I don’t want my employees to wear headphones

A reader writes:

I have two I.T. employees who like to wear headphones, not earbuds, at their desks during business hours. It’s awkward when someone approaches them for support and there’s a brief waiting period for the employee to remove the headphones and acknowledge the person. I find this unnerving when I approach either of them and have to wait, and suspect many of my users may feel the same. In addition, I think it simply looks bad for I.T. support.

I met with one of those employees today to discuss my management rule to use earbuds instead. 10 minutes after this meeting, I saw this employee with the headphones on in complete disregard. This employee was quite upset when I reminded him that we had just discussed it. He stated there wasn’t a company policy about it. At this point, I told him this was my rule and he then made a beeline to HR. So, can a manager make department rules? Do we have that flexibility?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I saw my coworker with the spouse who assaulted her
  • My manager is asking me for twice-a-day reporting on how I’m spending my time
  • I don’t want to tell my manager what I’m getting physical therapy for
  • Should I let a company know that I’m declining their offer because of how long they took to get it to me?

{ 436 comments… read them below }

  1. Dragoning*

    Yeah, this headphone rule seems sorta crazy. Earbuds are the same thing with the same problem, just less noticeable, and thus less likely to cause people to know they need to get the employee’s attention.

    In addition–earbuds are uncomfortable as heck for a lot of people (me included) and over-the-ear headphones are typically far, far better for your ears and hearing.

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      I came here to say this, too. I expected them to want no listening devices, but imposing one form over another seems…capricious. Granted, the employee should have also responded better (first, not ignoring the manager, and two, prompting a more productive discussion as opposed to running to HR)–both need a reality check.

      1. CmdrShepard4ever*

        I wear over ear headphones at work all the time. My desk faces my door and my computer monitor setup allows me to see when anyone walks by or enters my office. I can usually take them off before anyone starts talking to me. Often if people see I don’t have my headphones they will walk in and start talking right away, but if they see I have my headphones in they will wait a second or two until I have them off. I try to be responsive so I take my headphones off if it even seems like someone is coming to speak to me. On occasions I have worn earbuds, or hooked earbuds that are less noticeable and people have walked in and started talking before I have taken them out, when this happens I have to ask them to repeat themselves.

        I wear my over ear headphones most of the day because the music/podcast I like to listen to is not the most appropriate for the office and to not distract others with my music/podcast. To be clear my music is not extremely inappropriate (I consider midday lite radio songs to be appropriate) just typical alternative, rock, rap, country, musical theater that has swears.

        But everyone knows that they can approach me when I have headphones in and all it means is I am listening to music/podcast. While having the IT staff appear approachable is a valid concern often times the reasons for someone seeming unapproachable are different from wearing headphones.

    2. Arya Snark*

      Same here – I cannot wear earbuds for more than 5 minutes without significant pain due to my apparently smaller than average ear holes. Over the ear headphones also enable me to hear more of what is going on around me, thus making me MORE responsive.

        1. MayLou*

          Another tiny ear person chiming in! I wear noise cancelling headphones sometimes to block out my colleagues’ chatting, or their legitimate work calls (we’re a telephone based casework agency so there are a lot of calls every day). Telling me I had to use earbuds would be functionally the same as telling me I couldn’t block out distracting noise, and my productivity would drop.

          1. headphone lover*

            My noise cancelling headphones are life savers. I don’t know how I could work in a loud office without them.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          I had specially made silicone covers that confirm to my ear shape to go over the earbuds because over the ear headphones give me headaches. OP should realize that not everything is a one size fits all situation.

      1. Moonbeam Malone*

        Same! Personally I like the clip-on over-ear phones for when I’m on-the-go but they don’t sell them in stores anymore so I have to order them online.

        1. Arya Snark*

          I have a pair of Bose headphones that are like earbuds but they sit loosely in the ear and have a soft over the ear part that holds everything in place. I got them a few years ago at Costco – they were $90 but well worth it. HIGHLY recommended!

