getting everything done/turning things in late and then blaming the social crap. But that’s just the passive aggressive part of me talking.

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          I LOVE passive aggressive! Here’s mine: Next time he drops your chair while you’re in it, scream in pain, clutch your lower back, and file a Worker’s Comp claim.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I would whirl around and blam him in the face with my knee, and then say innocuously, “Oh I’m sorry, Fergus; you startled me.” He’d never do it again.

          2. sstabeler*

            not a good idea- I’m not 100% sure, but I think that counts as workers comp fraud, which I’m 99% sure is illegal- and this manager may be enough of a child to make an issue of it.

    2. 2 Cents*

      Maybe this boss really thought The Office was a serious documentary / how-to series.

    3. Amber T*

      This was my reaction! And, shockingly, not the first time I had that reaction this week (all I could picture was Michael Scott and The Office while reading the weight loss boat cruise letter).

      No but seriously, this is Michael Scott to a T.

    4. DevAssist*

      That was my exact thought!!!

      Also, OP, if you are amid-size Pennsylvania paper company, are you offering any current specials on recycled legal size paper?

  2. Keli*

    Talk loudly and exhaustively about the troubles some foods give your bowels, and then when he tries to change the subject, tell the two hour saga of your child’s gymnastics meet/band concert.

    1. Jeanne*

      I like this but I can’t decide if it will help or not. I suspect he will not interrupt just like he interrupts work. He only wants his talking to be heard I think.

  3. AMD*

    Is this an instance where you think having the whole team approach him as a group would help?

      1. Midge*

        Or could this be a case where they could go, as a group or individually, to HR and complain about a hostile work environment? If he’s making fun of the way people’s names are pronounced he could be verging into illegal harassment territory by making fun of people’s ethnicity or national origin, no?

          1. Pebbles*

            I would do this. Have the 1-on-1 meeting with your boss like Alison suggested OP and gauge how seriously he takes your concerns. If he takes you seriously and knocks it off, fine. But if you feel he’s just blowing you off (or even continuing to make fun of you!) go right to his boss. You were hired to do your work, and he was hired to manage you so that you are able to do your work. That work isn’t getting done because of his nonsense.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              Yeah, I’m just worried if the Op is the only one who does this, he’ll then target her and push her out.

              1. EddieSherbert*

                But then that’s just more reason to go to HR, I guess… (I’d still start with Alison’s advice, alone or with coworkers).

        1. Karanda Baywood*

          Not to mention lowering someone’s chair…?! Who does that? I consider that harrassment, invading my personal space and causing potential physical harm.

          1. eplawyer*

            Yeah the second he did that I would have been in HR. Didn’t we have a letter this morning about someone who was injured in an office “prank.” HR needs to know so that they can tell this guy they are not protecting him from a lawsuit that happens when someone gets hurt.

            If I really wanted to be difficult, as soon as he lowered my chair while I was in it, I would start screaming “Oh my back, my back. You hurt my back.” Then go to HR.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I just want to note it’s probably not a hostile work environment (unless he disproportionately teases people of a particular ethnicity—if he’s a jerk to everyone and not on protected category grounds, it’s not discriminatory).

      2. Anonymoose*

        I 100% agree. He doesn’t seem the type to take feedback seriously, since he can’t even respect how someone’s name sounds (seriously, what IS that??).

    1. Beancounter Eric*

      If they are carrying large blunt objects with which to beat the manager senseless, perhaps….

  4. KG, Ph.D.*

    OP, does your boss always wear a trenchcoat, and does one of his hands look suspiciously like a broom? I am concerned that your boss may actually be three kids standing on each others shoulders.

    1. lionelrichiesclayhead*

      This is exactly what came to mind when I read this!

      “Business-wise, this all seems like appropriate business!”

  5. animaniactoo*

    As someone who has had my seat lowered on me unexpectedly while sitting in it – if you’re talking about the pneumatic height adjustment chairs (as most are these days) that is not petty and it is not a prank, it can cause serious injury.

    Honestly, at this point, I would be looking to talk to the person above this guy. Not because of the chair-lowering – although I take that more seriously than it’s been presented as here – but because while it’s perfectly acceptable for a boss to interrupt for whatever they want in general, including to talk about their latest snack, this is a setup for failure. He’s mocking people for doing their work, and interrupting them A LOT to talk about non-work stuff, and raising the bar on his me-me-me-me-me when polite attempts are made to redirect to getting the work done. I guarantee he is not going to stand out in front and take the bullet when there’s an issue and somebody wants to know why whatever missed deadline, or a bunch of errors were found in something.

