employee is flippant when I correct her mistakes, interrupting someone who’s wearing headphones, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Junior employee is flippant when I correct mistakes in her work

I am an upper middle-level employee. My boss has a junior who reports directly to her, that I also have permission to delegate work to. There have been times when I have caught this junior employee doing sloppy work or mistakes on work that I have given her. It’s usually not a huge a deal, but I feel if it’s a mistake I catch often or a bigger issue, that I should point it out. Lately, though, her response to me is “Yeah, yeah, I know, sorry,” or “Is it really that big of a deal?” Generally pretty flippant reactions.

Overall I think she is a good employee who does good work and I feel weird going to my boss over the situation, but I also don’t like the attitude I am getting. What is the best way to handle this situation?

Yeah, that’s annoying — and concerning, not because you need her to flagellate herself but because you want to know that she’s taking the mistakes seriously. I think you can address it right in the moment when she gives you those reactions. For example:

Her: “Yeah, yeah, I know, sorry.”
You: “You don’t need to apologize, but I want to make sure that you know what happened and can avoid it in the future.”

Her: “Is it really that big of a deal?”
You: “One time wouldn’t be, but yes, when it’s a pattern, it’s something that you do need to be careful about fixing.”
Or: “Yes, it can be a big deal because of ____.”

You could also give her bigger-picture feedback about the overall pattern you’re seeing in her work and in her responses when you point out mistakes. For example: “I’m noticing that I’m catching a lot of mistakes in things like X and Y. It’s really important that these be accurate when they come back to me, so I want to ask that you double-check the numbers/citations/proofreading/___ (fill in with whatever makes sense) before you send them back to me.” As well as, “When I flag mistakes in your work, you sometimes sound like you’re not taking it seriously. I want to make sure you know that this kind of thing really is important to get right, and when I talk to you about mistakes, it’s because I want you to be watching for them in the future.”

If you do all this and she’s still being cavalier about mistakes, I’d mention it to your boss. It’s not weird to flag this for her; she can’t effectively manage your coworker if she doesn’t realize this kind of thing is happening.

2. Getting a coworker’s attention when they’re wearing headphones

How would you recommend getting a coworker’s attention when they’re listening to headphones or earbuds? This is absolutely not a pressing question, but I’m so curious to hear your thoughts.

My office culture is pretty laid back — doors open unless someone is explicitly unavailable, and lots of people listening to music or podcasts on headphones while they work. It’s understood that unless there’s a sign on the person’s door indicating otherwise, it’s fine to interrupt.

I’ve read that it’s okay to tap your coworker on the shoulder, but that would scare the stuffing out of me if I were the headphone listener! I’m a pretty nervous creature to begin with, so perhaps it’s a totally unfounded fear, but I don’t want to potentially inflict that on someone else. Shoulder-tapping also seems so invasive (i.e., “I’ve made it all the way into your work space without you being aware of my presence at all, and now I’m touching you very suddenly!”).

I am a 20-something woman, as is the coworker whose attention I was trying to get, and we’re friends, but I can imagine the tapping-on-the-shoulder dynamic might become complicated if we were different genders, age, subordinate/superior per office hierarchy, and/or we simply didn’t know each other that well. For example, the neighboring department manager seems nice, but I don’t know her well and certainly wouldn’t tap her on the shoulder if I couldn’t get her attention. I’d email her instead, and maybe mention I stopped by her office, but that she looked busy at the moment.

Anyway, I gave up kind of laughingly when I realized my coworker had headphones in, since it wasn’t a pressing issue. I tried knocking a bit louder against the door frame, but short of saying her name loudly, and thus interrupting a bunch of other people in the vicinity, I couldn’t see what else to do.

I don’t know that there’s a great answer to this. I’ve usually resorted to standing next to the person and waving obviously in their line of vision. What do others think?

3. My old manager keeps checking up on my team

I am a new manager of a group that used to reside under one organization in the company, but was moved to a different one. My old manager also used to manage this team (when it was more of a side project).

I am noticing that my old manager is always checking up on the work we’re doing and constantly providing commentary and nitpicking details of how we’re doing the work by commenting on our open tickets. This has absolutely no impact on him whatsoever, so I can’t figure out why he is monitoring our work.

When this first started, I was replying to his comments and answering his questions (we’re mostly doing the right thing, even if it isn’t perfect all the time). Now it’s getting to be a little comical. Folks on my team have noticed it and made jokes about it. Part of my concern is, being a new manager, I don’t want someone stepping on my toes, authority-wise. But the other part is just not being sure why he feels the need in the first place. Thoughts?

Ask him! Say something like this: “I noticed that you’ve been checking over our open tickets and leaving comments there. I wouldn’t normally think that you’d be doing that now that I’ve taken over managing the X group, so I wanted to check with you and see if there’s a reason you’re continuing to monitor these and pose questions about them.”

It’s possible that you’ll hear that he thinks he’s still training you for the new role and that this is part of that. But if that’s not the case (or if it’s been so long that it’s no longer necessary), then you could also say, “It’s important that the team sees clear lines of authority on their work and not get mixed messages, so can I ask you to stop doing that? If you ever do happen to notice something and want to give input on it, please send it directly to me rather than by leaving comments on our tickets.”

Or even: “I want to make sure our lines of responsibility are clear, so can I ask you to leave it to me to manage my team’s work? I’ll definitely let you know if I have questions for you, but to do my job, I need to fully manage my group myself.”

4. I did free work as part of an interview — and then my interviewer published it without crediting me

I have a question I’d like your opinion about. This happened a few years ago, so it’s old news and there’s nothing I can do about it now. However, I found it really weird and it bugs me, so your thoughts would be very welcomed.

I interviewed for a writing job at a university — actually the university’s law school. It’s a big public university, if that matters. The interview went well, and the interviewer, who would have been my direct supervisor, asked me to do a writing sample for him. He wanted it to be suitable for posting on the law school’s website. He gave me the topic, the specs, and a couple sources I could use to learn about the topic. I wrote the thing and returned it to him. A couple weeks later he called to tell me that I didn’t get the job. Competition was fierce, etc. Then, a few weeks after that, I was browsing their website for some reason and found my writing sample there. I compared it against the document I sent the guy, and it was verbatim, maybe only a couple words were changed.

So I was — and am — confused. If he liked my sample enough to use it, why didn’t I get an offer? I know there can be many reasons for that. But I’m also wondering if it was kosher to use my sample and publish it without asking me or paying me? He never told me that publishing the sample would be a possibility — I just thought it was a sample, plain and simple. I think he should have told me that he wanted the rights to use it if he liked it. Other pieces on the website had author names in the byline, but mine had “staff writer.” And I really didn’t think I was doing volunteer work for him; if I wasn’t hired, I’d expect a fee like any other freelancer. Feeling a bit cheeky and pissed off, I emailed him an invoice. Unsurprisingly, I never heard back from him. I never intended to pursue the invoice, but I kind of wanted to see if he’d pay me. Anyway, what do you think of all this? What would you have done?

No, that’s not okay at all. It’s extremely useful to have candidates demonstrate their actual work as part of the interview process, but it absolutely cannot be something that the employer then goes and uses without your permission or without paying you. What he did was shady and unethical, and you would have been well within your rights to complain to the university.

The invoice strategy is pretty snarky and somewhat easily ignored, so it probably would have been more effective to contact him or his boss about the issue. You could have said something like, “I was surprised to see the writing sample I provided during the interview process has been published on your website. I’d be glad to negotiate a fee for its use, but otherwise my understanding is that it was for assessment purposes only and wasn’t work for hire. Can you shed any light on this?”

5. Can overtime hours be paid via extra vacation time?

Our office is telling us that they do not pay overtime on our paychecks. Instead, they give us the overtime in accrued hours, which we keep and then use at a later date in lieu of vacation.

My company is located in California. I checked the state’s website. Under the FAQ section, item 9, it says “Overtime wages must be paid no later than the payday for the next regular payroll period after which the overtime wages were earned.” However, are accrued hours considered “pay”? Or should overtime actually be compensated in actual dollar amounts?

Nope, you need to be paid overtime in money, not accrued vacation time, and it needs to be paid no later than your next scheduled payday. It’s not legal to pay overtime in comp time or vacation time — unless you are taking the comp time in the same week that it was earned.

There are two exceptions to this: (1) if you’re exempt (in which case your company isn’t required to pay you overtime at all and can handle it however they want), or (2) if you work for the government (including state universities), since they have conveniently exempted themselves from this law.

This answer is true nationwide, but it’s particularly silly of your company to mess around with this in California, since California has some pretty serious labor law enforcement.

{ 472 comments… read them below }

  1. Zombeyonce

    #2: My favorite way to get people’s attention when they’ve got headphones on without scaring the beejeezus out of them is to reach next to them and knock on their desk.

    Generally they can see my arm out of the corner of their eye and if not, if they have an arm resting on the desk, they can feel it. It works most of the time and if it doesn’t, I resort to waving in front of their face, but yeah, that often is too jarring.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Ooo, I like this! I’ve always waved in a person’s line of sight (sometimes requires getting close if they’re engrossed in something), but I like the idea of desk-knocking better.

      In general, people can be varied about their personal space, and a shoulder tap would scare the crap out of me, too. (Also, I just don’t like to be touched by randos at work, but my “gah!!!” meter is probably higher than normal.)

      1. Zombeyonce

        The wave always seemed slightly rude to me, but I definitely understand that it’s a valid last step before physically touching someone to get their attention.

        For those of you that are the distracted person in these scenarios: I have a desk that faces the inside wall of my cubicle with the opening behind me and I keep a small mirror on the wall next to my monitor that faces the opening. It makes it much easier to notice someone behind me trying to get my attention when I have headphones on.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          I do it the way Tipcat describes, which seems to come off as less demanding/aggressive than the direct-line-of-sight wave.

        2. Say what, now?

          Calling waving rude seems a bit strong. When you have your earbuds up loud enough that you can’t hear your coworker yelling (I have resorted to yelling the person’s name to no avail) you’re really putting your coworker in the position of having to do something physical like waving or walking back and forth in front of you trying to catch your eye. It’s making the coworker trying to work with you go past the extra mile. Calling it rude seems a bit much.

          1. EddieSherbert

            I do video editing and I can still pick up background noise when I have things at a normal audio level with my noise-cancelling headphones on. So I personally think it’s ridiculous to have your music or so high you can’t hear someone saying your name (something most people react kind of instinctively towards) really loudly right behind you.

            1. Triumphant Fox

              Unless you’re in a completely open office and have coworkers whose inside voices sound like foghorns. When I wore headphones, it was to drown people out as much as it was to listen to music.

              1. Rock Room

                Yeah, at my old job, I needed to concentrate and it was difficult with all of the noise in the neighboring cubes. I wore noise-cancelling headphones, so I didn’t have loud music but also couldn’t hear people behind me.

              2. Anonymoose

                Or when you have ADHD and it’s the only way to stay focused. Seriously. If I heard background noise while I was listening to music…well, let’s just say I’d be on AAM a lot more than I already am. Which isn’t a small amount!

            2. Wendy Darling

              I can definitely hear people with my headphones on but sometimes, especially if I’m really in the zone, I don’t realize that people are talking to ME.

              I also used to work in a group of four cubes where I was one of three Wendys, though, so I’m probably a little numb to my name at this point.

          2. MCMonkeyBean

            I am very pro music at work, but no one would have it so loud that they can’t hear someone calling their name. If you’re at work, you need to expect that someone may need to talk to you and be open to that.

          3. CubicleShroom#1004

            I have a coworker with ASD, has noise cancelling head phone, and his music so is loud he wouldn’t hear an air raid siren.

            He is very, very defensive about is personal space. Touching or waving at him would get him EXTREMELY upset.

            I lightly tap on his desk twice, like how you knock on a closed door. He agreed, so that is what all the coworkers do now.

            We also have someone with misophonia who uses nouse cancelling head phones and is okay with the light desk tap.

        3. SpiderLadyCEO

          I like this idea. If I have headphones in at work, I try to stay facing the entrance or with one out, because I don’t like people sneaking up behind me. A mirror is just an extra level of no surprises!

          I think in general people are going to be more aware then you think they are, so knocking on wall/desk should be fine, but if you know someone who generally isn’t, maybe ask them how they would like you to get their attention? Of course, if you have to do this for everyone it could be difficult.

        4. Rebecca in Dallas

          I also have a “rearview” mirror so I can usually spot someone coming into my cube. But sometimes I’m so engrossed in what I’m working on that I don’t see them. In that case, it doesn’t bother me if they do the wave in my line of sight, I prefer that to shoulder-tapping!

          1. Wendy Darling

            I prefer people not touch me when I don’t know they’re coming because I have a biiiiiiiiiiig startle reflex and am liable to do a huge jump and be kind of freaked out. Embarrassing.

            1. Kikishua

              I screamed and accidentally shot across the room on my rolly wheels chair when someone said hello next to me in my office. And I didn’t even have headphones on, I was just REALLY in the excel spreadsheet zone…

        5. Jadelyn

          You can actually buy monitor-mounted “rear view mirrors” if you’re facing away from the door. My back is to my door but I face a glass panel that suffices as a mirror so I can glance up from my monitor and see if anyone’s walked in – but in past jobs, when I’ve been facing a corner and had an entrance behind me, I bought something like this: http://a.co/8JWkcab

        1. MicroManagered

          The solution to that is pretty simple though…. don’t have your* music up loud enough that someone needs to give a physical signal to get your attention!

          *the general “you” of course! :)

          1. Alli525

            Exactly this – a wave or a knock is good in the moment, but any “you can have earbuds in” policy, at any office, needs to be clear that tunes must be played quietly enough that you can hear someone calling your name, or at least that you can hear a knock on your desk/cubicle.

            1. HRH the Emperor Kuzco

              A former coworker used to listen to screaming, grinding, noisy get off my lawn music at work, but still managed to hear us when we needed to get their attention. A lot of it comes down to maintaining situational awareness at the office.

          2. MashaKasha

            I’ve had people walk up on me from behind completely unnoticed when I was simply absorbed in my work. I don’t generally wear headphones or listen to music at work, because they distract me/give me headaches. So, no, keeping music down won’t help imo. Don’t know what the solution is. Constant vigilance? Rearview mirrors? (As it turns out, an office rearview mirror is a real product that comes in several types/brands on Amazon.)

            1. EddieSherbert

              A couple people in my office have mirrors for cycling (I think they normally attach to the bike helmet?) clipped to their computer monitor! It seems to help, haha :)

              But we also have “short” cube walls (so you aren’t staring at people when you’re sitting but you can see over when you stand), so the “office norm” is to simple walk around to the back/side of the cube where the person can see you to get their attention.

            2. MCMonkeyBean

              They offered those to us when we moved buildings–in our old building cubes were set up so that most of us were facing the opening and could see people coming in but the new buildings have smaller cubes and you can’t sit that way.

              The desks are clearly set up for your computer to be in the corner that would have your back facing the opening, but I have stubbornly set mine up angled in the corner near the opening so I can at least sort of see it sideways.

            3. admin of sys

              Exactly! It’s not just a volume thing – I wear headphones because we’re in an open office and the sound grates, but even really quiet music can be enough to blur things such that I don’t notice my name. And that’s true regardless of wearing headphones – sometimes I just am not going to process my name being called if I’m focused enough on what I’m doing.

              Waving within eyesight is perfectly okay, imo, but then I occasionally hang out with Deaf folks so I consider it a default way to get someones attention to converse. But there are review mirror things, that you can just attach to the corner of your monitor. I used to use them when I was basically in a corner with my back to the door.

          3. Ramona Flowers

            I have auditory processing issues and don’t hear well, so this isn’t advice I can take. But then if I’m listening to something on headphones it’s rarely music but more likely something work related.

          4. Stormy

            The reason a lot of people in my workplace wear headphones is due to the brilliant trend to incorporate all departments to foster “teamwork”. Now the person who is on the phone 8 hours a day with angry customers sits next to the guy who works with incredibly detailed spreadsheets and needs complete concentration. Music quiet enough to hear a coworker would defeat the purpose.

            1. Wendy Darling

              I spent about a year doing super-detailed analytics tasks on incredibly tight deadlines (we got the data on Thursday and a massive report was due for a meeting early Monday) that required my full concentration, and at my boss’s suggestion managed to train my coworkers to IM me if they wanted my attention, even if they sat nearby. It was a super IM-heavy office so it wasn’t a stretch, and it was easier for me to ignore an IM popup without getting derailed than someone coming up and talking to me. Usually I’d hit a logical stopping place after 5-10 minutes and be able to get back to them.

              One coworker was a little salty about it at first but it honestly worked GREAT. I was less cranky and the numbers of Fridays I had to stay late to make sure our stuff got out dropped precipitously. Salty coworker got over it when she realized that when we did it this way I was HAPPY to help her rather than stressed out.

              I highly recommend this to high-concentration-job open-office people if their office culture is such that they can swing it.

              1. KatieK

                Came here to say exactly this! I prefer (and the people who work with me most often know it) a quick “can I stop by for a quick chat” IM so that I can wrap up what I’m doing or prioritize the person in my office fairly against anyone else seeking my attention on IM.

                It is soooooo much better than an in-person-at-my-desk interruption, which immediately breaks my focus in a way that’s hard to recover and has the effect of forcing me to treat the in-person demand with higher priority than it might really deserve.

      2. sap

        I’ve tapped on the top of their monitor rather than on the top of their person, or done a “finger wave” behind right next to their monitor (where you put your hand and then do a partial clench and unclench of the fingers). I find finger waving less rude because it’s not a big gesture that tells The Room that I’m having trouble getting someone’s attention–it’s a quiet enough gesture that really only the person I’m targeting can see it.