      2. Kimberly*

        I have both contact and atopic dermatitis. The skin where ear pods touch will get inflamed and break down.

    3. Hope*

      Yes, this. Most earbuds are way too big for my ears. Even the ones that come with small sizing are often too big, and wearing them makes my ears hurt after a half hour or so. Earphones work better because it also signals to other people that I can’t hear them initially.

    4. becca*

      I wonder how long ago the original letter was. I think the headphones/ear buds at work thing is something that has changed somewhat rapidly, and in the last 3-5 years.

    5. dealing with dragons*

      they’re also worse for your hearing, in the long run. I also have issues with people noticing me wearing earbuds since I have long hair and you can’t see my ears.

      1. Dragoning*

        Ahhh, I actually meant “worse for your ears [in the long run]” when I typed that. I guess it could be interpreted as “in the moment” though.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Technically I’ve been wearing headphones at work a lot lately — but I’m not playing anything on them. I’m just using it to muffle the ongoing office chatter.
      Also add me to the list of people who find earbuds painful.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I use them if I need to listen to a voicemail message or a video for work, and then I just leave them on until I remember that I can take them off.

        I find sometimes that it helps me concentrate; There isn’t any noise–it just helps me be in in the zone.

    7. Amber Rose*

      It’s a requirement where I work, and you can only use one earbud. That way you have one ear that people can get your attention from, and you can hear what’s going on around you.

      1. Dragoning*

        I actually do that with headphones, though. I slot them on my head so only one ear is covered.

      2. BeenThereOG*

        That doesn’t work for everyone. There are large numbers of people with only one functioning ear, myself included. I’ve been asked to do this in an office setting before and it forced me to disclose my disability to someone who was a complete ass about it. When it comes to headphone please alway either go for all or nothing. In between policies have unforeseen consequences.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Yeah, but I’m pretty sure my boss just hates headphones. Probably anyone deaf in one ear would still either have to wear one earbud or just go without.

      3. Windchime*

        I cannot function with one earbud/headphone on. To me, it’s like listening to the TV and the radio at the same time and makes it more difficult to concentrate. I need my noise-cancelling headphones. I probably only wear them an hour or two a day, but it would pretty much be a deal-breaker if my boss told me I couldn’t wear them any longer.

    8. Nonny*

      It’s reeks of petty power trip honestly. If I were one her employees I’d be pretty irritated too.

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        Yeah. “I don’t like how you look when you work, and also, I resent the 2-second wait I have to do to get your attention when you’re working on something. Clearly, your need to focus and work productively and comfortably the entire day is not as important as my 2-second wait! Off with them!”

        It’s douchey.

    9. Anonymeece*

      Earbuds don’t work for me either. I have kind of weird looking ears and they literally fall out of my head if I move even the slightest bit.

      They’re also more likely to cause hearing damage, I think.

      1. Unknown*

        I can’t wear them because I have eczema in one ear. My ear is always on the verge of being itchy and flaky/crusty and I have gotten infections before from my itching it too much. Earbuds just irritate my ear and make it itchy.

    10. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      It seems to me that OP simply doesn’t like the look of headphones, because the “feeling awkward, waiting for him to remove them” doesn’t make sense. How many times have you walked up on someone and started talking before realizing they have earbuds in?
      Only once today for me.
      If you don’t like headphones, you have to say you don’t like headphones. You can’t say that headphones cause more communication issues than earbuds, because they actually cause fewer. If this is the hill you want to die on, you have to ban headphones across the board.

      1. headphone lover*

        When people wear earphones, nobody even realizes it, so (some) coworkers tend to call out someone’s name “Jennifer?” then progressively louder and louder until it’s at a screaming level “JENNIFER? JENNIFER!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?”

        It would actually be much less distracting if Jennifer was wearing headphones. Then the annoying screamer person might have enough sense to say to themselves, “Ah, Jennifer is wearing headphones. I’ll act like a normal person and walk over to her.”

        (Personal opinion anyone should wear what they want. I just think earphones and headphones both pose this “Oh I have to get their attention” thing.)