    1. NoMoreMrFixit*

      Either go over his head or to HR if they’re competent. Messing with your chair while you’re still sitting on it gets into harassment territory and that opens the company to a world of well-deserved hurt. Doing it as a group adds considerable weight to the seriousness of the situation. At this stage trying to talk to your manager isn’t likely to work. Anybody this self-centered and juvenile is just going to disregard any complaints and may actually encourage this jerk to step up his games.

      I’ve had coworkers pull this sort of garbage but a manager??? That’s a whole new level of strange. Please escalate this.

    2. SarahKay*

      I’d agree with animaniactoo – lowering someone’s chair like that isn’t a petty prank, it’s a hazardous behaviour. I have intermittent back trouble and I’m pretty sure someone doing that to me would leave me in pain for days.
      I’d say try Alison’s script at the next check-in, and if that doesn’t work, escalate – either to his manager or to HR, or even HSE if that’s an option. I can guarantee my HSE manager would raise hell if someone tried messing around with another person’s chair while they were sitting in it! And by raise hell, I mean disciplinary action and quite possibly termination.
      Other than that, all I can say is that you have my total sympathy; I would be gritting my teeth every time I so much as saw him after a couple of weeks of this. Good luck!

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Just throwing in my voice for the lowering the chair thing potentially being more serious. It seems pretty harmless, but you never know what people are dealing with :)

        (I was in a car accident that messed up my back – slow but steady recovery, thank goodness – and something jolting like that could definitely kill some of my progress)

        Thanks SarahKay and animaniactoo!

        1. animaniactoo*

          YW – even without having a pre-existing problem, that kind of sudden jolt can cause a spinal compression injury in the worst possible way because if you’re sitting relatively straight what ends up happening is that all the force of the weight of everything above your hips travels back up your spine when you hit the bottom. The higher you have the chair, the more gravity increases the impact when you hit the lowest setting. Our bodies can usually absorb that kind of shock and decompress again, but if it hits the wrong way, you end up with a fracture or a tear of something along the way, lose some of the cushioning between vertebrae, etc., and repeated instances wear down the ability to recover and decompress as easily/much.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Agreed—I feel like it’s time to talk to him and escalate the complaint (since he’s unlikely to change his behavior). If more than one person is willing to make the complaint, all the better, but this sounds like an impossible situation for OP and their coworkers.

      1. Annonymouse*

        You don’t even need to be in your chair for it to mess you up.

        I’m a short person (around 5ft) and I used to work reception in an office that had 1 hour lunch breaks. There was one lady that would cover for me and without fail would always adjust my chair 2 or more inches lower.

        Every time I sat back down after lunch I got a nasty shock as my chair wasn’t there to meet me where I expected it to.

        I asked her to please not touch my chair but there was a language barrier.

  6. Granny K*

    I was in a similar situation and I would sometimes ignore him (although he wasn’t one to pull pranks, he also wouldn’t go away either), or I’d stop working and just stare with NO expression until he was finished, and then continue working. If I was working on something he had already deemed as urgent, I would say “I’m working on X, which you said you needed by 4 pm. Is this no longer urgent?” He was reasonable enough that he would let me continue. This boss doesn’t sound as reasonable.

    1. Anonymoose*

      Ooooh I like the staring and continuing with work idea as if the convo didn’t even happen. It totally takes away his spotlight power. He’s basically an adult bully. Take away his audience and perhaps it will take are of itself. I do wonder, however, if he would take that as ‘attitude’. This dude is petty.

      Sorry about your old boss!

    2. OhNo*

      Somewhat related, but a tactic I use outside the office, with people who try to strike up conversations when I’m busy, is to let them start talking, wait until they’ve really gotten up a good head of steam, maybe they’re about to deliver a punch line, and say, “I’m sorry, were you talking to me? I was thinking about something else.” It also works if you are wearing headphones – acknowledge the speaker but don’t take the headphones off, then halfway through their spiel remove them and say the same thing.

      In my experience, it only takes one or two of those sudden deflations for a chatty person to decide I’m a bad target. Knowing that someone wasn’t listening, or having to repeat yourself, takes away the rush people like that get from the attention.

      That said, it’s purely a stopgap measure. It’s not going to stop him from bothering your other coworkers, and it’s not going to make him realize that what he’s doing is the issue.

      1. Robm*

        “Sorry Sport, I was thinking about soup” – hit the bad boss with a line from another bad boss.