      3. Kelly L.

        Yeah, I tend to knock on a desk or a nearby bookshelf (our office suite has giant bookshelves everywhere, this is pretty easy to do)

        1. Oh Really?

          LOL – I read “..knock OVER a desk or bookshelf”. I was thinking that is a bit of overkill.

      4. The Photographer's Husband

        The desk-knock is how I’ve typically done it when trying to get people’s attention- especially if they have their arm on their desk, just doing a couple solid finger-taps is usually enough vibration to get their attention.

        I can also tell you a way NOT to do it. Sometimes when I would have headphones in and cranked up (my writing process demands this, especially if trying to channel inspiration) and someone needed to get my attention, my desk-mate would physically shake my chair. Boy, oh boy, I sure loved that. /s

        1. SpiderLadyCEO

          That would make me so angry! If someone got my attention by shaking my chair, I think a heck of a lot of my trust in that person would evaporate.

          1. JessaB

            And gods forbid you have a bad back. OMG I finally trained a boss out of that one time when he thwocked the back of my chair and I jumped so hard I crunched my bad back and had to go home. He just did not understand he was hurting me physically when he did that garbage. Until he did and he knew I wasn’t being snarky. I was crying it hurt so much.

            Don’t do things to the chair people. You never know the condition of the person sitting in it. I go (and I’m hearing impaired, so even without headphones,) for getting in line of sight or tapping the desk. You start in periphery, move to line of sight and if really necessary wave hand in line of sight.

            Oh and what the heck is it with adults at work screwing with each other’s chairs in the first place? I do not get the desire to do that at all.

            1. puzzld

              Me too with the hearing impairment and ouchie places that don’t need jarred. A co-worker of mine drops a candy bar (fun sized) on my desk when she wants my attention… ah chocolate raining from the sky. That’s an interruption I can live with.

        2. Mints

          A coworker shook my chair and yelled “Boo!” one time and I jumped. He laughed and said “Did I scare you?”
          Me: Yeah *shrug*
          Coworker, laughing: I was just coming to say hi.
          (He normally works in a different branch)
          Me: Oh, hi.
          Coworker, strained laughing: Just saying hi! Sorry I scared you
          Me: Okay.

          He seemed so awkward at the end of it and I just didn’t feel bad about it. That’s a weird thing to do.

      5. Kelsi

        If possible I like to combine the two….we have low-ish cubicle walls so when I can I will stand in the person’s line of sight and knock on the top of the cubicle wall. That way they notice me even if they can’t hear the knock, but it reads as a bit more polite than waving (no clue why but it does).

      1. Beatrice

        I came in to say this. My old boss used to sit behind me, and he would IM me if he wanted to talk but I had my headphones in. It worked well and was less jarring than some methods.

      2. plot device

        +1 We have a pretty open IM culture. I found it odd the first time I worked somewhere that had this, but it can be somewhat convenient.

      3. MashaKasha

        I came here to say this too. This is pretty much how it’s done at my current workplace. I really like it.

        This also ensures that, by the time your visitor comes to your desk, you know what they are coming to see you about and are prepared to give them an answer.

      4. theletter

        +1 – sometimes when I’m elbows-deep in something and I have my headphones on, (and sometimes when I don’t) any sort of physical touch or even waving can startle me so much that I literally shout with surprise. I’ve disrupted many a productive afternoon that way.

        Definitely IM if you can.

      5. Nanani

        This.
        IM to check if the person is even at their desk, and has time to discuss whatever it is.
        Lots of things fall below the “schedule a proper meeting” but still would benefit from a minute to grab the right file or switch focus.

        The norm at my last office before I went freelance was basically: If you’re “just popping by” don’t interrupt if they’re wearing headphones. If there’s a substantial point to your visit, IM first.

      6. nonymous

        saves time for the initiator too! I don’t know if someone is taking 15 min to prepare for an especially fraught or important meeting (or headed out to lunch), so a quick ping saves me a wasted walk-by or having to deal with a polite but hangry coworker.

      7. Teal

        Definitely IM.

        I’m wondering if this company is really THAT laid-back, or if the “open door policy” is actually a rule that makes it hard for people to work, hence the high percentage of headphones. The director of my old place often talked about our “laid back” open door policy, but really it was just a rule for the lowest-level workers.

        If that kind of situation is happening, best to show respect as if there WAS a door.

      8. Kelsi

        We don’t have anything like that :(

        I could email them but that assumes they see the notification, and if they’re engrossed in something they might not.

      9. zora

        Yes, this is what we do. Even for people I sit right next to, because we all find it really jarring to be touched when we are concentrating. So we IM that we need something and then the person can take off their headphones and say “Yep?”

    2. Ramona Flowers

      Don’t people often wear headphones to signal that they’d rather not be interrupted?

      If it’s not urgent I think email is preferable but ymmv.

      1. Bea

        Not necessarily. Everyone I’ve worked with uses them so they have their own music choice instead of a communal radio that you need to keep”safe for work.” especially if you’re working in an office, the OP says they close the door to signal the need for being uninterrupted.

      2. Blank

        It’ll vary by workplace, I’m sure. In my office – where headphones are provided at each workspace in a chaotic open-plan space – we know we’ll always be interrupted, so headphones on is just “trying to focus now” not “please don’t interrupt”. (No, it’s not an ideal set-up, but it’s what we’ve got.)

        1. Alton

          Whoops, hit submit by mistake. I was saying I wear headphones when I’m doing a task where I can listen to a podcast or when I need help focusing (listening to music helps keep me from getting distracted). I don’t mind being approached.

      3. Ell

        In my office most of us wear headphones to keep the office chatter out of our heads so we can focus on our work. It has nothing to do with not wanting to be interrupted. We have cubes, so most of us just knock on the metal bar at the top of the cube to get the person’s attention. I also think some responsibility lies with the headphone wearer, to make sure they can be aware of their surroundings.

        1. Rebecca in Dallas

          This. I have some extremely noisy coworkers nearby, they’re either chatting or crunching on some snack. Seriously, I don’t know how these people just snack all dang day, I constantly hear crunching and wrappers crinkling.

          1. Rebecca in Dallas

            Oh god, and the yogurt-container scraping. Sorry, it just started happening and I just scrambled for my ear buds. LOL

            1. Kristi

              OMG this! I hate all eating sounds and the scraping of containers is excruciating. I saw a meme that said “It’s ***king yogurt, not cocaine!” We also have a lot of people who use glass containers instead of plastic for lunches and the clanging of silverware stabbing into a glass salad bowl kills me.

      4. Antilles

        In public, yes, headphones are universally used as a “no I don’t want to talk” signal. But in an office, it’s totally different because of the length of time you’re there and the fact that we all know each other.
        Also, in most cases, if I’m going to walk down to someone else’s office, my “interruption” is something that I’d like to discuss/answer now, not whenever you happen to check your email next.

        1. Tuxedo Cat

          When I worked in an open office space where few private rooms existed (actually, just one) and the space rather loud, headphones indicated that the wearer was doing work that required concentration. It wasn’t so much that you couldn’t interrupt but that it was probably not the best time to make small talk.

        2. Nanani

          That’s why people are suggesting IM and not email.

          IM will normally flash a notification of some kind on screen, where they are looking, and if you don’t get a response it’s because the person isn’t at their desk at all so showing up in person would leave you no better off.

      5. Aaron

        I was going to chime in here. I’ve worked in offices where wearing headphones meant Do Not Disturb. I’ve worked in others where you could gently interrupt. I think this is something to be cognizant of, however. Some people may not want to be interrupted when wearing headphones.

      6. Gloucesterina

        I guess I assume that no one WANTS to be interrupted whether or not they are wearing headphones, but that it is acceptable to interrupt them if that’s part of getting the job done in an efficient way. In the workplaces I’ve been in, restricting face-to-face conversations to urgent situations would be inefficient, since strictly speaking no one will be harmed, injured or killed if our work isn’t done.

      7. JB (not in Houston)

        Not in my case. I just concentrate better when I’m listening to music through headphones. I don’t mind being interrupted at all. I think this one will really vary by office and person.

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          Caveat: that’s at the office. If I’m out in public then, yes, headphones mean I don’t want to be interrupted.

          1. Decima Dewey

            I knock on the desk or a table when I have to speak to our music-loving guard about a work matter, like a patron disobeying rules, or to tell him the HVAC contractor is here. Not to tell him what movie I saw last weekend, or snark about a weird decision by TPTB. Those can wait until his headphones are off.

            1. Zombeyonce

              Your guard wears headphones? That seems strange since that removes an entire sense from availability. You’d think they’d want to be able to hear if something happened out of their line of sight to go and help. But maybe the job is not what I’m imagining and they just check people in at a desk.

      8. MassMatt

        And perhaps work is not a place where they get to choose whether or not to be “interrupted”. Sorry if WORK is getting in the way of their listening to Eminem or whatever.

        1. Kelsi

          I don’t think that’s really what people mean. Whatever they’re listening to isn’t the thing that can’t be interrupted, the headphones are just a way of signalling visually that the WORK can’t be interrupted. Like, I’m concentrating on a time-sensitive project, but I don’t have an office door to shut so here’s a way to discourage people from stopping by to chat.

        2. Perse's Mom

          Well, no. I’m sure this varies by job and by office, but if I’m working on something, I do get to choose whether or not someone gets to interrupt me. There are all sorts of caveats to that – my boss gets to interrupt whenever, if I have trainees, I’m working on the assumption that I’ll be interrupted frequently for questions. But people who have other resources they should be going to first, people who have been told how to do X four different times and just refuse to take notes or remember it, or just have a one-off question that can wait? Nope.

    3. Marina

      Came to say this exactly. People are almost always close enough to their desk that the vibration will also alert them without feeling in their space like a shoulder touch would be.

    4. Turquoisecow

      My office (and my previous office) have kind of metal edges to the cubicles, so people usually knock on those. I never have music super loud, so that is usually enough to alert me. I suppose if there aren’t walls, knocking on the desk would be the next best thing.

      What do people think about headphones? My present employer is cool with it (one guy wears huge over-the-ear type wireless headphones), but I briefly reported to a guy who was dead set against them. I feel like my productivity really suffered then (especially because it was very tedious work that was new to me) because I found it hard to concentrate. Obviously, people have different work styles, though. (I would have pushed back harder, but it was a temporary assignment and I didn’t feel like fighting it.)

      1. Elemeno P.

        I am ALL about headphones. I also have trouble focusing sometimes, especially if there are conversations around me, but music really helps me get into the zone. I also have huge over-the-ear headphones, partially because they’re more comfortable for long periods of time, but mostly to send a clear visible signal that I’m wearing them and thus focusing on something. I am usually up for chatting, so the headphones are my “work questions only, please” mode.

      2. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis

        I would LOVE to be able to wear headphones! I’m in an open plan office, three desks wide, with no dividers between them, and I can currently hear Jane laughing from about 75 yards away and Fergus’s sneezing is driving me batty and he’s 8 banks of desks on the other side of the building (building is long and thin – three desks each side of a central aisle). But no headphones – because we need to be able to be constantly interrupted at all times. (My biggest pet peeves is that I work for the Queen of Cudjajust – gah!) The steer from management was “if you have headphones in, you’re not listening when your manager needs to talk to you”.
        The beautiful irony is, as part of a product rebranding, we all got given company earbuds to use! Just not in the office, apparently!

        (ok, in the interest of full disclosure, we are allowed to use the earbuds at lunchtime)

      3. Antilles

        I think people who are dead-set against headphones (and it’s not just your former manager here) are totally off-base.
        In fact, as you said, in some (many?) cases, headphones actually make you more productive. About once a month, I get 800 pages of laboratory data to sort through. I can absolutely assure you that having music or a podcast makes that task go significantly *faster*, because it helps stay focused when I’m 150 pages in and still looking at several more hours of review.

        1. Mike C.

          Agreed, they tend to be the sorts of folks who feel entitled to your attention at a moment’s notice anytime they wish. Which is different from needing your attention right away but they can wait a second for you to get to a stopping point first.

      4. MsMaryMary

        Our president/CEO likes to make the rounds of the office periodically. He is completely confused that so many people wear headphones. Not against it, exactly, just confused. He probably hasn’t shared office space with anyone in the last 30 years, if ever, so trying to block out coworker noise is a completely foreign concept. He actually thought people were taking dictation, but couldn’t figure out why so many people might be transcribing something.

        1. Koko

          I find it very charming and revealing of a person’s character when someone is confused and the explanation they come up with to themselves is something charitable and benign. “How odd, everyone is transcribing speeches today!” instead of something like, “Why in the world are all these people on headphones – they must be slacking off somehow!”

        2. Turquoisecow

          That’s what this guy was like. Confused, because he thought it meant someone was listening to something and *not* focusing on work. Obviously, he works in an office and can close the door if he gets distracted, but those of us out in the cube farm can’t do that.

      5. Lora

        The only time I have had headphones forbidden was in the lab, for safety reasons.

        If I can’t wear headphones, I better have an office with a door I can close when I need to do data analysis. I deeply resent unscheduled interruptions of any kind. I try to schedule “office hours” time for when I am available for random questions, and block off my working time.

      6. Koko

        Personally, it barely even registers to me as something to have an opinion on. I work in marketing so our department only interacts with other staff. The public never come through our offices so there’s no perception issue to worry about. As long as people can hear their phone ringing or a fire drill etc, what do I care if they listen to sounds privately?

        I sometimes wonder if it’s partly a generational thing, though I don’t have any real data to back it up. Just a theory that if you grew up in a time where headphones were something you plugged into the turntable at home as a form of leisure activity, you might have a different relationship with them than if you grew up listening to your Discman or mp3 player on headphones on the schoolbus every day as the soundtrack to your commute.

      7. Positive Reframer

        For some tasks I find that “distracting” myself with music or stories keeps me from getting distracted. I knew a girl in college who did all of her homework while there was a movie playing in the background. For her trying to study in a quite environment would have been devastating to her productivity, but there are others who almost seem to need a sterile, white, noise proof environment.

        1. Windchime

          This is me. I find podcasts and most music or movies to be terribly distracting while I’m trying to work. I can focus if it’s music I’ve heard many, many times. But mostly when I’m wearing headphones at work, it’s because I am trying to block out the noisy chatters (who apparently don’t have any real work to do, because they talk about bitcoin and retirement plans all damn day). So I use my Bose noise-canceling headphones with a white noise app and it instantly helps me to focus on the task at hand.

      8. Galatea

        I’m a big fan — I share an office with someone, so if she’s having a discussion with someone, it’s nice to be able to drown that out a little. Additionally, I saw someone describe listening to music as distracting, but the sort of distracting that occupies 10% of your brain so it doesn’t drag the remaining 90% off when it gets bored.

        If I’m doing something where i really do need to concentrate, I listen to ambient sound or white noise — there are all sorts of videos on youtube of, like, “ten hours of Starship Enterprise background noise” and similar.

      9. Lindsay J

        It depends on the position.

        In a supervisory role, I never wear them because I feel like part of my job is to be aware of things going on around me and within the department, and to be available to be approached by my employees if they need anything from me. I feel like headphones would hinder both of those things.

        The mention of the guard (which I assumed was a security guard, though that might not be true) wearing headphones kind of took me aback for the same reason. I guess it’s different at every position, but where I’ve worked they would the guards to be able to proactively notice and be able to respond to disorderly patrons without having to be tapped on the shoulder and told about it by someone else (and possibly see and diffuse the situation before it escalates to being disorderly or rule breaking). And wearing headphones would seem to make that more difficult. Like if someone is yelling from an office on the other side of the building because they’re being threatened or something, you won’t be able to hear that over headphones while you probably would be able to without them.

        Public facing/customer service jobs I don’t think it’s a great look. Usually part of your job there is to be available to customers to answer questions, etc, and them having to go through extra motions to get your attention, wait for you to take out the headphones and/or turn off the music, etc, makes more effort for them and makes it seem like they’re burdening or interrupting you.

        If you’re an individual contributor working a desk job, I see no problem with them, though. Or really any type of individual contributor where you’re not in a hazardous environment (like where you would need to be able to hear equipment backing up or people yelling to get out of the way before something falls). Data entry, stocking grocery shelves after hours, etc, seem like positions where headphones are completely fine. I definitely used them when I was doing data entry and auditing paperwork. I would have gone crazy with boredom otherwise, and they helped me concentrate.

        1. Turquoisecow

          Yeah, this job was about 80% relatively mindless data entry, with details I wasn’t used to having to pay attention to, so I needed to concentrate slightly more than the data entry I’d been doing earlier and was quite used to and comfortable with.

      10. TootsNYC

        I still remember, back in the days of the original Walkman, hiring someone who wore headphones to proofread, etc.

        Someone slightly higher ranking than me call em aside and said I should tell her that she shouldn’t wear headphones because she’d make mistakes.

        Luckily I didn’t just march over there and tell her not to; I asked her about the headphones, and said I was worried that listening to music might interfere with her concentration.

        She showed me the device they were connected to–this thing that made random white noise, some of it with different click/thump patterns, specifically intended to boost concentration.

        1. TootsNYC

          I listen to classical music. I really can’t work with words in my ear, so no songs with lyrics.

    5. Engineer Girl

      I came here to say the same thing. Most people can feel the vibration.
      BTW, just as I wrote vibration we had an earthquake!