      2. TootsNYC*

        also, someone might be on the phone, or concentrating and finishing their thought, and you’d still have to wait.

      3. LCL*

        Another generational things. Putting on over the ear (OTE) headphones appears as though the wearer is deliberately shutting out the rest of the world, and was a common way to message ‘eff off and leave me alone.’ So they can appear to some people as a minor but in your face gesture. Of course, the people who wear them nowadays are usually in noisy environments and just trying to get some work done, and aren’t aware of these old associations, and often respond with a combination of bafflement and resentment that anyone would object to OTE ‘phones.

        My only should in this is if the place is that noisy, the noise levels should be checked. And then consult an audiologist to find out if wearing headphones is even a safe solution. It is possible that wearing either type of headphones in a noisy environment can exacerbate hearing loss. All you people who want an end to noisy open offices should try approaching the noise as a health and safety problem.

        1. KEWLM0M*

          I appreciate your comment so much! It irritates me no end that my spouse has taken to wearing headphones, all day, every day, but could not articulate exactly why. Did not know it was a generational thing – makes sense; thanks!

          1. bleh*

            It also signifies a generational desire to avoid anything communal and have everything in their world exactly as they would curate it.

          2. Traffic_Spiral*

            Yeah, but my boss ain’t my wife, and there’s a lot of things you do to keep a spouse happy that you don’t do for your boss.

        2. Pandop*

          Can we please stop assuming that this is generational, especially after so many people have told you that earbuds cause them pain (and I am another on that list, they are excruciatingly painful right up until the moment they fall out)

          1. Beehoppy*

            I think LCL is saying the strong negative reaction to seeing someone in headphones may be generational, not the choice to wear headphones over earbuds itself.

    11. Dahlia*

      I have found exactly one brand of earbuds that doesn’t cause me physical pain after short using. And that was pure luck.

    12. Ellex*

      Oddly enough, I prefer earbuds (only certain types, though) comfortable and headphones uncomfortable. Regardless, the main point of putting anything in or over my ears is to block out the noise of my coworkers (foot tapping, pen tapping, pen clicking, paper shuffling, conversations between coworkers, phone conversations…someone is beatboxing right now, I’m not even joking) so I can actually concentrate on my work.

      I really don’t understand why someone would ban headphones but not earbuds. I can’t imagine any appreciable difference in the time needed to remove them, and the “looks bad” part is just ridiculous.

      1. Gatomon*

        I prefer earbuds too, headphones crush my glasses against my skull and cause me pain. I’d love noise-canceling headphones so I don’t have to destroy my hearing but I can’t tolerate the headaches headphones cause. I also agree that the distinction is weird because the net effect (people have to wait to talk to you, you look “unapproachable”) is the same.

        My earbuds are a lifeline for me at work. I don’t know how I’d survive being slotted next to the conference room and the bathrooms and the main path around our cube farm without them.

        1. alphabet soup*

          Ugh, yes… it can be so hard to wear headphones when you also wear glasses. I’ve found “street style” headphones to be more comfortable when it comes to glasses. Instead of wearing them on top of your head, you wear them around the back of your neck, and the headphones clip over your ears from behind, so it puts less pressure on the top of your ears which are supporting the glasses.

    13. Works in IT*

      I also came here to say this. I CAN’T wear earbuds, as I wear hearing aids instead, and even before I got the hearing aids wearing earbuds was horribly uncomfortable. Headphones over my hearing aids is the only thing I can do when I want to block out outside noises and concentrate. I would not be happy if hearing typical people who can wear earbuds got to continue to enjoy a perk that allows them to concentrate better and I did not because I have other speakers in my ears already. It would be one thing if listening to something to focus was banned for everyone, but only for people who can’t use earbuds? Ick.

      1. nonegiven*

        My dad wore the behind the ear type of hearing aids. When family gatherings got too loud for him, he’d turn them off.

    14. zapateria la bailarina*

      exactly. they both present the same exact problem. in fact i would say earbuds are a worse problem because it can be harder to see them so people will start talking to you and then you have to take them out and have the person repeat themselves (this used to happen to me a lot). at least with over-the-ear headphones everyone can see that they need to get your attention first.