    3. KTM*

      This is what I was going to suggest – can you straight up ignore him if it’s not work related? If he lowers your chair, just raise it and pretend like nothing happened? Ignore his sarcastic, child-like comments? Provide a blank stare and zero reaction to his ‘stories’? I’m wondering if he gets zero reaction from you if he’ll stop. Although unfortunately he might stop for you and just put it on other people…

  7. Mug*

    I have a pretty annoying boss that loves to chit chat. I’m not sure if this will work for you, but it has helped me. While he’s talking to me, I keep typing, but go back and forth between looking at my screen and looking at him. I’ll pause and listen to him for a second, then get ‘distracted’ by something on my screen. After about the second or third time her has to repeat himself because I got distracted and had to ask him ‘sorry say that again?’ he usually leaves me alone. (But maybe this could make your boss more mad??)

    1. Fish in the Sea*

      That’s my tactic now, but it’s also contributing to my anxiety. I just need consistent focus and it makes me too anxious to have to pretend to pay attention to whatever he’s chatting about.

      1. Anxa*

        You know, you’re right that it can make you anxious. I don’t think I realized how bad this tactic is for me, as I do find it really uncomfortable, even if it’s been somewhat effective so far.

      2. Annonymouse*

        I’m sorry but I’m working on X (client email, important entry thing for payment etc) that is urgent.

        Unless this is about work I don’t have time to listen.

        If he says it is but starts talking about something else:

        Sorry. This clearly isn’t work related and X needs to be completed.

        Turn head away, put on headphones go back to work.

        If he messes with your chair go straight to someone with higher authority and point out how that can mess someone up physically and go on record that his constant non work discussions are interfering with the whole teams ability to do the jobs that the company is paying for.

  8. MuseumChick*

    I vote for talking to him as a group. If that doesn’t work, I think it’s reasonable to go to his boss.

    1. Jeanne*

      Yes. While all these other things with ignoring him or staring at him are good tactics, I think they won’t work with this boss. They need support. Get together as a group and decide if you want to go to him first or go directly to his boss or HR, whoever you think will be most receptive.

  9. Another Lawyer*

    Oh man, OP, I feel you on the immersion. One day I was working on a super detailed oriented task and had headphones in and was 100% zoned in when my coworker interrupted me (for something time sensitive and work related). I was so startled I actually cried.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That happened to me at Exjob. Someone came up behind me when I was concentrating with headphones and she scared me so badly I whipped around like “GUH!” and scared her too. LOL

    2. JustaTech*

      I do this all the time. I’m easily startled and I shriek when it happens. The funny thing is that my boss is also easily startled and sometimes he’ll come over to ask me a question when I’m super absorbed, I’ll shriek and then he’ll shriek and then we all laugh.

  10. TootsNYC*

    Are you all judged on how much work you get done?
    Or do you have to work late, or scramble, if you get behind?
    If so, be sure to mention that.

    1. Fish in the Sea*

      There aren’t a lot of projects that are urgent, so there isn’t a lot of scrambling. I usually have enough time to complete my work, but I need to actually focus on it to get it done.

    2. JustaTech*

      Could you quantify it? Something like “Every time you speak to me while I am working it takes me X minutes to get back to being productive [15? 20?] in addition to the time we spend speaking. This adds up to Y minutes over the course of a week that should have been productive, or $Z.”

      Or maybe frame it as what he wants you to prioritize, talking with him or productive work.

  11. Fish in the Sea*

    Hi all,

    I am the letter writer, and, while I would love to be able to say it’s just a stack of kids piled high pretending to be an adult, it’s not! We do have conference rooms where I could work, but they’re typically reserved for departmental meetings, and I don’t have a laptop to work on if I could escape to one of those rooms. I’ve voiced my frustrations with the rest of my colleagues, but no one seems as frustrated with this behavior as I am. I feel confident enough to speak up during our next meeting, but the response I’m dreading I will receive is something in the vein of “you waited too long to bring this up/why didn’t you say anything before/if it bothers you so much, why do you give in to chatting/etc.” I don’t think he realizes it can be difficult for reports to bring up something that could be taken as criticism of his character and work ethic. I should say that otherwise, he is a good boss.

    1. NaoNao*

      Well the response for that “why didn’t you say anything” is “Because I was hoping that the party responsible would realize how silly/time consuming/annoying it is and stop without me having to bring it up” or “Because I wanted to make sure it was a pattern of behavior, to ensure I wasn’t over-reacting to an occasional or one-time thing. And now I’m sure it is, so I’m addressing it.” or “In the past, schedules and priorities were a little different and I was adjusting and learning how things went here. Now that I both have a clearer picture of what’s expected and what the norms are, I realize I can’t be effective with that going on.”