    6. SleepyKitten

      I like this suggestion! Usually our office goes for “stand in their line of vision”, “say their name with increasing volume”, “slowly extend a mug into their field of vision” (we’re in the UK, 90% of interruptions are about tea), and, if we can’t be bothered to get up, office IM.

      I will say, as an incorrigible headphones-wearer, I accept that part of being able to block out background noise is that I will be startled 5-10 times a day.

      1. Lissa

        SLOWLY EXTEND A MUG INTO THEIR FIELD OF VISION.

        Oh my word. This is my new favorite procedural instructions of anything ever. I am dying.

        1. Undercover librarian

          Another UK resident here. Can confirm this is an actual thing that actually happens. I have temped and worked in many offices and anywhere where there are brew-making cliques, cabals or insular pairings, the mug extension is performed.

          The correct response varies: take headphones out and chat, a curt nod and ‘thanks mate’, anything in between. But saying no is extremely rare and unlikely.

          1. JaneB

            Totally a thing. Also getting into a person’s sight-line and silently making one of the “T” gestures – one hand vertical, the other horizontal at the top, to form a letter “T” shape in front of the mid-part of the torso, or (or followed by) mimicking drinking from a mug.

        2. Mookie

          Hahahhahaha. Yes. So weirdly specific, and yet it could apply to dozens of problems.

          Cat won’t leave you alone until it gets petted?
          Slowly extend a mug into its field of vision. Leave the room as the cat, now distracted, attempts to insert itself into the mug headfirst.

          Traffic jam?
          Slowly extend a mug into every other driver’s field of vision. Carefully maneuver the car around them as they sit motionless, transfixed by the enormous Kliban cat butt cum breadloaf in front of their faces.

          Corner shop unexpectedly out of milk on a normal weekday morning?
          Slowly extend a mug into the shopkeeper’s field of vision until they pour you out a free drink for your trouble. Repeat until they agree to sell you a can of cat food half-off.

      2. MashaKasha

        I suddenly want 90% of my office interruptions to be about tea. I did not even know it was possible.

      3. FlagtotheRescue

        After I recently got some decent headphones, I realized my startle reaction is much more severe than I anticipated, so I made a little flag on a stick and used velcro to stick it to the side of my cube by the door. People actually seem to get a kick out of waving it around in my field of vision to get my attention… And I suppose if I’m ever in distress I can hang it upside down?

        1. wavewild

          I am all for this solution :D Currently I’ve got most coworkers used to waving in my peripheral vision – if someone knocks or touches my shoulder I jump about a foot. But a flag now, that’s far more classy.

        2. Eye of Sauron

          Sheldon is that you?

          (Reference to the Big Bang Theory episode about Leonard’s early days of living in the apartment and the Apartment Flag as outlined in the Roommate Agreement)

          1. FlagtotheRescue

            If only. My flag just says “HEY!” in Times New Roman. I wish I had a coat of arms or something.

    7. Nervous Accountant

      Lol That would still scare me! But I thjnk I get startled very easily. Some coworkers are pretty obvious and some are super quiet and come out of nowhere.

        1. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant

          I think I’m one of those people. Recently I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment waiting for some tea to boil, and my roommate came in and was just very surprised.

          As Eliot said in Questionable Content: “I tend to quietly loom. It’s a problem.”

          1. Mints

            Ha, me too! I startle people constantly accidentally by moving close to them without making a lot of noise. Many old roommates exclaimed and I was like “I’m walking normally I swear”

    8. GJ

      I wear noise-cancelling headphones at work a lot. Our office uses Skype and Skype for Business extensively, so I’ll normally ping someone on Skype and ask if they have a moment – voila, headphones off and chat can commence.

    9. Zephyr

      Knocking, waving, standing by until they stop typing for a second are my strategies. I agree no touching unless both parties are comfortable with a tap.

      Also you can ask them what they’d prefer if you regularly need to interact. Some people will always jump or be startled easily, even without headphones on, and there’s just no really good way around it if you need them asap, but getting their input can help reduce it.

      I jump scare easily when I’m focused on something (and then laugh) so I have co-workers who purposely make me jump by pulling back on my chair, saying boo, or my boss’s favorite, barging in loudly. I obviously don’t recommend those strategies unless you have a good rapport with the co-worker and they find their own reaction amusing like I do. Like hey, we’re the ones with the quick reflexes to jump out of harm’s way!

      1. Anonymous Lurker

        I’m surprised that Alison didn’t suggest “ask them” in the first place. She’s always a fan of the direct approach.

        1. Eye of Sauron

          Probably because the LW would then be responsible for remembering the interruption preferences for multiple people :)

          I think this is one of those situations that the interrupter is doomed to fail. There is no one size fits all solution that will work. I think the interrupter needs be as unobtrusive as possible, and the interruptee needs to be understanding of the situation and be prepared for being unintentionally startled.

    10. Lujessmin

      Letter #2 is the reason I quit listening to music at work. When I had a cubicle, I could keep the speakers at a volume where only I could hear it, but when my group went to an open office setting, I had to use headphones. I have a very high startle reflex even without headphones. With headphones it was nearly impossible not to jump when someone tried to get my attention. It was easier just to quit listening to music.

      1. Koko

        I was thinking, “Letter #2 is such a good argument in favor of letting people just close their doors.” In my office it’s normal to close your door when listening to music, and unlike headphones, you can hear someone knock on your door when you’re just playing music out of your computer speakers.

        I know in some offices doors closed isn’t acceptable, or means “don’t bother me at all,” but it seems to work so much better the way we do it here. A door closed means, “Knock if you need me.” If someone doesn’t want to be disturbed at all they’ll usually put a sign on the door indicating emergencies only or saying at what time they’ll be available again or something like that. Everyone can still access everyone, but we all have the freedom to actually use the doors on our offices as doors instead of doorway decorations.

        1. Nep

          I agree – when it comes to offices. Most of our floor is in pods and headphones are so helpful when it comes to ignoring other people’s conversations.

        2. Rusty Shackelford

          This, so much. I know not everybody has offices with doors, but it seems the OP and her ilk do. In my office, a closed door doesn’t mean anything more than ” knock if you need me,” unless there’s a sign stating otherwise.

    11. Naptime Enthusiast

      Also, if you know you would get scared, a mirror helps. We have 4-person cubes and I have a mirror set up so I can see if people are walking in out of the corner of my eye, most will wave into it on their way in. Combined with knocking on your desk and you shouldn’t be as startled.

    12. D.W.

      Yea, folks in our office tend to knock the cubicle wall, which works really well for two reasons 1) I can see them out of my peripheral and 2) if they are out of my line of vision, I still feel the knock.

    13. The Other Dawn

      I do the same thing. If I’m just walking by, I either knock on their desk within their sight line, or knock on the cubicle trim. Typically, though, I IM first to see if I can stop over. I don’t ever do the shoulder tap, because I know it would make me jump if someone did it to me. Not because it scares me, but just because I might be lost in deep thought and not notice that they’ve approached. I don’t wear earbuds–I hate music when I’m working–but I do kind of zone out when I’m thinking and wouldn’t necessarily hear someone coming up to me.

    14. Shiara

      I will admit that I have resorted to pen throwing when IMing, calling my coworker’s name (which escalated to three of us saying it, in unison), waving in his peripheral vision, and knocking on his desk failed to rouse him from his headphone-induced zone. For some reason that seemed easier/less intrusive than going around and touching him.

      1. Koko

        This just reminded me of a former coworker. There were four desks in the medium-sized room we sat in, all with our backs to the middle of the room and desks facing the walls/windows. I am blessed with the ability to tune out most human noises, and when I was working in an open space I became very skilled at, as I called it, “tunneling into my work” – I had tunnel vision and it was like the rest of the room didn’t exist. Half the time I wasn’t even wearing headphones, or only had one ear in.

        The coworker who sat next to me was pretty entertained by all of this, and he started a game where sometimes when he needed my attention he would softly toss harmless things like crumpled up paper in my direction, first landing on the edge of my desk and getting progressively closer to me, to see how long it would take me to notice. Sometimes he got all the way up to hitting me with the paper before I realized!

      2. Recently Diagnosed

        I am personally a fan of throwing small, balled up pieces of paper or, in extreme circumstances, pennies at my coworker. I’m also good friends with this coworker, so…don’t actually do this. But it does work.

    15. Sparkles

      In our office we used to keep little mirrors (think compact mirror) on the top corner of our computer screens. That way there we could see who was behind us when we had headphones in!

    16. RabbitRabbit

      We knock on the desk in our workplace as well.

      To follow up on the question downthread, in our office headphones are mostly to focus or to listen to your favorite music without disturbing anyone, rather than a “Do not disturb” move. Typically if you really need to buckle down and do something, you go to your usual workmates/subordinates/whatever and say a variation on “hey, I need the next hour/whatever to get the X thing done, so I need to focus on that until then.”

    17. govt_drone

      #2: I usually knock/tap lightly on their cubical wall/office door. It’s usually enough motion/sound for them to register, but is less intrusive than touching them.

    18. AnonEMoose

      I have headphones on a lot at work. It helps me stay focused and blocks out some of the random noise. I tell coworkers to say my name (I’ll hear that), knock on the end of the desk, or wave (just not right next to my face). Touching me unexpectedly from behind isn’t a good idea, but if you must, a flat hand lightly on my back above the chair is better than a tap.

    19. Nep

      I knock on their desk as well, but from the entrance to the pod. Nonetheless, they generally hear it or feel the vibrations and it catches their attention.

    20. kible

      sometimes I’m concentrating so hard I don’t even hear the knock, plus my peripherial vision is really bad so I also don’t see the person to my side waving at me…or I react to the thing moving as a jumpscare.

    21. Lygeia

      This is what I do! I think the knocking works well because it’s reminiscent of knocking on a door so it feels polite and a socially understood way of letting someone know you’re there.

    22. Elle

      I have a sign on my desk (open workspace) asking people to email or IM me if they see me with headphones or a headset on and explicitly telling them not to touch me in order to get my attention.

    23. voluptuousfire

      I’ve gchatted or Slacked my colleagues who have headphones on if I can’t get their attention by waving.

    24. Sara without an H

      I’m a librarian, and this is also the recommended way to wake up a student who’s fallen asleep at one of the reading room tables.

      We generally recommend against touching a member of the public, for reasons that seem really, really obvious.

    25. Shishimai

      Yes, this! Knocking on the desk is great, and doesn’t require you to step into their personal space unless your desks are tiny.

      I have a big margin of personal space and a high startle reflex – which results in things like suddenly whipping around or jumping when touched unexpectedly, and a habit of looking over my shoulder when someone wanders into my peripheral vision. The only thing that keeps me sane in this completely open office is that I face a high-traffic walkway, so 90%+ of the people who come to my desk walk directly past my monitors to do it. There’s just one person who still occasionally taps my shoulder out of a blind spot, and I’m thinking of getting a mirror to address that.

    26. Elizabeth West

      This is how I prefer that people do it. At Exjob, after getting the woo scared out of me a few times, I posted a sign at the entrance to my cube with the Gates of Moria on it and the legend “Speak Friend and Enter — or knock if I’m wearing headphones.” I can hear a knock even if my music is banging and crashing.

    27. KB

      I also usually do this and have found it to be pretty successful! Not a loud knock or anything, just a cue to look around for a second.

    28. atgo

      I work in an open office and we recently spent some time developing norms around this exactly. It was productive because not only did we establish some ways to get attention and let others know you’re ok (or not) to be interrupted, we also discussed that the loudness is an issue and longer discussions should be held away from our desk area. It was a bit of an expensive conversation but has paid off in spades.

    29. Newt

      In my office everyone has headphones on most of the time. We also all have Skype, so generally if I want to talk to a coworker in person I’ll skype them to ask if I can come over to discuss The Pour Issues with Project Teapot and then get up and go see them.

      It might not be considered “necessary” in an open-door office culture, but it has advantages:

      1. It gives coworker a chance to save whatever they’re working at in case they (like me) might get mentally derailed from it otherwise
      2. It gives them a heads up that someone’s coming over – mostly we take our headphones off and pause our music in preparation for this
      3. It’s a polite way to acknowledge that, even if the culture says walk-ins are fine, I still respect that they’re busy at their own work.
      4. If coworker has gotten bogged down in something big and hasn’t had the chance to say, close the door to the office they’re in to signal no interruptions, it gives them a chance to let you know now’s not a good time.

    30. bookish

      Lots of people have earbuds in at my office too and if they don’t hear me I’ll usually just move into their line of sight and maybe do a casual little wave hello if I think the extra movement will help them notice me. I don’t think it’s rude to get someone’s attention by waving, knocking on their door or desk, etc! It’s more important to be able to address someone who needs to talk to you than to listen to music or podcasts uninterrupted. I say this as someone who is more often than not listening to podcasts at work – my coworker also plays music so I considered noise cancelling headphones, but then I realized that I prefer being able to catch things people are saying while I have my earbuds in in case it’s relevant to me.

      1. Zombeyonce

        They set up all our cubicles in my office with the desk (connected to the wall) facing the inner corner, so your back is to the opening, which means there’s no way to get into someone’s field of vision without climbing over them, unfortunately. And even waving a hand in front of their face would mean getting so close behind them that they’d probably knock their chair over and right into you if you startled them.

        TL;DR: Offices need to set up cubicles in a smarter way.

    31. cmgaf

      I’m going to disagree. If someone is wearing headphones, there is usually a reason why. I have been at my desk taking meetings, where I may not be actively speaking, but need to be listening to what is going on. It is extremely frustrating when someone taps on my shoulder or tries to wave to get my attention (Our meetings are all via video stream, so it’s obvious when someone isn’t paying attention). We use IM and I usually mark myself in meetings, so hopefully people don’t come up to interrupt. We currently are strapped for room so sometimes conference rooms are not an option. If you can IM to see if they are available or book time on their calendar to make sure you have their full attention, that is usually ideal.

      1. Zombeyonce

        It really, really depends on the office and office culture. People wear headphones for all sorts of reasons and not always to show they’re unable to be interrupted (like wearing them the entire day to drown out a loud coworker on the phone all day w/customers or bad acoustics in a cube next to a conference room; both of these reasons for headphones in my office) and people need to get someone’s attention for all sorts of reasons (to pull them into a meeting at the last minute, let them know something last minute that’s important on their way somewhere else).

        I don’t recommend interrupting people all day, but sometimes it’s necessary and valid.

  2. bunniferous

    I wear earbuds at work sometimes. I can hear someone if they are next to me and speak, and also if you are in my line of sight and wave I will see that. I agree that touching someone is probably not the best of ideas.

      1. NDC

        I don’t think I’d be comfortable with this – I’d be wondering how long they had been standing there!

    1. bunanza

      Yes — agreed that touching someone is not a great idea, but standing next to them and/or waving is probably fine.

      I’m a “nervous creature” too so I sympathize, but I act on that knowledge, so if listening to music I’ll only put one earbud in or face myself towards the door so I can see people approach. If your coworkers have both earbuds in and are jamming away, I’m inclined to think they feel comfortable enough in that environment to not be terribly spooked by a hand waving in their line of sight.

      I know it feels awkward but I definitely don’t recommend leaving questions or opting to email to avoid interrupting someone–it sounds like your office culture is pretty okay with interruptions!

      1. Akcipitrokulo

        i’d say having earbuds in and distracted means less likely to be comfortable with touching! Standing & moving/waving just in vision range should work.

      2. Marillenbaum

        I’ve also known people who use headphones and don’t sit facing the entrance to their cube to have a mirror positioned so that they can see anyone who comes in, which strikes me as a very sensible solution.

    2. HRH the Emperor Kuzco

      At a past job almost everyone wore ear buds when not actively engaged in the main segment of their work (there was a lot of tedious paperwork we needed to fill out). The way that we got people’s attention was the internal messaging system as a heads up before going over to their office. That and everyone’s desks allowed a line of sight to the hallway so they were able to see you approach.

      Totally agree, don’t touch people.

  3. Mike C.

    I regularly wear over the ear studio headphones when I’m working. I understand that since I’m blocking out all the noise, someone might tap me on the shoulder or wave their hands in my vision or whatever and those are all fine. Sometimes someone throws a balled up piece of paper my way or taps my chair. No big deal.

    I’m surprised if I’m really focusing but that happens without headphones and it’s momentary so who really cares, right?

    1. Zombeyonce

      I had to find a solution (a mirror on my wall to see people behind me) after spilling tea on myself in surprise when someone tapped me while I was wearing headphones. Once is one time too many when it comes to hot liquids in your lap!

    2. Natalie

      I startle easy, but since it’s more of a physical reaction than an emotional one I’m pretty much used to it. But I’ve found it really seems to distress my colleagues, so I try to face the avenue of approach as much as possible.

    3. Mookie

      I do this while gardening. People end up having to throw increasingly large rocks at me. Then I get mad, and won’t listen to what they want until they return each rock back to its rightful home.

      1. Mookie

        Mind you, LW, I’m not suggesting you throw rocks.

        Provided it won’t mess with any equipment (printer, computer, et al), I’d try flipping the light switch on and off. That’s a quiet solution I’ve seen done elsewhere to good effect.

    4. Lily in NYC

      Because some people startle easily. Is it that difficult to understand that not everyone is like you?

  4. Zombeyonce

    #3: I always wonder about people like this. Don’t they have plenty to do in their new/updated position that they don’t have time to go back and micromanage their old team? It just feels so controlling and invasive.

    OP, you’ve got to put a stop to this, mainly because it makes you look ineffective and inexperienced whenever he does this, and that’s definitely not the look you want as a new manager. It’s really detrimental to you owning that team as a manager. As a former manager himself, hopefully he’ll understand that it’s undermining you.

    1. Ramona Flowers

      Yep. I’m wondering if he needs to still have access to your tickets – if not can you have this withdrawn?

    2. Koko

      I think in some offices, #3 can happen when managers aren’t given management training and are promoted on the basis of doing their current job well. Get promoted enough times, and the nature of your job really changes.

      I had a Director who was great at delegating and empowering their subordinates, never overstepped or micromanaged, but they did attend almost every meeting so they were aware of every decision that was made every project, and they did weigh in on almost every decision even when someone else was empowered to make the final decision. When they got promoted to the AVP role, suddenly they were managing too many people and projects to attend every meeting or be included on every email thread. It was the first time in their career that they didn’t know the details of everything they were officially responsible for, and it was a very unnerving feeling for them. The staff eventually had to tell them that the continued level of involvement “down in the weeds” was inefficient and causing project delays, which was the kick they needed to finally pull back and trust that projects would be fine without their oversight.

      He wasn’t a controlling person, he just didn’t know how else he was supposed to be formally responsible for projects if he couldn’t answer every question anyone had about them.

      1. nonymous

        I’ve found that even if I don’t need to comment on everything, it can be really helpful to skim a summary of activity. So, if the PM has some kind of tracking dashboard – or needs to create one, that can be good. But just as useful may be taking 15min to review a few months worth of meeting minutes or scrolling rapidly through a discussion thread at reasonable intervals (read: not daily). Granted, I’m not speaking in a management capacity here – I’ve just found it to be a good tactic for juggling leadership of pretty competent coworker and volunteer teams when I don’t have time or inclination to micromanage.

    3. Snark

      And I would err on the side of Alison’s second script, and push back hard – there is no way this isn’t invasive, and he needs to be told in no uncertain terms that he does not manage this work, his review of their tickets is wholly inappropriate, and he needs to respect OP3’s management.

    4. MassMatt

      And if he doesn’t stop after having a conversation about it as suggested, you can always start going over HIS department’s work, offering critiques and suggestions, etc. if he thinks it’s so helpful.

      1. Jadelyn

        I’m not sure I’d actually recommend this, because then it becomes a sniping vendetta which reflects badly on both people – OP’s old manager, and OP – but it gave me a chuckle nonetheless.

        1. nonymous

          Depending on the relationship gentle ribbing might do the trick. “Don’t have enough to do in NewJob, eh?” or even a quiet “How’s it going in NewJob? What are you doing to keep busy?” may start the convo with a friendlier tone than “hey, this is my domain now, you need to back off!” will.

          FormerBoss may need his own mentor to name this behavior for it to really sink in.

  5. Phil

    #2: I had a coworker who would throw lollies in front of me on my desk if I had headphones on. It got to the point that if I heard him call my name I would ignore him until the candy appeared, so this is probably a bad suggestion.

      1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD

        Right? Because I could totally train myself into a Pavlovian response for candy…

    1. Sara M

      Extra funny because “lollies” is what we called the bright-red panties we wore over our real undies for show choir or cheerleading. :)

    2. Ismis

      I used to try get my head level with their head, but slightly behind, then slowly move into their peripheral vision while swivelling my head to stare at them. I only tried this with good work friends, but I still think I only got away with it because I always had chocolate on my desk.

  6. Zombeyonce

    #4: I wonder how many other “staff writer”s have pieces up on that site that were really just other interviewees. If OP plans to contact the university (if she doesn’t get a response from the interviewer), she might want to do a site search to see how many other unnamed items have been posted under “staff writer” w/no byline to see if it appears to be a bigger problem.

    1. PollyQ

      I’m hoping a lawyer will chime in on this subject, because to my inexpert ears, it sounds like he violated OP’s copyright. If she’d done the work as an employee, then I believe it would be a work for hire, but unless she specifically gave permission for it to be published, it sounds like intellectual property theft.

        1. Falling Diphthong

          Yeah, on reading my thought was “Of course–OF COURSE–it’s the law school. Like people who can’t go to HR because they are HR.”

          And OP, as a freelance writer—soooooooo illegal.

        2. MsChanandlerBong

          That was the “best” part of the whole story. As a freelancer (well, former freelancer–I just took a full-time job after 10 years of freelancing), I have dealt with this sort of thing a million times. Unscrupulous people are always posting ads looking for people to write website content, product descriptions, and the like. Instead of giving everyone the same assessment, they ask Person A to write a description for a pair of gold earrings, Person B to write a description for an emerald bracelet…pretty soon, you’ve got all the product descriptions you need, so there’s no need to actually hire and pay anyone!

      1. Lawyer

        You are correct! The OP owns the copyright to the work s/he created. Copyright vests once the work is reduced to a tangible medium. Registration affords extra protection, but is not necessary for ownership.

        1. JC

          Hi everyone, I’m the OP. Thanks for your replies. I found the irony pretty striking too. I actually started reading up on copyright law after this happened and learned that it was a pretty blatant violation. I probably should have done what Melissa recommended. The invoice was a silly and impulsive way to go about it.

          It got cycled off their website at some point when it became outdated (all this took place several years ago), so it’s a moot point now. But I’m a little more knowledgeable now than I was back then, and I have some better strategies in case something like it happens again. Thanks again.

          1. zora

            Thank you for writing in!! This being posted might help a young person now or in the future who has this happen and goes searching on the internet for advice. You might really help some internet strangers you have never met!

  7. Emily, admin extraordinaire

    If you know someone is listening to music or whatever and don’t respond to a knock or a voice, perhaps sending an instant message or an email asking if they have a moment to talk would be best? Kind of like calling before dropping by.

    I often wear headphones at work, but my desk faces my cubicle door, so I always see if someone wants to talk to me.

    1. Poker

      If you are wearing headphones in a role that has interaction with colleagues, it’s your job to provide them with a convenient method of attracting your attention. Eg If you startle easily then you need to present a non-startling method.

      1. Wanna-Alp

        Why?

        What if someone needs headphones to concentrate in a noisy environment to be able to get work done, and is easily startled?

        1. Oilpress

          Because interaction with coworkers is expected in an office environment, and listening to headphones is generally not what people are paid to do. It really isn’t a big issue, though. If someone gets startled, so be it.

        1. Trout 'Waver

          Not everyone works on a computer and not everyone has a computer at the location they need another employee’s assistance.

          1. INTP

            I think it’s pretty obvious that Emily’s suggestion was implied for office/computer workers and that she is not saying people that work nowhere near computers should go find one and send an IM that the other person won’t receive because they’re also nowhere near a computer.

            1. Trout 'Waver

              My point was more in reference to Poker’s comment and Natalie’s response. Not everyone is going to be in a position where they can IM/email, so you should still find a solution for those people if you’re going to wear headphones.

            1. Trout 'Waver

              I don’t think that’s fair, but I don’t want to draw this out and make it the focus of the comments section.

        2. Natalie

          perhaps sending an instant message or an email asking if they have a moment to talk would be best?

          If you are wearing headphones in a role that has interaction with colleagues, it’s your job to provide them with a convenient method of attracting your attention.

          The context is clear. But enjoy your sandwich.

    2. INTP

      I like this idea too. To respond to Poker’s post, I don’t consider this inconvenient if your team is using a messenger already. It’s actually easier to just skype someone, “Hey, is it a good time for me to come by and chat about ___?” than get up and go to their cube/office when they might be talking to someone else, on a deadline, etc.

    3. Tuxedo Cat

      I like this in general. It can be awkward to send someone away when they appear (especially if their office is fair) but sometimes, I need to get things done ASAP and would rather respond to a quick message.

  8. MK

    Wearing earbuds at work is one thing, having the volume so high that you can’t hear someone speaking to you (perhaps in a slightly raised voice) another; you shouldn’t be making yourself inaccessible in a regular way. As for what to do, I would go with tapping with some people. With others, if speaking loudly didn’t work, I would save my hand pretty pointedly in front of their face.

    1. MK

      Wave, not save.

      Also, I am taking for granted that you are not in a workplace or role in which people are actually expected to leave others alone as a rule.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      At the risk of sounding sandwiches, I think this can vary by workplace. It was super normal to have one’s head phones turned way up at most of my post-college jobs, despite an overall atmosphere of collaboration and non-isolation. There were a lot of shared workspaces, and it was one of the only ways to create your own focus zone amid the outside noise.

      1. Ramona Flowers

        Also at risk of sounding sandwichey, it’s not necessarily about volume. I don’t have the greatest hearing. I deliberately don’t wear noise-cancelling headphones but still struggle to hear anything around me if I wear them (but sometimes need to in order to concentrate).

      2. Foreign Octopus

        Sorry, Princess, Ramona, what does that mean?

        At the risk of sounding sandwiches/sandwichey? I’ve never heard that before and I can’t place it from the context.

        1. JLH

          It’s sort of a commenting rule around the idea of not knocking down people’s suggestions or train of thoughts because it may not work for the general “all”. It’s stemmed from food posts on this site where the comment trains would sometimes derail because, for example, someone would be like “I need an idea for inexpensive lunches I don’t have to microwave because my office doesn’t have one”, a commented would say “My go-to is a peanut butter sandwich”, and then someone would fire back “But not everyone can eat sandwiches!”. I’m having trouble waking up this morning so I hope that makes sense.

      3. Guacamole Bob

        Yeah, this. I’ve been in widely varying offices and jobs over the years, and the amount of spur-of-the-moment interaction with colleagues varies a lot, as does how much people need to concentrate for long stretches. The number of times someone stops by my desk because they need something from me is currently a couple of times a day, but I’ve been in admin jobs where it was once or twice an hour and also a research job where it was once or twice a month.

        I think a lot of people are projecting from their own office culture, work flow, acoustics, etc. There are some offices where being in a zone with loud music where it’s hard to get your attention is totally fine. In those situations I go for knocking on the cube/desk, personally.

    3. Nervous Accountant

      Interesting.

      I ordered gigantic bright pink headphones. They’re my “leave me alone” headphones and I announced them as such. Now that I’m starting to review returns I need to be extra focused. I don’t need hours, even 20 uninterrupted minutes is enough s to do make a dent.

      My manager told me later on to not do that bc my role specifically is to help the ppl around me and answer questions (as well as set a good example). He said it was OK the first time Cz it was extremely urgent and time sensitive but not to do it going forward.

      1. zora

        Honestly, I think your manager is full of it. Having some uninterrupted time isn’t inherently bad, or ‘not helpful’ or setting a bad example.

        It is actually a really smart thing to set the conditions you need to get work done accurately. If someone was saying “leave me alone” all day every day, that would probably not be okay. But in our company there are definitely times when leaders have blocked their calendar for half a day or whatever to work on an important project that has to be done. And therefore, everyone else is encouraged to figure out business needs and how to accomplish them. If that means having a signal to give yourself 30 minutes or 2 hours here and there to focus on deep work, that is actually a good thing. Most questions can wait for 2 hours, and random questions shouldn’t take precedence over sensitive business-necessary work. :(

        1. Life is Good

          I think your manager isn’t being very sensitive to your need to concentrate periodically, either, NA. There are times in my office where one of us will be working on an intense project and our manager is perfectly fine with us saying we are closing our office door for a bit and are out of service. The others are careful to hold their questions and take messages while the one is taking some “concentration time”. We have found it reduces errors when we do this. I really love my office mates.

    4. Christy

      I mean, this is something I had to figure out about getting the attention of my Deaf coworker. It’s not necessarily just a headphone thing. And for my coworker, he knocks on my desk to get my attention, and so I do the same to him. I’ve found it much more effective than trying to wave (given the angles of our cubicles).

    5. krysb

      Personally, I will only wear one earbud. I can’t tolerate not being able to hear what’s going on around me.

      1. Ten

        I’m the same. I’m also one of those people who startles very easily, so if I’m completely tuned into music or something when a coworker needs to get my attention I might jump out of my chair.

      2. Windchime

        I’m the opposite; I can’t stand to have music or noise playing in one ear and conversation going in the other ear, while also trying to focus on writing code. It’s just so distracting! It’s interesting how everyone’s brains work differently.

    6. Hush42

      I don’t wear headphones often at work anymore. But when I do ubwear AfterShokz which don’t cover your ears at all (they send the sound through your cheekbones instead of your ears directly) but sometimes I still don’t notice people trying to get my attention. I wear headphones so I can focus and when I focus I naturally tune out everything else around me. Typically knocking loudly will get my attention. Or my reports have no problem just saying my name loudly either. We recently moved offices and now my two reports sit in the two cubicles directly behind me and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they resorted to throwing candy at me to get my attention.

      1. Heather

        I love my AfterShokz so much. They also make me feel more comfortable listening to podcasts when I go out for a run, since I can still hear what’s going on around me.

        1. Elizabeth West

          When I walk, I use earbuds that have a sports hook that goes over your ear so they don’t fall out. Usually, I can hear everything because they don’t fit in my ears that well. But I’m really interested in these. How do they perform in windy conditions?

    7. WeevilWobble

      I intentionally have noise cancelling headphones because it gets so loud. I think that’s fairly common. I don’t have an open office but I don’t know how people get stuff done otherwise in open offices.

      Although I always notice when someone is at my door.

      1. a1

        But noise cancelling headphones don’t remove 100% of the noise. I can still hear the work phone ring*, or if on an airplane I can hear the person next to me talking (I may not understand what they’re saying, but I can tell they are talking at me and will pull the headphones off a bit and ask them to start over (unless it’s obvious, like they need to get past me or something, then I just move. :-) ))

        *Specifying work phone since when I’m at work, my cell is on silent or vibrate.

          1. Turquoisecow

            Some of them are adjustable also. My husband just got a new pair of noise canceling headphones and they’re adjustable, so you can block out certain sounds and let others through.

            I personally can’t use noise cancelling headphones. It’s hard to explain but I feel like I can’t breathe through my ears. :(

    8. Bow Ties Are Cool

      When you work in an “open” office where people are on phone meetings all day (because global corporation), music above the level of people speaking nearby is not just reasonable, but a necessity. Ask me how I know.

  9. Tipcat

    LW2: I was taught in Disability Etiquette class that the proper way to get the attention of a Deaf person is to to wave your hand in their peripheral vision. This seems to apply here, also.

    1. Gaia

      Correct. Peripheral vision, not in their face. One is getting their attention, the other is just rude.

    2. Thlayli

      I also go for peripheral vision to get attention of someone wearing headphones. Waving right in their face is rude.

    3. Loopy

      This is what I’ve done naturally because it feels like the least intrusive way to get attention. I’m glad to know it’s the proper etiquette!

    4. ZTwo

      Also, as mentioned upthread, knocking on a table. Stamping a foot on the floor or flickering the lights on and off are alsp pretty common in Deaf environments, but would be a bit much for most offices.

  10. OrganizedHRChaos

    #2. I use headphones and after experiencing people not knowing how to get my attention, I printed a sign and laminated it with one side saying “I need your attention, please.” When people turn it over on my desk or pick it up and show it to me, I know to give them my attention. It works well for my staff and others have begun doing the same sort of signage as well.

    1. Eye of Sauron

      Bless you for making it easy on people!

      Life’s hard enough without having to worry about the correct way to get someone’s attention. And I love how you took ownership of the situation.

    2. Science!

      In a corollary to this: my old high school art teacher used to have two days a year where he had to set up the whole school art exhibit and needed to super concentrate. He didn’t wear headphones, but to prevent people from bothering him with questions he would wear a sign on his back that said “He’s not Speaking”. Everyone learned very quick that any question you had for those two days could be answered by someone else.

  11. Pooh Who?

    I am very hard of hearing and usually people just wave at me somewhere in my line of vision, regardless if I’m wearing headphones or not. A hearing aid is not an echo-location device as some people seem to think it is. Or they can stand behind me and wave and I will see them in the window in front of me. That’s only because I work overnight and dark window + brightly lit room=mirror.

  12. SaraV

    I wore earbuds a LOT in my cubicle. That allowed for me to usually hear someone call my name, knock on the frame of my cubicle, or the phone. Knocking on my desk would probably startle me as much as a shoulder tap. One of my coworkers on my [very close] team would slowly squeeze the back of my chair so I knew that she was there to ask a question. She would do that on my shoulder sometimes, too, but I totally understand that doesn’t work for everyone.

    The best answer is to ask the person/people who you catch the most often on their headphones how they would like you to get their attention. That could get confusing, though. Do you have internal IM? Can you send them one before stopping by?

  13. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    #4, I think invoicing almost never works because it doesn’t really call the person out on their bad behavior. I am nearly certain that the law school would be mortified to learn their media person is demanding writing samples and then publishing them without proper attribution or copyright. In addition to being dishonest and unprofessional, this is so not ok or normal.

    I think it’s worth confronting the copythief. After that, you have to decide what your goals are in taking this on. If I wanted the person held accountable, I’d give him a chance to fix it. If he doesn’t, I’d escalate to his boss (usually the director of development or of external affairs), or directly to the dean. I wouldn’t go through campus counsel if your goals don’t focus on copyright and compensation.

        1. K.

          Agreed. Faculty is; staff likely are not, depending on the roles. You don’t need to be to do that work – an IT person needs to be able to handle IT issues, not the law.

      1. Emmie

        Lawyers are not experts on every area of law. Assuming this person is a lawyer, it’s possible that the lawyer is familiar with criminal law, for instance, and not intellectual property or copyrights. It could be a mistake, or not.

    1. wayward

      Though if you wanted compensation, seems like the school would be better off just paying it than having what happened publicized.