      You don’t have to, by law, speak up the first time something happens. That’s often an over-reaction!

      1. Observer*

        You don’t have to speak up the first times something happens, by law, common sense or any reasonable measure or reasoning.

    2. Schnapps*

      I dunno about that. I think a good boss wouldn’t do things like lowering your chair while you’re sitting on it, or interrupting your work when you’re clearly in the zone unless its an emergency (and making fun of you doing your work? WTF is up with that? He should be glad you’re doing your work).

      Sarcasm is an extremely dangerous thing. Its really bad for relationships of any sort. As a manager, he shouldn’t be doing that.

      And if you get a response of “you waited too long” (etc), then that’s pretty toxic. I’d bring it back to, “I’ve been thinking about how best to approach this and was taking my time with it. I’d appreciate it if my concerns were addressed.”

    3. MuseumChick*

      You can counter most of this easily enough “Why didn’t you say anything before?” – “I should have, I was hoping my non-verbal ques would be enough. But I want to be more direct about it now.” “If it bothers you so much why do you give in?” – “You probably don’t realize this, but when I try to not get it, it tends to get worse such as mocking peoples names, etc.”

    4. animaniactoo*

      “I tried to find ways to adjust to it, and to talk to you about it in the moment, but it hasn’t helped which is why I’m bringing it up now.”

    5. k*

      If he calls you out for waiting to bring it up, you can say: “I’ve tried hinting at it politely, but I realize now that I wasn’t being clear enough.” It puts some blame on you which will help him save some face. I get the impression that he wouldn’t accept criticism well, so any little buffer may help him from turning defensive.

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        I’d avoid giving him anything to argue about. Saying “I’ve tried hinting at it politely” will give him an opportunity to say “No you haven’t!” or “When? What did you do?” and totally derail. But I agree that he won’t accept criticism well, and a buffer is necessary. I suggest the buffer should be detachment from the past pattern and focusing on the new pattern.

        1. OhNo*

          If that’s a concern, the OP can nip it in the bud by inserting one or two examples. “I’ve tried hinting politely, by asking to pick up the conversation later, but I realize now…”

    6. Isben Takes Tea*

      Don’t get sidetracked on trying to justify yourself–you don’t need to, and you risk more blowback/derailment from him. Captain Awkward’s amazing response to this derailment is “I’m saying something now. Can we agree on what this will look like moving forward?”

      “You waited to long to bring this up.” — “I’m bringing it up now.”
      “Why didn’t you say something before?” — “I’m saying something now.”
      “If it bothers you so much, why do give in?” — “It bothers me now. Can we agree on what this will look like moving forward?”

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        I’d also head on over to Captain Awkward Dot Com and take a look at her responses to people dealing with annoying boundary-crossing friends/acquaintances. She will definitely help prep you so that your conversation won’t be controlled by him and his immaturity.

        1. Fish in the Sea*

          I love Captain Awkward! I hadn’t seen anything specifically work-related, but I’ll check out other posts that could help. Thanks!

      2. Venus Supreme*

        Also, for “Why do you give in to the chatting?” — “Because you didn’t listen when I ignored you/asked you to stop, and giving in was the quickest way out of the situation.”

        (the words sound a little harsh, but you get the gist)

    7. J-nonymous*

      I think if that happens, be as plainspoken as possible. “Why didn’t you bring this up sooner?” “Honestly? It feels awkward and I wasn’t sure how you would react. When I try mentioning I can’t chat right now, you’ve teased me–including playing a prank on me when I wasn’t around.”

      If he says, “You waited too long,” you might answer “I did mention at the time that I wasn’t free to chat and you teased me and played pranks on me.”

      If he tries the “If it bothers you so much…” approach, you could respond with “I don’t always know if you’re coming to chat or to talk about work-related stuff. And when I have mentioned I’m not free to chit-chat, you’ve teased me and played pranks on me.”

      I can’t say for certain if he will try any of those tactics you’re dreading – but if he does, that’s him trying to deflect responsibility from him to you – so the best way to handle it is to (respectfully, but firmly) take the conversation back to the problem behavior *he* is doing.

      1. Delyssia*

        I really don’t like calling what the boss is doing “teasing.” I feel like it’s too minimizing of what’s going on. I’d go with something more along the lines of “making fun of” me/my name/whatever or “making jokes at my expense.”

    8. Aunt Margie at Work*

      What ever words he uses in his reaction to you, expect they will be an attempt to turn the situation around. Some version of “this is your fault because…”
      It doesn’t matter what words he uses: “Should have told me sooner.” “You can listen and work, you just don’t want to.” “You can’t take a joke.” “You aren’t building a relationship.” “blah, blah, blah.”
      They all will mean that he thinks you have a problem with HIM not his behavior. Remember this and speak accordingly. You like working for him. You don’t like being distracted every hour.