    2. Nico M

      For invoicing to work you need the invoice to go to a “proper” accounts payable department who will dutifully register it and then make it the thief’s problem. Their own procedures will mean they aren’t allowed to bin an invoice just because thiefy mcthiefface says it’s not valid.

      1. Femme d'Afrique

        Wouldn’t you also need some sort of documentation that you’d been commissioned to write it? I can’t imagine an accounts payable department that would just pay out any and all invoices…

        1. Thlayli

          Usually the invoice needs to refer to an order number. Or at the very least a copy of an emailed order. You can’t just send an invoice in to a random company and get paid (though maybe I should give it a try!)

          1. Trout 'Waver

            Sending fraudulent invoices to random companies is a common scam that often works. But it is a felony.

          2. Bea

            Yes. Either a written purchase order or it has to be verified by the purchaser as an authorized billing.

            Many people within a business are not authorized to even purchase something, which Thief may not even be.

            Getting an invoice paid for a real purchase is like pulling teeth from a lion. Especially from university accounting department, which often has multiple AP departments, so good luck finding that out too :(

          3. a different Vicki

            I suspect an invoice for “article about X, posted to university website on date Y” would get someone’s attention. Accounts payable might reasonably respond by calling or emailing to ask for an order number, at which point OP could and should explain that there is no order number because the article was requested as a work sample and used without permission or notification.

            A screenshot and maybe a saved copy of the page before billing would be a good idea.

        2. Fake old Converse shoes

          OP says that there are emails stating that the text was sent as a writing sample. Would that be enough proof?

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            Sure, but it’s hard to execute in a way that achieves the desired result. Most times it will look sour grapes or like the person doesn’t understand how invoicing and interviews work.

      2. Tuxedo Cat

        Yeah, it’s a whole process. I do consulting work with some colleges and I had be set up as a vendor. IIRC, some of them insisted I had to be an LLC and have everything printed on “official” letterhead.

        1. nonymous

          I think it may be legitimate to inquire with the admin folks about how to get payment for work product. So when I was in grad school (large public institution as well), there were admin staff (for example, the Dept secretary or an Assistant to the Chair) that were responsible for getting invoices/receipts/authorizations in order for the AP folks to process. That is the person to get on your side, because they know who to follow up with in the command chain, and they probably don’t report to the person you interviewed with. Academia abounds with folks who take advantage of power differentials when working with naive inexperienced young people, and a lot of times it is the admin staff that runs interference. I’d bet my Diet Coke this guy has a reputation.

  14. No way I'm putting my regular name on this...

    #5. Story of Comp Time gone awry: I work for the government. Our organization gives us the option of having paid overtime or taking it as comp time but misuse of the comp time choice eventually led my Department to only allow us to take paid overtime. Apparently, too many people were taking the comp time, saving it up, and using it all the last month of the fiscal year which left us without enough people to cover essential duties. Each person had to have their comp time under a certain number of hours by the end of the fiscal year (or they lost it and it could not be cashed out) and, when some supervisors denied the time off due to staffing, the union got involved and everyone who was over the limit ended up taking the time off. This happened multiple years in a row even after people were asked not to do it. Result = no more comp time allowed.

    To all who thought they were too special to follow the rules: thanks for ruining it for everyone.

    1. Engineer Girl

      Comp time is like anything else – subject to manager approval. My company cashed you out if you didn’t use it by the end of the year.
      One good thing for the OP – California requires full payout of vacation time if you ever leave your job. So they can’t not pay you in some way.
      I used to love comp time when we did satellite launches. You worked 100 hour weeks for a few weeks. Then you would usually get a launch bonus. Comp time + launch bonus = free vacation. Everyone crashed after the launch and then you’d come back and do it all again. I liked that rhythm.

      1. Jadelyn

        Vacation time must be paid out at time of separation, yes – but I’m not certain that banked comp time would count as vacation for purposes of California’s PTO payout laws.

        Though it’s really kind of a moot point, as paying OT in comp time vs cash is absolutely illegal – it’s not legal anywhere because that’s federal law (excepting certain situations, like government agencies and stuff), but especially in CA, where we have specific laws about daily/weekly OT, when OT is paid, and a notoriously hardline labor law enforcement culture…like that’s just playing with fire. Someone at that company is either wildly ignorant, or is indulging their enjoyment of risk-taking behavior on company time.

        1. nonymous

          Some companies are getting around this with “unlimited vacation time”. If you read the fine print, it actually means that no vacation time is banked/earned.

      2. TootsNYC

        I gave my people unofficial comp time. (company policy is that there is no comp time, and they were all exempt anyway, but out deadlines could be brutal, and I wanted to be fair)

        I finally had to say, “I want you to use it within 2 months–I don’t want it to become something that extends your vacation.”
        The idea, I said, was that you gave up parts of your personal life in order to meet the big deadline. You skipped laundry, didn’t vacuum the apartment, didn’t meet your friends after work, etc.

        And so the point of comp time was to try to return those parts of your life to you via those extra hours. The goal was tto keep you from becoming resentful of the impact the deadlines were having on your life.

        Saving it up to extend your vacation wasn’t going to accomplish that goal.

        Also because I had a budget for vacation coverage, and it wouldn’t stretch to cover “extra” vacation days.

    2. Brett

      Under the government rule for comp time, you cannot lose it. It must be used or cashed out. (Though a gov employer can require you to use comp time before vacation and take away unused vacation instead.)

    3. Ainomiaka

      Honestly if they aren’t letting you use the time, what is your proposal for how not to be “too special to follow the rules? Just work unpaid overtime? Comp time only works if managers actually approve it. If there was turning out to be a problem being able to take comp time before it’s taken away?!? then I view it no differently than getting a bad paycheck-the union ABSOLUTELY should have been involved.

      1. Natalie

        If I’m reading it correctly, people weren’t making time off requests throughout the year that got rejected, they were just waiting until the end of the year and then requesting a two weeks or whatever. (A lot of fiscal years either end right around Christmas or in the middle of the summer, so prime vacation time.)

        1. ainomiaka

          for most governments it’s fall-October 1 for Federal-not really prime vacation time. I’ve generally only see this be an issue when the policy is first implemented and management doesn’t think about how many people actually need to use their time before it gets taken. And in that case I’m not really very sympathetic to any perceived need to steal from their employees.

          1. Jesca

            I see what you you are saying, but at the same time, it seems doubtful everyone accumulated all their comp time in like, say, August. There really is no difference here between accruing vacation time and deciding comp time in lieu of overtime pay. Meaning, sure everyone on a vacation accrual system can save up their time to use at the end of the year (whenever that end of year occurs) to take a ton of time off at once. But, an employer can definitely block this because not always do the “rights” of an employee trump the rights of an employer to stay in business. So, if you work in a department where at least a few people need to be there, then yeah, you are taking a risk saving your times in hopes of getting off. Also, it is not uncommon to have “use it or lose it” vacay time (for a ton of reasons), and therefore again, this is really not outside the norm of business practices, and it is also part of the risk of rolling your overtime into vacation days.

            1. Ainomiaka

              And if this is getting done often just pay the time out, as multiple people here have described. I know many businesses get away with use it or lose it and it being hard to actually take vacation. It’s still wage theft.

    4. Jenny

      I work for local gov, and my office has a 120 day rule. If you don’t use your comp time in 120 days it’ll pay out, regardless of fiscal year. However, most managers don’t prefer that and can/will require you to take your comp times before it cashes out.

      1. SpiderLadyCEO

        We have a ten day rule – the part of the org I am in works weekends and evenings with some frequency, so the comp time we accrue is not just to keep us happy and paid for that time, it’s to make sure we’re not overworked and exhausted.

        So when we hit the ten day cap, our manager DMs us and tells us to take time off basically immediately. Since we are use it or lose it, they’re pretty excellent about reminding us to use it – and every time I have requested to use it, they have agreed! My org is pretty fabulous ;)

    5. CheeryO

      Eh, I think that was fair. I work for state government, and there are a handful of lifers who need to take a week or two off at the end of every fiscal year because they don’t use enough of their time during the year and are over the cap and would otherwise lose the time. We just plan around it. The union would absolutely get involved if supervisors started denying PTO requests from those people, and rightly so IMO.

      1. MassMatt

        Why aren’t these employees taking their time off throughout the year as opposed to having piles of it unused at year end? If they are “lifers” they should know how much time they have, and take it throughout the year. It sounds like some employees are using the “use it or lose it” rule as a way to basically play chicken with the employer to have the most desirable time off (Christmas or mid-summer, as another poster said) and have their union fight for them if the employer says no, we need coverage on these dates and can’t have this many people off.

        1. MrsBear

          I work for the federal government, and since we have no paid family leave and I would both like to have a baby and I have elderly parents who I may need to prepare to care for unexpectedly , I need to save up whatever time I can. If we had a cap on how much comp time could be accrued, I would be screwed! I’m not talking months and months of time, but since we can only carry 6 weeks of leave time from year to year, it makes it hard to plan for a maternity leave.

      2. Jadelyn

        Okay, but why aren’t they taking their time during the year and winding up with excess at the end of the year? Unless the supervisors are denying PTO requests during the year, which forces people to wind up with excess unused leave by the end of the year, I would think it should be on the employee to manage their PTO allowances to prevent that kind of balance pile-up unless they’ve already gotten the time off approved for year-end.

        I just feel like it’s excusing irresponsibility on the part of those “lifers” to say “poor babies, of course they need to take this unplanned PTO at year end otherwise they’ll lose the time!” when they could’ve just, you know, been taking time here and there throughout the year to keep their balance at an appropriate point.

    6. ONFM

      In my gov’t agency, there was no “use it/pay out” deadline; rather, you could keep accruing and holding comp time for your entire career and cash it out upon retirement/separation. We regularly had people who accrued comp time when they were entry level, and then cash it out at retirement when they were making 5x their original hourly rate. It essentially became a retirement bonus…that was unbudgeted. (And I’m talking about cutting people checks for $30k and up.) So that ended about three years ago. Ever since then, it’s all OT pay.

  15. Ramona Flowers

    #1 So I was really struck by your phrasing – that you’ve caught her making mistakes. I know it’s just how you happened to say it, but it got me thinking. Is it possible she’s answering this way out of defensiveness? Obviously you need to be able to correct her work, but sometimes people feel more able to take feedback on board if it’s delivered in writing (for example) or not in front of other people (if she sits in an open office). I think if you talk to her it might be worth asking about this. I also think it’s worth paying attention to how you deliver the feedback and what you say. I did also wonder if you give her positive feedback too?

    I’m sure some people will comment saying this is all immaterial. But I’m reminded of the time a colleague and I made a new kind of teapot we weren’t familiar with. My then-manager gave us both individual feedback together as it was about similar things – and I actually felt myself go into fight or flight mode and couldn’t concentrate at all.

    Mistakes need correcting. But do make sure that’s not all you’re saying to her. And I would also check on whether you’re giving her work at her busiest times, if your deadlines are realistic, and so on.

    1. Birch

      I also wonder if she feels supported and trained enough. I know I’ve given these defensive answers when I know I’m not doing the work well but feel overwhelmed. It strikes me that she said “I know, sorry.” If she knows it’s a mistake, why didn’t she fix it? Either there a reason she’s knowingly leaving mistakes (not trained in those tasks, not enough time) or she’s saying that because she’s embarrassed that the mistakes were made and feels like it makes her look incompetent. Either way it sounds like she needs more support.

      1. Alton

        Yeah, I was wondering that, too. Not that it’s a good response by any means, but I know I’ve had to bite my tongue when I was either 1) really stressed out and struggling to stay afloat and/or 2) interacting with someone who kept giving me tasks and requests for changes when I was flailing to get other things done. It can be easy to forget that the person you’re interacting with may have no idea about any of that (ironically, I think being anxious makes this harder for me because I go into self-defense mode very easily).

        I think especially with staff who support/report to multiple people, it can be easy not to have a full picture of what’s going on with someone’s workload or other challenges they’re dealing with.

        Which isn’t to say that it’s appropriate to react like this. It’s something this woman needs to be aware of. But there can be different reasons for it.

        1. Triumphant Fox

          An exasperated “I’m sorry” could mean something very similar to “What’s the big deal?” – it sounds like the flippant tone rather than the content is what LW is reacting to.

      2. TootsNYC

        she said “I know, sorry.” If she knows it’s a mistake, why didn’t she fix it?

        it may mean she knows NOW that it’s a mistake. I wouldn’t parse this so much.

    2. Purplesaurus

      I’ve suffered both someone delivering feedback in a bad way and trying to train someone who was bad at taking feedback (despite my trying to do all the right things). I think it’s more likely an issue with the junior employee, but it’s certainly worth considering whether OP is doing all the things you suggested.

    3. OP#1

      OP for the #1 here. I was wondering if it was a defensive reaction. She only gets this way when giving her certain kinds of feedback. Usually, the process is, I give her work, she does it and sends it back to me to review, I give her corrections (usually in email but sometimes in person), this review section might happen a few times and then she submits it to whatever department it needs to go to. That process is fine. I never get any weird comments or attitude from her. I only give her feedback on the work I have given her. No one else gives her feedback on that particular work.

      The problems arise when things are a bit more serious. For example- if I for some reason have to dive into her files on the archive for something and notice they are not properly archived. This isn’t something I monitor but I occasionally need to access and its a pretty regular habit for her to not do properly. Which is where the “Is it really a big deal?” comment came from. I had talked to her before about archiving files, and why it was important in the past. Or the reason I decided to write in- she forgot to send files to someone who needed them and now it was super late and it’s going to affect production and possibly sales. Which is when I got the “Yea, yeah I know, sorry.” I hadn’t gotten a response to my chat messages, and this was pretty time sensitive, so I went to go talk to her in person, and that was her response. Yes, there was a sorry in there, but it the tone of voice was very cavalier. She did get the files out right away though.

      This isn’t a problem that pops up that often. Every few weeks at most. However, it seems to have increased recently and I would like to fix it before it becomes a more regular habit. I know people make mistakes. I made a ton of mistakes as a junior. I make sure I don’t yell or anything like that when I talk to her about these things, but at the same time, I want her to take these issues seriously.

      1. Jesca

        Ya know what I would do? Clarify with her boss if these issues you are finding are anything she is expecting the employee to be perfecting. Maybe the boss has given the other employee a different impression of not only where you are to “over-see”, but also what she is to prioritize.

      2. Eye of Sauron

        “This isn’t a problem that pops up that often. Every few weeks at most. However, it seems to have increased recently and I would like to fix it before it becomes a more regular habit.”

        Every few weeks does sound pretty regular to me.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yeah, that’s a lot. And this sounds like a pretty big deal. I think you’ve got to either do the bigger-picture feedback I mentioned in the post, or talk to your/her boss. It’s at the point where it sounds like a performance problem that one of you needs to address.

      3. Triumphant Fox

        The archiving files comment is a big red flag for me. I see that as part of a larger issue of not being meticulous with behind the scenes work, which would be a huge mess to clean up later. Things like file naming, saving, organization and general process really break down when someone doesn’t think they’re important. It’s not a big deal until it is – until there’s a deadline and you can’t find a file, or someone is out sick and you start to have to wade through a morass of emails to get what you need. If the things you’re getting are inconsistent in their archiving formats (or whatever the relevant details are), that is something I would address with her boss.

        The second comment sounds more like a defense mechanism – trying to downplay something that is pretty serious by just brushing it off with a quick apology and fixing it. I see this more as a “Please, can this mistake just go away?!!!” reaction than an actual dismissal that it was a problem to begin with. This type of problem would probably take more frequent check-ins from her manager to solve – more communication about what needs to happen that week/day/month and checking off when it has, or a workflow software that helps with that. If she needs help keeping track of things, that may be something she can work with her manager on. I keep a detailed work journal and it helps make sure nothing falls through the cracks – a suggestion like that may be helpful.

      4. Shiara

        It sounds like she’s accepted you as an authority in the sphere where you specifically delegate work to her, and so she’s content to accept criticism directly related to that, but if you try to offer feedback on something where you’re less clearly the authority, in her mind, she’s not taking you seriously. It’s also possible that with the files thing, someone else had already spoken to her about it, so she felt like you were piling on.

        None of this really excuses her attitude, and the archives thing in particular does sound like it’s an issue, but it may mean that you want to have a conversation with her boss so that they can clarify with her both that, yes, she needs to take archiving seriously, and that you have authority to give directions/reminders on stuff even outside of the work you directly delegate to her. (And if, for whatever reason, her boss has different priorities for her archiving, etc than you do, you’ll have that information, and know that she’s getting mixed messages about its importance)

        1. Morning Glory

          I think this is a really good point, that there are spheres of authority, and the junior-level person may see the OP as overstepping (even if she is mistaken) on the feedback that does not relate to the OP’s projects.

          OP, is it an option for you to ask the employee’s supervisor to address the concerns that don’t relate exactly to the projects that you delegate on? I know this depends on the workplace, so it may not be viable.

        2. Sunshine on a cloudy day

          YES!!! So much this. I had a situation where an employee who was sr. to me within the dept. (though not my manager) was trying to micromanage how I did my work. I absolutely deferred to her when it was stuff that was delegated to me by her or that she was directly involved in, but it became a real issue for me when she would criticize (in my opinion inaccurately – she was one of those people who couldn’t fathom that there are sometimes different but equally effective ways of doing things) stuff that was solely my responsibility or that she was only tangentially related.

          For that sort of stuff I felt like the process should be – she notices something that she feels to be an issue and mentions it directly to me. I listen to that advice and take it in – but as she is not my manager, I am free to disregard (which I sometimes did, though not always!). If she still feels there’s an issue with my work, then bring it to my boss and let boss and I work it out. Just because you are senior to me in the department does not (necessarily – it does depend on structure/culture) mean that you have the authority to manage me.

          I did not handle the situation well. I should have spoken up about how I felt that it was inappropriate for her to be micromanaging my work. Then it would be out in the open. If my boss did want her to be managing my overall work – well I would have known and could have had the opportunity to adjust my additude. If she was not supposed to be, then her boss would be aware that she was overstepping and could address it.

          This report is also not handling this well either. If she does feel like OP #1 is overstepping (which she could be totally incorrect about – I’m not saying that the OP#1 is overstepping, just that this junior might feel like she is) then she should say something, but I obviously do understand the reasons why that might not occur to her. I can tell you what I wished would have happened in my situation if – and this is if Sr. colleague had full authorization/support from our shared boss to be managing my work. I wish that Sr. colleague would have gone to our shared manager and said “hey, I’m getting pushback from Sunshine when I give her feedback/advice/criticism/managing. As her direct manager, can you have a sitdown with her to clarify my role/level of authority within her work? Just so that we’re all on the same page. Maybe that will clear some of this up and no further action will be needed.”

          In my case – a clear directive from the person who I understood to be my only manager would have changed my attitude completely. It would have take a couple of days to adjust at first, and I wouldn’t have been thrilled about it (b/c I never would have accepted the role if I knew this person was going to be involved in managing me – this was a promotion so I knew the players), but I definitely could have handled the situation as a whole better.

        3. anonagain

          The authority thing is not what jumped out at me about the examples given. Looking at this through the lens of my own personal experiences, those examples all sound like they’re related to organizing and keeping track of things.

          I struggle with those sorts of things and there can be a lot of shame associated. I don’t think the advice to the OP changes though. I just know I would probably react differently if I thought the employee was questioning my authority vs some other less confrontational explanation.

    4. fposte

      None of those things would excuse an “Is it really a big deal?” though. If you think the corrections are inappropriate for your workflow, you talk to your boss or the person correcting you–you don’t flippantly dismiss the errors. That would be a big problem for me.

  16. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    If your employer is doing this and you’re not exempt from the state overtime rule, OP (I assume you’re not because overtime), then this arrangement is in no way legal in California. If you’re worried about pushing back, consider contacting the Labor Commissioner and filing a wage-and-hour complaint.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger

      Yes – even comp time that’s used in the same week doesn’t suffice in lieu of overtime, because in California you earn overtime for anything over eight hours in a single day. So even if you only worked nine hours in the entire week, if you worked them all on Thursday you’d be entitled to an hour of overtime pay.

      1. Kage

        So random question about CA and their daily overtime – how does this work for people who have an official Alternative Work Schedule (like working 4x10s)? Does the overtime payment only kick in if they’re over their scheduled time (I.e. from 10 on)? Or does it start after the typical 8 (i.e. the last 2 hours would be overtime)? I’m exempt and have never/probably will never encounter this but just wondered.

        1. nonprofit director

          I have implemented several official alternative work weeks where I work, and it’s very, very complicated when overtime kicks in, and overtime kicks in where you would least expect it. When training on this, a line I like to use is that the state is allowing the employer to ask non-exempt employees to work more than 8 hours in a day without payment of overtime in exchange for any and all flexibility in scheduling.

    2. Overtime OP

      Overtime OP #5 here.

      Just for clarification, I am non-exempt, and our company is not a public service agency.

      I have tried to request overtime be paid on my paycheck rather than in accrued comp time. But the office is not willing to do so.

      Has anyone ever filed a wage claim for before? I see there are retaliation protections for filing a wage claim, but I can’t help thinking there are non-overt ways that companies can retaliate. For example, my work can become overly scrutinized for inconsequential errors. Or they may start writing me up every time I come to the office 2 minutes late (even though my position isn’t dependent on my being at my desk at a certain time). Or, I may be passed over for promotion because even if someone else was less qualified, the company could always say the other person “is a better fit to the office/team culture.” Or the office could lay me off and say it is due to budget reasons.

      The overtime amount that the company is unwilling to pay is only between 30-40 hours. This was due to a few 12 hour days that I had to put in because a client requested an early deadline and was willing to pay an additional expedited fee for the early delivery, so the office gave me no choice in terms of delivery time. The overtime dollar amount is not a large amount (I’m definitely not retiring on it), so I’m wondering if I should just suck it up and let it go rather than put my entire job in jeopardy?

      1. Perse's Mom

        I imagine retaliation is always a risk (thus the need for protections against it to begin with), but the examples you’ve mentioned are also things you can document. If you’ve had no issues with attendance previously and they start caring about it right after you make a wage claim, that could be an indication of retaliation, etc. I would also guess that the DoL does a general inquiry sort of thing; they’re not going to tell them it was you specifically, so if this is something that’s kind of rampant for this company, it could be any number of employees who sounded the alarm.

        This may not be retirement amounts of money, but if they’ve done this to you, they have likely done it to other employees. There’s nothing preventing them from doing it to you or anyone else again if someone doesn’t say something.

  17. Easily Startled

    Like the letter writer, I’m quite jumpy. In my own office, co-workers would knock on the wall and wave their arms as they entered. When I was in cubicles, they resorted to launching paper clips my way!
    (Effective, but not nearly as awesome as candy, though!)

    1. Ramona Flowers

      My preference is someone waving the tray that means they’re collecting cups for a tea and coffee round.

      1. Purplesaurus

        Balls of paper aimed at the monitor seems like a pretty good strategy to me, depending on who you’re throwing them at. Know your target.

        1. Triumphant Fox

          Yes! coworkers who sat near me would do this, and it worked great. I startle super easily and also lose myself in tasks easily – great combo.

          We also had nerf guns they would shoot…but that’s a little unusual.

          Otherwise, people would knock on my wall and it worked.

    2. R2D2

      I am also jumpy, and my back faces a high-traffic area. I attached a small blind spot mirror to my computer monitor and it has been a GAME CHANGER.

  18. Kiwi

    If I can, I move into the person’s peripheral vision and stand there for a few seconds. That mostly works. If they still don’t see me, I take a step sideways in an obvious kind of way. No-one’s spilt their tea yet, though someone did jump sky-high a few weeks ago.

  19. I Coulda Been a Lawyer ;)

    Please don’t touch me OR throw things at me. I’m a person, not your pet or trash can. But after working in a prison, you won’t find me not facing the entrance or not aware of my surroundings.

    1. kas

      I agree, I do not want anything thrown at me. I don’t think I would mind one tap on my shoulder but no one has had to touch me as I usually hear them call me the first time. I also make sure I sit in cubicles where I can see when people approach my desk, I hate having my back to entrances.

    2. Sylvan

      I don’t feel that strongly about it, but yeah, no touching or throwing, please. The last time someone touched me to get my attention, I jumped out of my chair in surprise, and then she jumped away from me in surprise. lol :( Knocking on something near me or doing something in my line of sight works.

    3. Stormy

      This is why I loathe cubicles with every fiber of my being. There’s no way to NOT be facing into a corner, with your back to everything. (Or, at least, there isn’t a way with any of the cubicle styles I’ve been made to use.) I can’t express how jumpy and vulnerable it makes me feel, all day every day. I was raised in a military intelligence family, and sitting like this goes against what I was taught my entire life. And it’s only getting worse, as random workplace/public acts of violence becomes more common.

      1. Elizabeth West

        I never sit like that in public places. I will make people get up and move and let me sit where I can see the door. I’ve been doing it since the 1980s, because of that McDonald’s shooting in California.

    4. Tuxedo Cat

      I agree. I have had people who used tapping me as an excuse to be a little more touchy-feely than I would find acceptable and who thought throwing things was a great way to have fun when it really hurt.

    5. R2D2

      I agree. I feel like slowly approaching, speaking in a normal tone of voice, and eventually waving is the best thing to do (but please, don’t wave too close to my face!).

  20. kas

    1. Maybe it’s the way you’re correcting the mistakes? I have a few new hires on my team who will send me their work once they’re finished and if I notice mistakes (which is often), I try to point out a positive before I go into the negatives. Her attitude is unnecessary though, I wouldn’t be able to handle that.

    2. This is a pet peeve of mine. We all usually listen to music but I don’t think your music should be loud enough to the point where I have to call your name several times/find ways to get your attention. I also shouldn’t be able to hear the music coming out of your earbuds. I only keep one earbud in so that I can hear when others need me. If I worked in an office where everyone usually kept to themselves/didn’t need to collaborate I wouldn’t mind but we all usually have to talk to each other for information several times a day and it gets annoying. One woman always has her music super loud and I’m constantly having to message her to let her know I can hear her music. She doesn’t have hearing problems, she’s aware her music is loud but for some reason she doesn’t think it affects others.

  21. Gaia

    #2 I feel the pain here. I am an earbud user while I work. This is very consistent with our work norms. We’re all open office but about 3 out of every 4 people will have headphones or earbuds in most of the day. The norm in our office for getting someone’s attention is one of a few things:

    1. Send them a message through our internal service and ask if you can come over and chat
    2. Stand next to them but slightly forward so you’re in their line of sight and wave
    3. Tap their desk while standing there

    But you never touch them. I wear wireless earbuds that are covered by my hair so people often cannot see them. They are noise cancelling so when they are in, I hear nothing but my music. The best way to get my attention is the second option above. Tapping my desk would startle me and I absolutely would not want to be touched. It would scare the bejeezus out of me.

    1. Ennigaldi

      Same situation. I’m thinking of buying some bright colored over-ear headphones so people can see that I can’t hear them, but most of them have learned by now that I’m always wearing earbuds.

      Getting a little “locker mirror” that has the sticky back and putting that on the corner of my monitor has worked really well, since it’s like a rear view mirror for my cubicle.

      1. R2D2

        I second the mirror idea! I have a round, blind spot mirror (like, for a car) which works wonderfully. They’re less than $10 on Amazon for a two-pack.

  22. ktam

    #5 — Is the information in the link about exempt/non-exempt outdated? I thought the salary level had been raised recently. I could be wrong, though, because it doesn’t apply to me.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, the link is still accurate. The salary level was set to be raised in December 2016, but the day before it was supposed to take effect, it was blocked by a temporary injunction. The increase was being implemented by the Obama administration, and the new administration has declined to pursue it. So as of now, the threshold for being exempt has not changed and there are no immediate plans to change it.

      More here and here.

      1. Someone else

        However, I think there were some California-specific changes that did actually go into effect in 2017? Specifically the minimum allowed to be paid annually to exempt employees. That’s not necessarily relevant to the OP’s question but might be what ktam was thinking of?

        1. nonprofit director

          California’s minimum wage is increasing every year for the next few years, and the exempt salary has to be at least two times the minimum wage. Perhaps that is what you are thinking of?

  23. Rebecca

    #2 I work in an audio department so we’re almost always wearing headphones. Waving in someone’s eye line is definitely the most effective.

    My coworker tapped my shoulder the other day and I jumped so hard I made her jump!

  24. Miaw

    #2
    My coworkers throw stress ball at people to get their attention
    This is rude and not to be copied

    1. Akcipitrokulo

      Better than unexpectedly tapping someone on shoulder though :) (but yes, neither is ideal!)

      1. Jadelyn

        That’s probably a better response than my immediate impulse to chuck it back at their stupid faces as hard as I can. When you throw it away, bonus points if you hold eye contact with the person while you shred it before throwing away the pieces.

    2. Ennigaldi

      My coworker across the cubicle from me would throw things at me. I just let them hit me while staring at her, stone faced. She waves now.

  25. Matt

    #2: Please no tapping, shoulder or wherever. I know a lot of people don’t mind this, but it startles the hell out of me.

  26. Not Australian

    Just adding to the chorus here; I was taught that tapping someone on the shoulder, arm, or whatever, is an absolute no-no. (And believe me I learned it the hard way!) I’ve never been lucky enough to work in an office that allowed headphones but you do sometimes need to attract someone’s attention when they’re on the phone, so I’ve found that either a wave or a well-placed Post-It comes in handy. Definitely a case of knowing your audience, though; if it happens a lot, asking “What’s the best way of attracting your attention?” is probably the way to go.

    1. Humble Schoolmarm

      I’m relieved to hear that you were taught that tapping is a no-no! Every year I teach a couple of determined shoulder-tappers (I’m the teacher and definitely not wearing headphones when this happens) and I usually coach the kids that “Adults usually say ‘excuse me’ when they want to get someone’s attention.” When I saw this question I was worried I would have to make it about how tapping makes me uncomfortable, which doesn’t carry nearly as much weight in the minds of young teens.

    2. Goya de la Mancha

      We can’t wear headphones either, but the phone thing is a daily occurrence. I go with the post-it note route – I can write my message and they can choose to wrap up the call to discuss or get back to me at a time that works better for them.

  27. Ian

    When I have my headphones on I am concentrating on something and do not want someone interrupting me without my permission. Waving a hand in front of my face is highly irritating and if someone tapped me on the shoulder I would be furious.
    Do not assume that what you want to talk to me about is more important than what I am currently doing. I am more than happy to talk to you, but let me decide when I have a moment to do so, not you.
    Sending an IM or email to let me know you want to talk is ideal.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

      Well, the OP made clear that her office has different norms for this. If someone doesn’t want to be interrupted the practice at this office is to close their doors.

    2. WhereThere'sSmoke

      But isn’t that you assuming that what you’re working on is more important than what they have to talk to you about?

      Unless you’re so important that nothing anyone wants to talk to you about is more important than what you’re working on, but then I’d assume you’d have a door or an assistant to keep them away.

      1. Lora

        Sadly, no…have worked many places that expected me to get critical things requiring lots of focus done in an open office or very noisy cube farm. I hid in snack rooms, in the most remote lab spaces, wherever I could find a quiet spot. Worked from home when I could. 90% of interruptions were not more important than what I was working on; about half were non-work-related, and the rest had to do with varying levels of “the person who is supposed to do this is not responding/grossly incompetent, can you do it?”

        It was not coincidence that my employers were asking me to correct the persnickety mathematical errors and disorganized technical writing that my colleagues had done while working in the noisy, “hey just interrupt everyone what the heck” open office.

        1. Tuxedo Cat

          That sounds like a former office where I worked. Instead, the interruptions were people wanting to take 20 minutes (multiple times a day) to gossip and wouldn’t take the hint or the direct comment that I needed to get my work done.

    3. Eye of Sauron

      Gotta say this sounds a little harsh. Isn’t it up to your employer to determine what’s more important? I get the need some times for quiet focused work, but to expect a cone of silence seems a bit much.

    4. Squeeble

      That’s simply not how everyone feels about wearing headphones, though. Furthermore, if I need to interrupt someone wearing them, it’s not because my task is more important (nor am I assuming yours is more important). It’s just something that needs to get done.

    5. Bea

      It goes both ways. Your project is important to you and your work but their question may be just as important to their work. The point of multiple people working at a company is everyone is doing something for the business that is necessary on some level. Unless you’re the owner or CEO, you should respect your co-workers jobs more. Hell, my boss is the CEO and he closes the door when he’s not to be disturbed not just pops in some earphones.

    6. Ennigaldi

      I hear you – it’s infuriating when you’re trying to think through a problem and five different people come asking for something in the hour you have between meetings to get it done. My department has been trying to come up with a system for signaling “I’m on headphones but you can interrupt me if you need me” versus “I really need to concentrate on this project for ten consecutive minutes please just send me an IM and I’ll get to you in a bit.” Tiny novelty traffic lights have been floated.

      1. zora

        In our company when they switched to open offices they passed out little paper stands for each desk (like the kind with numbers the restaurant gives you to take to your table) and had these nice 5×7 cards printed that say things like “On a Client Call, No F-Bombs, Please” “In the Zone” “Not Here, Know You’ll Miss Me” and gave each person a stack, so you can post them at about monitor level, and people know to look for them to see if they can interrupt or not. But there was no card for “Not Busy” so I made one that says “Please Bother Me” (because I’m a support person, so I’m usually fine with being interrupted if someone needs something).

        The bigger offices really like them and still use them regularly, but the folks in my satellite office got tired of them and has given up on them. So, we’re back to using headphones as a default “I’m busy” signal.

  28. seejay

    I startle really easily so if you touch me while I have headphones in (or even if I’m really engrossed in what I’m doing), you’ll be entertained by the show of me jumping three feet out of my seat and probably throwing my mouse into the air. And probably me shrieking. Coworkers know: DO NOT DO THIS. I accept it happening if it’s by accident, I don’t accept it when it’s intentional.

    The best way to approach me is either: come from the front where you’re coming in towards my field of vision first; knock on the desk; wave your arms while approaching from the side. Do not touch me or shake the chair… these are the easiest ways to make me panic.

    1. Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins

      Shaking the chair! I hate this one and I’ve got one co-worker who thinks it is very funny to shake the back of the chair to get my attention. I’ve made it very clear that it changes the adjustments on the crappy government chairs and that I don’t like it, but he persists. Most normal, not rude people will wave or knock on the table.

      1. Sarah M

        If he doesn’t stop, you should challenge him to an Ultimate Snowball Fight in the parking lot after work. You can take him.

        :)

  29. Headphonesincrunchtime

    I very rarely put headphones in. When I do it’s because I’ve hit a crunch point and *absolutely must not be disturbed unless the building is burning down* I communicate this clearly to my team and manager and its generally OK. I respect others headphone time in the same way.

    Other people are tricky. Generally my team and I try and way lay someone heading for the headphone worker and ask if we can help instead, or to come back in am hour or so.