    9. Lefty*

      I like the power of “regardless” here…
      “Why did you wait too long to bring up?” Regardless of the wait, it’s a problem now.
      “Why didn’t you say anything before?” You’re right, I didn’t say anything before- regardless, I’m saying it now.
      “If it bothers you so much, why do you give in?” I gave in at the time- regardless, I’m telling you I cannot do that anymore.

    10. TootsNYC*

      “you waited too long” etc.: Just smile and say, “I’m bringing it up now.”

      Maybe make it about him helping you–“I find it so much better to be able to keep my focus”–and less about “you’re doing something that bothers me.”

      So, focus on the positive you want (“I want to be able to keep my focus on my work” / “I want you to start doing this”) and not on the negative (“I don’t want you to bother me” / “I want you to stop this”)

      As for what he can start doing–ask him if you can have a code word that you can say to him so he’ll realize you’re focusing and therefore asking him to delay* the conversation. Because of course, even stopping to say, “Can we chat later? I’m in the zone,” would throw you out of the zone.

      So maybe suggest that you mutually agree that if you say, “Zoning!” he’ll fade out and have that convo with you later.

      *delay: This might be one way to go that would seem less judgmental and annoyed. It’s not that you don’t want to talk to him at all–you just need to do it later. If you wanted, you could even make it a point to go to him whenever your out of the zone and say, “What was it you needed/wanted to say?” so he’d feel more motivated to leave you alone, bcs he’d get some of your attention.
      (and it might actually make him realize that it’s kind of silly to interrupt you with this stuff, bcs being asked about it attentively makes it seem extra stupid to now talk about his new snack)

    11. Student*

      “…otherwise, he is a good boss.”

      What does he do well? I’m deeply curious. I went through a boss that I thought was a “good boss except this one thing” for a long time, and it ended up turning out that he was a really bad boss who just happened to ignore anything that functioned well without his involvement.

  12. Sue Wilson*

    Uh……if any of those names are characteristic of someone’s race, ethnicity or national origin, your boss may have a legal problem on his hands.

  13. ArtK*

    Clearly, this boss does *not* have enough work to do. One push-back on him directly and then go over his head. What especially bothers me is the petty retaliation. It’s far too easy for that stuff to leak over into reviews and allocation of good assignments. It’s a perfect opportunity for some brown-nosed slacker to get ahead by chatting up the boss.

  14. Scarlott*

    Ooof. “U” shaped desk layouts. This is exactly what you do when you hate your employees. The employees with the worst concentration won’t be able to get much done, and the ones with the best concentration will suffer because of the former. Sorry I went OT here.
    The boss sounds like a tool. “Your boss sucks and there’s probably nothing you can do. You should look for a new job”, sounds about right.

  15. AMT*

    For me, this would be a “quit your job, tear off your clothing, jump into the ocean” moment. And I’ve had some horrible bosses.

    1. Sophie*

      +1 I don’t understand places like this. What are you supposed to do? If you don’t do the work, you get in trouble. Now apparently if you DO work, you STILL get in trouble?! I was in a place like this and the only solution was to leave.

  16. Observer*

    If your HR or grandboss (boss’s boss) are competent, go to them if your pushback doesn’t work. There are so many problems with this behavior that any competent management would put an immediate stop to it. The making fun of names could present a problem with prohibited discriminatory behavior. Messing with your chair when you are sitting in it could create worker’s comp and liability issues – if someone gets hurt when he pulls that (or even CLAIMS to have been hurt) that’s a major issue. And, in general there is so much bad judgement and management here, that it really should be stopped asap.

    1. Karanda Baywood*

      And make some notes on how often this happens and what he says, so you have the facts when go to them with a complaint.

  17. BadPlanning*

    Messing with your office chair is rage inducing. I had an officemate who started to shake my chair back to get my attention. Fortunately after telling him in a very serious tone (after an initial, gee, please don’t do that), “Do not do that, I hate it” — he apologized and stopped.

    Sometimes I sit with my feet under chair — my feet swung back and resting on my toes — if someone dropped my chair unexpectedly, you could mash my feet/heel/etc. Ugh.