    Op5: In the UK charity sector this is common, its called TOIL “time off in lieu” it basically means “if you’ve worked a evening or weekend event, take the equivalent time off in the week to make sure you’re not overworked” different places implement it differently though, and I’ve seen some places get really stingy with TOIL. It’s generally a good sign of how good/bad a place is to work. Don’t nickel and dime staff when they’ve just worked their butts off for 18hrs straight putting on an event.

  30. Asperger Hare

    2 – Ask her! “When you’re wearing headphones, and I need to get your attention, how can I do that?”

    1. Lala

      This!

      I think it’s also important that the person doing the interrupting ask his/herself if the thing they’re interrupting to discuss is actually worth interrupting someone for. I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve been interrupted in the middle of a crunch for a legit reason. 99% of the time, it’s just someone wanting to chat or something I could’ve been told in a two sentence email/IM. And of course, the interruptions are where/when 90% of the mistakes I make in my work happen–avoiding those mistakes means restarting or taking the time to go back over each step of whatever task I was in the middle of when I was interrupted to make sure I haven’t skipped something. That extra work is worth it if I’m interrupted for something legit…but it’s supremely irritating if my coworker didn’t really need to chat/know right then.

      It’s really up to the individual office and the individuals themselves to figure out how to navigate these kinds of things, but if it’s an open plan where everyone can hear everyone, or where most people are wearing headphones to help them concentrate, I default to email/IM first, unless it is truly urgent or my coworker has previously indicated to me that they would prefer the in-person interruption.

  31. Daria Morgendorffer

    #1 If the coworker is continually making the same mistakes, there might be a couple of things going on. Firstly, consider whether you are explaining the task properly when you set it. Delegating tasks well is a deceptively hard skill to master. If my employee has made mistakes, often it can be because I skipped stuff out or didn’t explain it well. Secondly, explain why it is a big deal or the consequence of sending out a report riddled with mistakes. People are more likely to respond to requests if they understand why. Lastly, if the rate of errors goes down or the employee is done mg some checking, praise that behaviour.

  32. Catabodua

    IM or email first.

    But if it’s urgent I’ve taken to creating a small breeze with paper. It breaks your concentration but it’s not as jarring as tap.

    Do not ever jiggle their chair or kick the wheels on their chair. Looking at you jerky co-worker.

    The bottom line though, is no matter what even if you try to be considerate, someone will be annoyed at you.

  33. Itqc

    I wear head phones almost all day and my coworkers and boss usually get my attention by waving in the reflection of my monitor or knocking on the side of my desk. I startle really easily and definitely wouldn’t appreciate someone walking into my cube and tapping my shoulder. I wish people would email me ahead of time but that’s not my office’s style.

  34. CW

    On #2, there’s a terrible open office culture developing where people cannot delve into deep-thinking work and need to always be available for synchronous work.

    I would suggest that unless there is an urgent need to interrupt a colleague face-to-face, that there be another “asynchronous” form of communication. Perhaps email or an instant messaging app that does allow a status of “busy” or “available” to be set.

    There’s a great article here that explains the idea of moving back into asynchronous work (http://blog.idonethis.com/asynchronous-communication/).

    1. LouiseM

      I buy some of the points in this article, but I don’t think the concept of people trying to talk to their coworkers face-to-face developed because of “open office culture” (which is also not all that new). Have you seen Mad Men? They interrupt each other and go into each others’ offices all the time on that show. When they don’t want to be disturbed it’s usually because they’re having an affair.

      In my experience, there’s not usually an “urgent” need to do anything we do in an office. Most of us are not defusing bombs or performing brain surgery. And yet, we still find it helpful to talk to our colleagues in person. I think we should take the OP at their word that, within the context of their office, they do need to get their coworkers’ attention.

  35. Bead1971

    As a few mentioned for #2, a small mirror was the way to go for our office administrator a few years ago. While she wasn’t completely deaf, she was very hard of hearing. She had it set up on her computer monitor like a side view mirror on a car. It kept her from being startled.

  36. Amalyia

    #2 I have a coworker on my team that actually has a small mirror set up so that he can see when someone comes up behind him. I thought it was an awesome idea so I started doing that. I would check with the individuals to see how they would best like you to get their attention. I did that when I transferred to my current team since they all wear headphones at one point or another.

  37. MsSolo

    Oh, 5 is interesting. It’s really common in the UK to have that; it’s called TOIL (Time Off in Lieu). There’s usually a limit on how long you have to take it in (often the same month you earned it). So if I have to work late this week, I can take a half day next week, or if I work a weekend I get some weekdays off. Some jobs still offer proper overtime where they simply don’t have the capacity for people to take extra leave (usually government jobs and public sector roles, like the NHS) but it’s getting rare these days.

    1. Akcipitrokulo

      Also UK… we get TOIL at time & a half without limits on when to take it – but that’s a semi-informal arrangement within our department because it relies on good will to do out of hours work. It works well for us!

  38. Kewlmom

    For people I like, I get their attention by walking by with a fresh hot pizza. For people I don’t particularly care for, I try to avoid having to interact with them at all costs. If it were absolutely, positively necessary to get their attention, I suppose I could stand there and fart until they noticed, SBD farts of course. #sarcasm

  39. drpuma

    Headphone-wearer seconding that waving or a heads-up IM is best.
    My headphones are big purple over-the-ear cans, so it is very obvious to my coworkers that I am Not Available. I stopped wearing earbuds at work – it felt discourteous that folks never knew whether or not I could hear them.

  40. nnn

    #2 could also ask the co-worker in question what the best way to get her attention is and see what she has to say personally. If variables permit, you could even start a conversation in the break room one day about interrupting people with headphones and find out everyone’s preferences.

  41. Bear With Me

    OP#2: If it is someone who is far away, I’ll send them an IM saying something like “I’ve got a question on X, mind if I bother you for a minute?”. That way they know I’m coming and will (hopefully) remove their headphones in anticipation of my arrival. It’s also courteous because it gives them an easy way to decline if they are too busy to help me right away. If they are sitting near me then I sometimes still IM, but if it’s clear they aren’t that busy then I will just tap their desk. Either works pretty well, and I’ve been on both ends of the situation.

  42. Workaholic

    #2-i deal with this same situation at work. I IM the person before leaving my desk giving the heads up. Or I position myself in view and tap or something for attention. Someone’s she’s still startled but recognizes it’s her fault for having headphones in.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise at work that people need it want to talk to you now and then about work items or otherwise.
    Maybe ask the person hope best to get their attention so as not to start them?

  43. Argh!

    Re: #1

    I have had one like that and he got worse and worse over time. I suspect he was defending his ego and not genuinely un-concerned about errors, but it’s still annoying. He made the same mistakes over & over and just seemed uncoachable. I wish I could say I helped him turn around, but it was a hopeless cause. I wound up having to be a micromanager, which I hated. The error rate never rose to a fireable level, so I was stuck with this person and just had to have an eagle eye and never let my guard down.

    My supervisor held me responsible for any mistakes that slipped through, so it was in my best interest to micromanage.

    Good luck with yours!

  44. Jana

    Re: #4
    I see how sending an invoice in that situation would be ineffective (easy for the recipient to ignore; doesn’t call them out on their behavior), but I don’t understand how it’s a “snarky” thing to do? If someone has stolen your work and that work is something that would normally have a fee associated with it, it doesn’t really seem rude or cutting to request payment.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Because you typically can’t just send an invoice for a fee that was never agreed to, with no discussion, and expect it to be paid. The OP was making a point — that she charges for her work and it was used, so they owe her. But this is something where the professional thing to do is to have a discussion first. In that discussion, you can say that you charge $X for this kind of use and it’s due to you, but just sending an invoice without that explanation will read as snarky.

  45. Lillian Gilbreth

    #2, I work in a very similar environment but most of sit facing the door (added benefit of no one can see your screen from the hall, so I feel less bad being on AAM in the mornings while I eat my breakfast.) In general though, I think if your music is so loud you can’t hear someone saying your name then you are setting yourself up for getting startled. The guy I share an office with throws pencils at me sometimes, which also works!

  46. Lizabeth

    Anyone with headphones on and the sound level not on blasting can hear you. As much as I would LOVE to not hear the office squawker over the years, now that we’re in an open office situation and my desk faces her, it’s easy for her to get my attention by simply raising her voice a bit and catching my eye.

    When we were in separate offices right next to each other, it was another matter. We had walls that didn’t go to the ceiling so she got in the habit of calling over the wall to me. I got in the habit of not answering if I had my headphones on (95% of the time).

    1. SallytooShort

      “Anyone with headphones on and the sound level not on blasting can hear you.”

      Not if they have any sort of quality noise cancelling headphones.

      1. Judy (since 2010)

        Or even regular headphones if you’re focusing on something. There are times that without headphones I can still not notice someone speaking to me.

      2. Lizabeth

        I have high quality noise canceling headphones – in my experience they do not block voices at all.

    2. ThursdaysGeek

      I am successful in not hearing my co-workers, and I don’t even wear headphones. That includes times when they’re standing behind me and saying my name. If headphones are helping someone concentrate, it’s not just the sound that is keeping the person from hearing the other who is trying to get their attention.

  47. Stormy

    #4 Writers, graphic artists, and coders are notoriously prone to having sample work stolen. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the interview wasn’t even real, and they were just looking for free copy. I’ve seen it happen multiple times.

    Contractors and freelancers in these fields tend to circle the wagons and keep each other in the loop on this sort of behavior, so join an appropriate professional association and keep your eyes and ears peeled.

    1. Femme d'Afrique

      Funny you should say this. There was a very popular thread on Twitter recently with (mostly Anglophone) African designers and writers talking about this very practise. It’s depressing how prevalent this is.

    2. WellRed

      I really doubt they had the person submit an application, held an interview, etc. just to get an article that was probably worth a couple hundred bucks.

      1. K.

        Happens all the time. “Design our new logo as part of this interview.” Then they don’t hire the person but steal the work. I can’t tell you how many creatives I know who have stories like this. I’m in marketing so I often have to write a thing for the application process. I once had an assignment to write a press release announcing the existing hiring manager’s hiring – obviously they’re not going to use that as anything other than an assessment. That tells me that this really is an assignment that they’re using to assess my work, rather than something that they’re going to steal. If the assignment involves something that is currently happening, my spider sense starts tingling.

        Semi-related, I just read a thread on Twitter in which a writer was asked by a major online publication if they could use a piece she’d written, and she responded saying her repurposing fee was $200. They wouldn’t pay it. She rightfully refused to let them use the piece. Companies will do a lot to get free content.

      2. Falling Diphthong

        Making people submit an application isn’t significant effort from the employer.

        I suspect it’s often that the interviewer gets the idea “Multitask! Efficiency! We are interviewing people for a possible role this week, and I need someone to provide 8 blog posts–I can just combine the two.” Without following that through to the formal “I can just steal the work of the job applicants, which is free, but opens us up to legal action. Hmm…. maybe I should check if any applicant has a close family member who is a high-powered lawyer, and remove them from the pool.”

  48. Millennial Lawyer

    OP #2 – I think any combination of an e-mail in advance, a knock on the desk, or waving to get their attention is all acceptable if someone isn’t responding to your presence.

    It also might be helpful to send out a reminder that while using headphones employees should be mindful of their surroundings and to keep it at a volume where they could still hear if someone is trying to get their attention.

    This is also amusing to me because I used to work at an open planned office doing insanely boring work but headphones were *not* allowed and there were constant fights over the radio between the young black male employees and the older white ladies…. was really something to behold.

      1. Millennial Lawyer

        Nobody won because everyone was petty. I was a teen at the time, and I could have easily imagined an arrangement where we could put on the rap station for a couple of hours and then the oldies/vanilla radio station for the rest of the day (I did not mind either station and actually would have preferred a variety since the work was so boring).

        That did not happen. Instead, it was pretty much unregulated. The old women would put on their radio station and then during lunch the young boys would switch, and hell would break loose and the older women would switch it back and glare at them when they returned.

        The older women were the semi-permanent employees and the young boys tended to be seasonal like I was so on top of the gender and racial issues we had that (also the work was tangentially political related so there was a party divide as well!) It was too petty.

    1. Catabodua

      Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth I was in a job where a whole bunch of women had TV radios – as in, they got TV channels on their radios – and they had wars over what soap opera they listened to.

      1. Millennial Lawyer

        OMG I would have much preferred that! The work we did was seriously so boring that for me, as a teen, to just have to listen to these radio battles all day (headphones and phones/iPods/gadgets of any kind specifically were banned even though there was no interaction it was all individual clerical work in a back room). Listening to an on going soap opera – and the double drama of which soap we were listening to – would have been much more fun.

        1. Catabodua

          For me it was awful. It was basically just a wall of noise that was so distracting and made hearing someone on the phone difficult – and I was the AP clerk. You know, the person getting phone calls all day.

          I was so happy when they banned all radios.

          1. Millennial Lawyer

            That does sound awful! And so odd. to have radios playing while people need to use the phones??

            I did not have a phone. Nobody had a phone. It was just an open room where people sat at tables filing documents in the correct order. Yet we could not have headphones/own devices!

            1. Catabodua

              Yeah, that made no sense to not allow headphones in your situation.

              My situation was sort of a wild, wild west thing where it started as a very small company and having radios blaring was fine for a long time but it wasn’t revisited as the company grew and had different needs.

  49. BethRA

    #2 – is the group of people you’re likely to interrupt small enough to ask? Just a simple “hey, what’s the best way to get your attention when you have your headphones on?” You could even add your own preference, if you want to avoid being touched on the shoulder. It might even be worth a group chat to come up with a communcal standard.

    I personally like the “IM first/knock on desk or cubicle if that’s not feasible” but that might not work for everyone.

  50. Lynca

    OP 1- I’m also someone that delegates work but doesn’t directly manage the people I delegate the work to.

    Have you considered that the issue may because you are not their manager? This is an attitude that has come up for me. People would try to push back on work delegation from me because they felt that since I was not a manager I was trying to ‘push’ more work on them instead of doing it myself. Which was not the case since they had been told by management they would have me delegating them some work. Or they wouldn’t take the reviews I did of the work seriously, since this is not work going towards their performance review. Which also wasn’t true, but it wasn’t as a direct metric as other things. There were a lot of misconceptions on their part about how work in the office should be done.

    So I don’t think it would be weird to go to your boss about this if you continue to get push back. You were directed to delegate work and it should be taken as seriously as any other work.

    1. k.k

      I was suspecting there might be some misunderstanding of the chain of command here. Perhaps the junior employee knows that OP will sometimes delegate work to her, but doesn’t realize that OP is her senior (or to what extent) and that they are in the right to give feedback. If she sees OP as more of a peer, she’s probably annoyed and feels like OP is butting in. There could be a benefit of OP talking to their boss so that they can all get on the same page, and make it clear to the employee that OP is in the right to provide this feedback.

      1. Lynca

        That’s what was going on in most of my situations. They viewed me as a peer and not as a senior employee with management backing to delegate.

        It took a meeting or two to get most of them on the same page. They were used to a more direct, line manager delegation and thought every workplace was like that.

  51. Miss Betty

    I’m surprised thst every mention of earbuds assumes they’re for listening to music or to signal Do Not Disturb. Am i actually the only commenter whose job requires them? Some type of earbud or headphone is necessary when doing transcription from dictation and the volume doesn’t have to be high to prevent hearing what’s going on around you. I’m also surprised at how many of you can turn the volume down enough to hear outside noise and still hear what you’re listening to – y’all must have phenomenal hearing! I can have mine in and be paused in my transcription and still not hear someone talking to me. My hearing is fine – yes, it’s been tested – but putting something in my ears definitely dulls it, then add in someone dictating right into my ears and I won’t hear you talking to me. (The best way to get my attention is to get in my line of sight. Please don’t touch me or sneak up behind me.)

    1. Eye of Sauron

      I think your situation is different than most. You need to be able to clearly hear what you are transcribing and you are concentrating and actively listening the audible content vs. someone using headphones for background noise.

      I think the OP is working with the 2nd group and not the first.

    2. Kelly L.

      Transcription is hard AF. I did a little of it last year and found it one of the more difficult things that’s come up in my job. All the rewinding to try to decipher somebody’s mumbling, all the trying to hear people over random room noise that happened to be closer to the recorder…acccckkkk. It was way different from just listening to some tunes, which is what I’d be doing if I wore earbuds most of the time.

  52. MLB

    I think the answers for #2 are making things way more complicated than they need to be. Honestly if the office allows you to wear headphones, you shouldn’t have the volume up so loud that you can’t hear anything around you. But that’s beside the point. Everyone is different, and some may startle with a knock or tapping them on the shoulder. I would suggest to just ask someone how they would like for you to get their attention. Clearly you can’t ask every single person, but maybe the ones you don’t know as well and need to talk to on a regular basis?

    1. Windchime

      For some of us, drowning out distracting co-worker noise is the entire point of wearing headphones. If I’ve got some complicated code to debug, I have to do something to block out the people who are chatting and laughing and fooling around in the office. For most people, it’s hard to do complex work with a bunch of noisy distractions.

  53. joriley

    I have a follow-up question to #5. My boyfriend works in a retail store; when he works overtime he gets paid for those hours at his normal hourly rate into his paycheck and half again in store credit. (So it totals time-and-a-half, but he doesn’t get it all in cash.) He’s fine with this because he uses the store credit, but I’ve always wondered: is that legal?

    1. Eye of Sauron

      Yuck… that sounds crappy. Have no idea if it’s legal but it definitely sucks. What if your boyfriend didn’t want to buy anything from the store?