  18. Fresh Faced*

    The chair lowering thing is the worst, especially if you guys are wearing headphones plugged into your computers. He has no idea how the cords are wrapped and a sudden change in direction can break your headphones, wreck your ears or worse. Back in school (when I was probably 15ish so this emphasizes this guys immaturity) A boy decided it was funny to pull my chair back suddenly. Since I was plugged in to my pc via earphones the jolt made my ears sting for an hour or so. He almost got reflex punched in the face. I’m sure the look I gave him conveyed as much because he never messed with me again.
    I don’t have much to add advice wise, good luck OP.

  19. blatantlybianca*

    I am petty enough that I would track every interruption by the minute for every teammate for a month or so, and then create charts that broke down the disruption in productivity for the group and then by each member. I would of course use the company’s branding in selecting the color for these beautiful charts. I would then blow these charts up and go straight to Big Boss with this data and a request for immediate action.

    But I am from Queens, NY and we are born rabble-rousers so your mileage may vary.

    1. Nic*

      I love this suggestion and it is totally the type of thing I would do, but then you might get them coming back at you for how long it took to put together this information.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        This is true. But you could point out that if you’d been allowed to do your work in the first place, the chart wouldn’t have been necessary.

      2. Tobias Funke*

        “Not as long as it takes to be distracted by his foolishness.”

        I’m from the borough to your left and I approve!

  20. Anonimal*

    I would break someone’s arm if they constantly lowered my chair as a joke to make fun of me for working. Wtf.

    1. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

      I wish I could insert a photo of that pie chart showing how much of Michael’s work time was devoted to distracting others.

    2. Robin Sparkles*

      I literally clicked on this comment thread just to find a comment that said this!

      The whole time I was reading the post, I thought “Michael Scott. Michael Scott. Michael Scott.”

  21. SQL Coder Cat*

    Back in my first real office job, I had a manager who used to mess with the chairs while people were working. He particularly liked messing with me, as I listened to music through my headset to help me focus and generally wouldn’t hear him sneaking up behind me. Plus, I jumped or squeaked each time it happened, which only made it more fun for him. It didn’t matter how much I complained, it kept happening. HR’s response was ‘We encourage a fun environment.” (Fun for whom they never would say.)

    So… I enlisted a couple of equally annoyed coworkers to IM me when the boss was headed my direction, and wore my headset without listening to music for a day, so I could hear when something was about to happen. The next time he messed with my chair, I spun my chair around, elbow out. I was aiming for his leg, but I accidentally hit somewhere a bit more tender. I apologized profusely, of course, while reminding him that I didn’t react well to being startled, and he limped off to the muffled laughter of my less-discrete coworkers.

    Interestingly enough, he stopped messing with anyone’s chair after that. I’m not sure I’d recommend this method except as a strategy of last recourse, but it was effective!

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      On the contrary, this is an excellent strategy to recommend! That’s awesome. Go you.

  22. Siberian*

    OP I am so sorry you’re dealing with this. It sounds awful. I’ve been in situations where I’m being interrupted over and over and over (by my young child, by my crazy ex) and it pushes me to near-hysteria. I’m talking about repeated interruptions that come so close together that you just have enough time to refocus on your task and then you’re interrupted again. O.M.G. After 15 minutes the hysteria starts bubbling up.

    I also couldn’t handle my chair being touched. I HATE even a little wiggling of my chair from someone else. Having it dropped like that? I second the concerns about earbuds, feet under chair, etc., but I would have a hard time not instinctively hitting the person who did it.

    I see that you’re in the comments and hope you can tell us that he’s got a supervisor you can go to. I agree with everyone who is saying to document the behavior, even if only for a week or two, as useful backup. “During this week I took notes so you’d have an idea of the frequency. He made fun of people’s names 15 times, dropped people’s chairs six times, and berated people for working 20 times. It’s not an occasional thing.”

    Please keep us posted!

  23. Clever Name*

    I’m having flashbacks to a former job where my boss was a giant man-child whose emotions and intellect seemed to have been frozen probably about his junior year of high school. Go ahead and have a rational discussion with your boss, and maybe you can draw some boundaries with him, but he’ll never stop being the way he is, so decide if the other aspects of your job make working for a childish boss worth it.

    1. Robin Sparkles*

      Clicked on this comment thread simply to find a comment asking if her boss was Michael Scott!

  24. Fish in the Sea*

    I wish I could say that his boss is an option for me to find a solution for this issue, but he is worse than my boss (in many different ways), and our HR person is incompetent. I would never go to either of them for any issue. I do not see them as resources. My thought is that if I can’t resolve this between the two of us, and really, I think that’s where it should start, then it’s time for me to move on.

    1. MuseumChick*

      Ick, yeah, honestly, even if you are able to resolve it, this company sounds bad enough that you should think about moving on ASAP.

    2. animaniactoo*

      You said above that he’s otherwise a good boss. Can you expand on that some and give us an idea of what makes him a good boss other than this issue?

      1. animaniactoo*

        (Honestly, I’m wondering here if he might react well to “I can’t play with you right now, go to your room!” followed up with a mean look and crossed arms and “I mean it. Why are you still standing here? I said Go To Your Room.” It would be highly unprofessional, but since he is highly unprofessional in this regard, it might be the kind of thing that he would pay attention to vs any of the more formal stuff that seems to egg him on to raise the bar on being ridiculous. If you’ve got stuff that genuinely makes attempting to make this situation work, it could be worth a try… but I’d really like to know what you feel is worth preserving here.)

        1. Jeanne*

          I like that. I also like a direct “Don’t ever do that again” along with a look that could kill. I used that with a sexual harrasser (along with a threat of future violence but in this case leave out the threat). No reason just the statement.

      2. Fish in the Sea*

        He’s typically good at hearing us out on other issues at work (with other workers, with our clients, etc.). He understands our work and the challenges we face, which is helpful. I wouldn’t say he’s perfect otherwise-he lacks things that I think would make him better, like recognizing his staff for doing a great job on a project, but for the most part he’s approachable and understanding.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Hmmmm. It sounds like there’s a possibility then if you simply discuss this as a “you” process rather than a “him” process and talk about *how* he’s interrupting you vs what he wants to talk about when he does interrupt you, and really frame it as a request (even though it should by no means be a request that you need to make).

          I’d look at “I feel like I haven’t been clear with you about how much this affects my ability to focus and get my work done. Honestly, it drives me bananas because it takes me a really long time to be able to focus again. I’ve been trying to work on it, but it hasn’t helped much and I end up feeling frustrated. Can we work out something else for when you want to get my attention, and when we have social discussions?”

          The last part is important, because you’re tapping into the part that he’s good with – you’re asking him to help you problem-solve this rather than asking for a specific solution. Which means he’d likely be a lot more onboard with whatever solution the two of you come up with.

          1. animaniactoo*

            (Although you should also point out to him at some unrelated to this conversation point that dropping peoples’ chairs on them like that can cause spinal compression injuries and it would be a big thing if somebody got hurt, particularly in the workplace. You might want to google-fu stumble across an article about spinal compression injuries…)

        2. Jeanne*

          I’m unclear how he understands your challenges if he doesn’t allow you to do your job.

        3. TootsNYC*

          see my note above about redirecting him (“later,” “delay” instead of “don’t bother me”), and making it sound like he’s helping you (“I need to stay in the zone” / “I find it frustrating,” “I lose my focus and it takes longer”), not that you’re pushing him away (“leave me alone”).

          Also feel free to tell him that it means you have to work harder, etc., even if it’s not true.

  25. kiwidg1*

    Sorry, all I can think of is if I only talked to my manager when I wasn’t busy, we’d never talk.

  26. Mephyle*

    This seems to be an immature person who enjoys pushing the buttons of the people he is supposed to be managing. I would be concerned that the recommended script would only serve to demonstrate to his satisfaction that he is hitting his targets.
    I would be tempted rather (not that I’m recommending this) to enter the conversation about this problem by asking him how he envisions the role he is fulfilling in the company. Is it to lower the morale of his staff? To impede them from doing their work? Yes? And why?

    1. Zooey*

      Yup. Normally I agree with Alison’s scripts, but I am not optimistic that someone this childish will respond well to big boy words. Fragile egos can’t handle honest criticism. This dude is basically Michael Scott.

      I think the best approach is for OP to make themselves seem like the killjoy. Like “I know this is totally lame of me, but I’ve always had a hard time staying focused when I get interrupted in the middle of something. It’s like something weird with my brain, I don’t know! So as much as I like shooting the breeze with you during the day, how about we grab a coffee or something after work to catch up?”

      And then every time Boss interrupts, you smile and are like “Sorry man, I’m right in the zone with these Teapot Reports and you know how I am with my weird attention thing, ha ha. Can we catch up later over coffee?”

    2. Fish in the Sea*

      The other issue is that when I’ve brought up smaller issues with his behavior, he’s talked about it openly, such as “Well Jane doesn’t want me to make fun of her anymore.” Even when the conversation was in private. I would be horrified if he brought this up in front of my colleagues in casual conversation.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Oh, just own it. He’s “winning” because he’s got your embarrassment working for him. Turn that against him and refuse to be embarrassed about it. “Yup, that’s correct.” Completely matter-of-fact. You can even do a dry “Is that a problem for you?” if he starts to make fun of you again, etc.