      1. joriley

        Yeah, it is crappy. For him it’s fine because he would spend money there anyway (the store sells things for his primary hobby and he buys things in cash there when he’s out of store credit). But some of his coworkers have thousands of dollars built up in store credit from working overtime! I said below that I think they can cash it out when they leave, but that’s not very helpful to them now.

    2. CAA

      If his work meets the definition of overtime under the FLSA or his state’s law, then it’s not legal to pay him in store credit since that’s a type of scrip (unless the store credit can be converted to cash upon request). If he’s working longer than usual hours that don’t meet the legal definition of overtime, then it’s fine.

      Here’s the reference to the federal regulations that are based on the FLSA: https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/531.34

      1. joriley

        Good to know! I think it can be converted into cash when you leave, but based on that link it looks like scrip only counts if it’s converted within the pay period (which it’s not).

    3. WellRed

      Yeah, how is this different then my employer telling me exactly where I can spend my money (especially if it benefits them!) Your store credit don’t pay my rent.

    4. Elizabeth West

      You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
      Another day older and deeper in debt.
      Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go —
      I owe my soul to the company store.

  54. Emi.

    My MIL’s supervisor lets her take comptime instead of OT pay, which she’s very happy with, but my husband and I are very unhappy with her. How petty would it be to drop a dime on this? :P

    1. CAA

      Very. It’s fine to tell her that what they’re doing is illegal and give her the information to make a wage claim herself. It is not o.k. to take over and do this for another adult.

    2. LCL

      I do work for a place that allows the accrual of comp time. I would never inform on someone else’s workplace if they didn’t ask for my help. I would and I have told the story of a friend who lost all of his comp time and his last two weeks of pay when the business folded. He was this. close. to being homeless. Not to mention the sting of having worked all those hours for free.

  55. clow

    #4 makes me angry. It is super common for people to have tests in my industry, hours of time taken out of a week, enough work that the company could use it it many cases, and all in the hopes that you will possibly get a job. It is also common to find out someone used that work down the line. I understand that companies wish to assess a person’s skills, but many times in my experience, they ask for things that they can easily use later. I was once asked for such an extensive amount of work (a weeks worth of work, that could easily be used by the company later) that I just said I was no longer interested in the position, and this was all before a phone interview. I am wondering how one can go about protecting themselves from companies stealing work under the guise they want to hire people. I imagine that they can get a lot done for free if they had enough candidates.

  56. Dust Bunny

    LW2: My feeling is that if I’m going to wear headphones, I have to expect that people may tap me on the shoulder or something to get my attention. That’s the trade-off. Tap the desk next to them if you don’t want to touch them, but, otherwise, if people can’t hear you, they have to be OK with having their attention gotten some other way.

  57. Katherine

    #4: When you said that the interviewer told you it had to be “suitable for posting on the website” my antennae went way up. Years ago, I had a phone interview to write a college guide for my university (I had just graduated.) After the interview, he said he was going to send me a writing test- a series of questions about the university that I should answer “as in-depthly as possible” (direct quote.) The test was like 100 questions – things like “do students own computers” (it was a long time ago, ha), really nitty-gritty stuff. Clearly, they were trying to get me to write the guide for free. This sounds like it may have been the same thing…maybe there was no job at all, but wow, you wouldn’t expect a law school to be pulling this crap!! I also went to law school and there’s such a focus on integrity, honor system, we are professionals, etc. Is the person still affiliated with the law school? Is your writing still on the website? If so, I’d follow up, even though some time has passed.

  58. Busibee

    The headphones question is giving me flashbacks to when I worked in closed captioning. Everyone wore headphones and the accepted rule was to knock on someone’s desk to get their attention. There was one guy who was absolutely bonkers and one of his moves was to say goodbye to everyone when he left, which meant he would silently stand next to you until you took off your headphones and acknowledged him. I got annoyed with it so I just started ignoring him. He upped the ante a couple of times by PUTTING HIS FACE 2 inches away from mine to get my attention. I finally took off my headphones one day and said, “Please stop doing that! It freaks me out!” After that he made a point of saying goodbye to everyone and deliberately ignoring me, which was wonderful.

  59. Cordoba

    The problem with headphones and earbuds is that they can mean two very different things:
    1) I want to listen to music, but am available to talk if needed.
    2) I am focused on a particular task and do not want to be disturbed unless it’s a true emergency

    There are plenty of examples of both of these in the comments above.

    As the person trying to get the headphone-wearer’s attention I have no way of knowing which of these meanings they are trying to communicate. I assume (1) in the absence of more information.

    Relying on the presence of a widely-used functional item as a way to indicate your availability/mood/workload seems like a bad choice.

    If people mean to communicate (2) I recommend they do it some other way than with headphones. I’ve worked with people who put literal “Do not disturb” signs up in their office or on the back of their chair when they want to be left alone. This is unambiguous and seems to result in far fewer misunderstandings. If folks have large headphones they could even write “do not disturb” on them in big letters.

  60. Drew

    I have an office now, so if I don’t mind being interrupted I leave the door open and people know that even if I’m wearing headphones, they can come by and I’ll take them off. If the door is closed, it either means I’m having a sensitive conversation or I really don’t want to be disturbed. (My desk has me facing the door because I *do not* like having people walk up behind me.)

    This was a continuing problem when I was still out in the bullpen, both because there was no way to prevent people from coming up behind me and because there was no way for me to distinguish between “headphones on for background music” and “headphones on because I have to concentrate and get this done so please email me instead.” I ended up taping little signs to my monitor and desk that said, “Please don’t interrupt me unless this is a Right Now emergency; email me and I’ll deal with it when I reach a stopping point.” That helped, a little, but it turns out that I have a lot of coworkers who can’t tell the difference between ordinary “I’d like this soon” work and Right Now emergencies.

    The best way to get my attention when I’m wearing headphones or earbuds is absolutely to walk into my field of view FROM THE FRONT and wait for me to see you.

  61. Anony McAnonface

    #2 Ah yes, my colleagues liked to come and stand in my blind spot and then tap my shoulder so I would not just leap out of my seat, but also twist weirdly trying to see them. Do not do this.

    I’m with Allison, move into their line of sight (ie, not behind their shoulder ffs) and either rap on the desk like you would a door, or wave/flap your hand in their general direction until they see you. You can also say their name, because we tend to hear that even if we have music on.

    1. Eye of Sauron

      See and to add one more to the pile of preferences, it would drive me nutty to have people slinking into my line of sight. Mostly because in a cube situation, that would mean they are in my unusually large bubble of personal space.

      This is why I think that people just need to be understanding and courteous as much as they can, because there is not a one size fits all answer.

      1. Anony McAnonface

        Yeah, I guess it depends on the desk setup. In my case there was literally no reason for them to be behind me since we weren’t in regular cubicles. In a cubical where your back faces the door, I can see how that would be extremely weird. Unfortunately, it seems like one of those “common sense” things where no one actually uses common sense.

  62. Amber Rose

    #2: I can tell you what my coworkers do: stand silently beside me until I sense them, glance up and jump straight out of my skin.

    I think knocking on the desk (or other convenient surface) is better though. I sometimes knock on walls or door frames or whatever while saying “knock knock” which is a habit I picked up from the only coworker who “knocks” at my cubicle entrance.

  63. designbot

    Another option on LW1 is that a certain amount of mistakes are expected. I know for example that I can’t put together a set of drawings without anyone else looking at it–even as a manager, I absolutely will make a certain number of mistakes, and getting a second set of eyes on it is just like having someone proofread. If that’s the case, then what I’d tell the junior employee is actually to forgo the commentary entirely and just picked up the corrections. By commenting on each one of them she seems defensive IF the situation is one where the mistakes really are just par for the course.

  64. The Original Flavored K

    Re #2: I have PTSD and ADHD — which means that when I focus, I hyperfocus, and I have a massively exaggerated startle reflex. Startling me can lead to me literally jumping out of my seat as if it’s on fire, and I once reacted defensively when a supervisor shook the back of my chair to get my attention.

    Getting people to figure out “do not touch me if I cannot see you” has been the most irritating struggle of my life. And it applies to supervisors, co-workers, romantic partners, and doctors. Comradely back-slaps, shoulder rubs from the honey, tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention, touching a stethoscope to my back to hear my breathing? All of them end in my heartrate jumping up like 20 BPM and not slowing down for three to five minutes, and still feeling shaky from sudden threat adrenaline rush for another fifteen minutes to half an hour AFTER THAT. Which, let me tell you, does _wonders_ for my productivity afterward.

    It’s easier, less intrusive, and more efficient to IM, email, or call me.

  65. BravoMessenger

    I wear headphones to both block out noises and help laser focus on my work in a cubicle environment. A quick rap on my desk or the wall usually gets my attention if I don’t see someone approaching. I wish someone would fling candy my way…

  66. John R

    I’m a tech writer and wear headphones when I need to get a chunk of work done without distraction. In other words, I *deliberately* do it so that, hopefully, people won’t bother me with non-emergency stuff. I stay available via Slack and Email.

    A lot of people in I.T. wear headphones because a small interruption causes much more time waste than you would think. If I’m in the middle of thinking through how to explain a difficult concept to a non-technical worker and someone interrupts me in the middle, it can take 10 minutes to get back to what I was doing. It’s even worse for programmers thinking of complicated algorithms.

    That said, the best way to get my attention in person is just what was suggested–waving your arm in front of me. BUT, if you see someone wearing headphones and they’re hard at work, PLEASE think about whether you actually need to interrupt them or if it’s something that can be handled via email or Slack!

    1. Elizabeth West

      Yep, editing is the same way. I felt like Jack Torrance whenever people interrupted my editing.

      (Google The Shining “Wendy, Let Me Explain Something To You” LOL.)

  67. Nicki Name

    I support waving for #2, if there isn’t an office wall to knock on or knocking produces no effect. (At one past job, we had an “open workspace” where everyone was crammed together in rows facing dividers, so you’d have to reach your arm in between people to even reach their desk.) And definitely trying to stay in their peripheral vision. My experience is that a hand right in front of the face produces the same “Hello! I’ve just Apparated right next to you!” startle effect as tapping someone’s shoulder.

  68. Lauren Hopkins

    #2 My first thought when you said how badly it would scare you if someone tapped you on the shoulder is that the volume on your headphones is probably too loud. As a general rule, you should keep your volume low enough to hear some level of ambient noise (for example, someone calling your name within reasonable earshot) that way you can hear someone trying to get your attention before they have to resort to tapping you on the shoulder (which might startle anyone if they’re not expecting physical contact or if you’re approaching them from behind).

    I’d also suggest putting my hand on their desk so it’s within their eyesight and they can see someone is there without actually needing to touch them. This might still startle a particularly-jumpy person, but will be less jarring to most people.

  69. jojo mcscroggles

    when my coworkers are on their headphones I usually just walk up behind them, slam their face down on the desk and then follow-up with a solid whack with a steel folding chair.

  70. Manager Mary

    #2, look up silent doorbells on Amazon or your preferred site. They make wireless doorbells for people who are hard of hearing that light up or flash instead of making noise and you can find them for $20 or less. Hang the button outside your cube (or on the edge of your desk, somewhere people will see it) with a sign that says “I have earbuds in–please ring the bell!” It works great.

  71. Poked!

    I typically wave /knock in the sight line of said headphones person. And have had the same done to me. If no amount of frantic waving will get the person to look up, I send a chat or an email.

    I once had a boss poke me in the back when I was facing away from my cubicle entrance. It completely unnerved me and while I don’t think he meant anything untoward, it left me feeling like my space had been invaded.

  72. 2horseygirls

    I wear a wireless Bluetooth device for listening to audiobooks while I work. It leaves one ear free to hear things, and I rarely have the volume loud. I can answer the phone, have conversations, get up and move around the office to fulfill requests, even listen to the owner’s latest poetry (don’t even ask . . . sigh) without removing it. I do end up having to back up my book, but otherwise, it is a lot more convenient than wired headphones, and was only $50 or so.

  73. I feel strongly enough about this to actually comment

    As a headphones person myself, my preference is – email or IM me. This might sound ridiculous, but my office is noisy with people talking to clients on the phone, and if I want to concentrate on what I’m doing I need the headphones. Since my attention is focused on the screen, I will immediately notice your message and (depending on whether I’m working on something time-sensitive) take off the headphones and be ready to chat.

    But I hate being snuck up on. If somebody gets close enough to tap me on the shoulder or wave at me and I don’t see them coming I’m both startled and horribly embarrassed.

    There’s nothing wrong with shooting an email to someone ten feet away just as an attention-grabber. A quick “Hey! Got a minute?” will do.

  74. Coffeejn

    As a person who wears headphone at work, the advice provided is spot in. If the person still jumps or reacts negatively, then they are at fault, no you.

    Getting their attention through visual distraction is best.

  75. Lisa

    #2 – I usually knock (some people have music on fairly quietly) and failing that, will get close enough to be in their line of sight. If they really are in another zone I might tap the desk next to them where they can see my hand. I don’t know about others, but I would be super uncomfortable having someone touch me unexpectedly (and I’m generally okay with touching). It just feels really invasive and I’d probably jerk away (especially not knowing who it was until I turned around). Unless you know the person pretty well I’d err on the side of caution.

  76. Non-profiteer

    Consider this my general plea for IMing coworkers before you walk over to their desks. A quick “do you have 2 mins to talk about x?” will result in a MUCH better conversation with me. Not because I think it’s polite, though it is. Because I write and read a lot at my computer, and find it difficult to switch my brain over to listen and speak mode. If I know you’re coming, I can start the transition ahead of time, and potentially prepare to discuss topic x, and we’ll have a more productive conversation.

  77. Inge

    Alison, I noticed a touch of snark when you commented on exceptions to the overtime rule, namely:
    “…(2) if you work for the government (including state universities), since they have conveniently exempted themselves from this law.”

    The snark I hear is mainly coming from your use of “conveniently.” I work for a public library (middle manager, not admin), and I just have to comment on this. Government entities have a fixed budget. It would be burdensome on our operating costs if we had to pay employees overtime. That is what is behind this rule, I believe, so that we can pay them back with time-and-a-half. With private companies, the need for overtime usually represents an increase in business, and hence, revenue, so the requirement to pay employees as a result of that increased revenue makes sense. But public entities do not make any more or less, regardless of what their foot traffic is like. I have given a lot of thought to this, and consider myself a strong advocate of better wages for our employees (in fact I initiated a discussion with our Board of Trustees that resulted in a shift-premium being added for Sunday shifts), but I believe that comp-time is a very elegant, and frankly fair, solution for government employees.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I actually have no problem with government employees being able to get comp time — I think many employees prefer having the extra time versus the extra money. But I do think it’s unfair that the government is willing to make an exception for itself but not for anyone else. I definitely get your argument about government entities having fixed budgets — but I don’t think it’s true across the board that for everyone else overtime represents an increase in business. It’s definitely not true for most nonprofits, for example — and often isn’t for small, struggling businesses as well. So I’m uncomfortable with having one rule for government and one rule for the governed.

      1. Inge

        “I think many employees prefer having the extra time versus the extra money.”
        You are spot on, with that observation. I have seen the same. I also appreciate your clarifying the double standard of government getting this option versus business — I didn’t get that the first time around. I think you are right. This should probably be an option available to more organizations. I’d have to think more carefully about it before making a firm opinion, but you’ve opened my mind.

      2. nonprofit director

        I agree with Alison about nonprofits. We cannot afford to pay overtime and our work is somewhat seasonal. We would love to be able to offer comp time for the slower times in exchange for asking employees to work more when it’s busy. However, we cannot do that and we end up struggling when it’s busy. I really do wish it could be up to the employee, rather than legislated as if all employers were the same.

  78. LadyD

    #2. Some people may be wearing headphones as part of a workplace accommodation, so tapping their shoulder or knocking on their desk could end up being extremely intrusive and disruptive. Finding the least intrusive way available to get their attention would be ideal, like IM or e-mail. For people that you interact with a lot who wear headphones, you could also ask them how they would prefer to be interrupted when you need to speak with them when they’re wearing headphones. That way you’re not left guessing as much.

  79. AlarmedOtter

    People scare me when I’m wearing headphones all the time. I figure it’s part of the risk I take for wearing headphones, and I accept that. It’s never occurred to me to be angry with the person who scared/surprised me. Chalk it up to something that isn’t your problem LW#2!

    1. last year's girl

      I’d agree with this. I’m a headphones wearer, but I do it because it makes my working environment more pleasant (and stops me being distracted by noisy co-workers when I need to concentrate). It’s not a workplace accommodation, so it’s my responsibility to make sure that I’m not preventing other people from working effectively by making them have to jump through hoops in order to be able to talk to me.

      That said, I work in an environment where headphones aren’t typical, and obviously the position is different if colleagues are wearing headphones as part of a reasonable adjustment/official accommodation.

  80. stej

    I’ve seen getting everyone on a messenger platform like Slack works great for asking quick questions (even if you’re right across from the person) or requesting some time to chat. It is especially an issue in open-office environments where everyone has some sort of noise-blocker on.

  81. The Rat-Catcher

    OP #1: I do this sometimes and for me it’s because I’m trying not to cry. I know that’s an inappropriate thing to do, but when I try a response like that, it comes off like I don’t care, I guess? Sometimes I try explaining my reasoning, but I recently read a letter here seeming to say that might not be welcome either.
    For me, it feels like sometimes there is a very exact mix of regret, openness, and composure that is expected when receiving criticism, and I can’t quite hit that note genuinely, and when I try to manufacture it, it comes off sarcastically.

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