        “Nope, I don’t want you to stand over my desk waiting for me to notice/try to talk and work at the same time. It bugs me. Thanks for understanding!”

        1. 2 Cents*

          Yeah, if he does childishly call you out like that, you can be like, “Yup, I tend to think work is a priority.” If you don’t engage with the troll, he won’t get the satisfaction. And I bet your other coworkers don’t like his shenanigans either.

      2. Siberian*

        Well, I agree that it’s inappropriate, unprofessional and childish for him to bring up a private conversation with his direct report in that way. Totally uncool. But…if he brought up something you said to someone else, like “Fish in the Sea says I can’t mess with her chair anymore,” is that really all that bad? Another way to look at it is that it’s positive that you learned that Jane also complains. I would hope no one would think less of you for complaining to him if he mentions you as well, and you might even get some street cred or appreciation from your coworkers for having stood up to him. And if he said something like “Jane doesn’t want me to make fun of her anymore” to a boss, he’s the one who’s going to sound inappropriate, not Jane.

        Not telling you how to feel, just offering a different perspective on it.

        1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

          I totally understand how embarrassing that would feel, but I think Siberian has a good point. If he’s as annoying to others as he is to you (and my word that’s a sure bet), then him complaining publicly about your private requests to knock it the F off is signalling to your co-workers that they aren’t the only ones getting frustrated by him.

          I don’t think you’re alone. And I think you’ll discover that if you’re willing to make a little noise.

      3. Observer*

        I’m with animaniactoo. Agree with him, cheerfully and matter-of-factly and go on with whatever.

      4. Jeanne*

        Sometimes it’s better to be the office B word. Trust me. If it keeps him from annoying you, teasing you, and pranking you, it’s perfect.

        1. Siberian*

          Agreed, Jeanne. After a lot of years of being bullied at workplaces I have really stood up for myself and coworkers in my current workplace, whether that means being willing to disagree with our supervisor, being polite but blunt in team meetings, pushing back on requests, etc. Not only have my coworkers commented many times that they appreciate it and are trying to model their behavior after mine (who knew?) but my supervisor is treating me better than anyone else now. This week I risked being the person who said that we should have a timekeeper for our meetings because of supervisor’s meeting dysfunction issues, and not only did she support the idea in the meeting, but she came to me later to thank me for suggesting it. It’s really scary to be the first to set limits, and not every situation will work out as well as mine, but I’m very glad I took the risk of being the office B word. :)

          1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

            Thank you for this. It’s an excellent reminder that being straightforward and assertive really can get results.

          2. Kate, short for Bob*

            When you say ‘office b word’ I’m going to hear ‘office Beyonce’, because there’s nothing negative about standing up for yourself, and being a woman doesn’t make it so

      5. Narise*

        I might be tempted to reply with “Yes we discussed it last Thursday. That was the day you dropped your bottle full of blue pills all over your office. Glad we got this settled.”

  27. Lizabeth*

    Too bad he doesn’t steal lunches too…extra hot chili might keep him quiet for awhile.

  28. Chickaletta*

    I can’t imagine. I’ve had coworkers kinda like this, but never a manager. Some people just think “work boring, me fun”. It’s a really, really, hard type of person to break through because as soon as you become serious they make fun of you.

  29. I'm not a lawyer, but ...*

    I worked with someone who did this to prove more staff was needed to avoid overtime, b/c more staff meant a promotion. I was asked how I had managed the team w/o OT and suggested that grandboss pop in more often to see if my methods of encouraging teamwork and rewarding productivity were still in place. Fired did not equal a promotion. Perhaps he’s with you now.

    1. Anna the Accounting Grad*

      Fired did not equal a promotion.

      And fired did equal what was coming to him.

  30. designbot*

    Do you have to actually sit by him? 6 months ago I could have written this letter almost, and I just started being really open (but businesslike!) about the fact that my boss and I have very different personalities and workstyles. When I heard an office rearrangement was in the works, I asked the partner I’m closest to whether I might be put in a quieter spot. She knew right away what my problem was, and anytime she or anyone else asked about it, I just said “Fergus and I just have very different ways of handling things. He gains energy from attention and interaction, and I find those things draining.” At that level, it’s not even a criticism of him, it’s just an acknowledgement that people manage their energy in very different ways and not all of them are compatible. I now sit across the room from Fergus and he rarely bothers me.

    1. sstabeler*

      unfortunately, it sounds like the boss is enough of a child that it might actually make him concentrate on just messing with the LW.

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