    15. Yikes*

      Earbuds are SO uncomfortable and the manager is coming off as a micromanaging jerk.

      Also, if anything, aren’t headphones better because it’s obvious to everyone you have them on, and the know they need to get your attention first, whereas earbuds could go unnoticed since they’re less visible, and then the speaker could wind up confused/offended that the other person isn’t responding?

    16. mouses*

      Earbuds can also raise ear wax accumulation, cause ear infections, gather dirt and bacteria, give birth to germs and make your eardrums burst even if they’d feel completely comfortable. Headphones are healthier.

    17. Luna*

      I’m one of the people that cannot wear the over-the-ear headpones for very long because they get uncomfortable; they press on the stems of my glasses, and I get headaches more easily. I use the small earphones, but not the goes-inside-the-ear types that look like plugs. Makes me feel like I can hear my brain working.
      Though if I had a job that allowed you to listen to your own music/sounds while working, that’d be cool — while working nightshift at a hotel, I was able to listen to the webradio after the hotel bar closed for the night. And only one earphone being used, so I was always able to hear people approaching.

    18. Dean J*

      Came here to say this; earbuds are far, far worse than headphones, because they still can’t hear, but people can’t see that they can’t hear.

      If they’re doing other work that also requires focus, this is just a doubly bizarre request.

  2. TriCrazy73*

    Hi! I am new here. I wear earbuds to help me focus at work. I would assume that most people who wear headphones/earbuds use them for that purpose.
    My question is…what is the difference, to you, between headphones and earbuds. They would still have to take the earbuds out just like taking headphones off. Just confused as to why is one okay but not the other?

    1. Yvette*

      I think it is the visual of headphones, they are more obvious and some people see them as sending out a “do not disturb” vibe.

      1. Karen from Finance*

        Which, they probably are, in the sense you’re using the to be focused. I don’t see how this is rude in a workspace.

    2. Parenthetically*

      Yeah, I think for this LW it’s the look of it, but I think it’s a distinction without a difference. If they’re allowed to wear earphones, they should be allowed to wear headphones.

    3. a1*

      I’m not saying I agree with this, but I think they see taking out earbuds as a lot easier and less “showy”. You can just gently tug on the wire and the earbud pops out. Removing the over the ear headphones requires reaching up, lifting then off and setting them down, or lifting them off and draping around your neck.

  3. Lilac*

    When someone is wearing headphones at my work, I gently wave at the side of them to get their attention without touching them or scaring them. It’s…not hard.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I will say, it definitely sends a signal “I am trying tune everybody out and concentrate on something else.” So if these IT roles are solely to provide support to internal customers, it is kind of off-putting.

      1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

        That’s the signal I’m generally trying to send.
        In fact, I now have the ok from my manager to wear them for exactly this purpose (including as a signal to her to not interrupt me) on days where I can’t simply work from home.

        I would say it depends on the “branch” of IT that is being managed: ticketed support system = no headphones or earbuds, you need to be interruptible at all times (sorry, that’s the nature of the job); vs software developer = headphones because you need to concentrate on not writing code that’ll need 87 patches before it works properly!

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          Yeah don’t get me wrong, that’s how we use them in our open office: they literally mean, “I’m really trying to pretend we’re not in an open office, please don’t interrupt me / pretend I’m not here / just go away k thanx.” For that reason, we prefer to use big bulky visible ones.

        2. MayLou*

          I haven’t worked in many places with ticket support systems but I’d have assumed that the purpose of a ticket system was to remove the requirement for people to track down an IT member in person to place their request. I can’t see how headphones would interfere with the ability to read an email or a ticket notification, or prevent people from sending them over through the system.

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            I’m confused about that too. We have a ticket system and it means I’m NOT supposed to go up to IT and ask them for help. Headphones would seem to be perfectly appropriate for that role.

            1. my two cents*

              But, it’d be difficult to wear headphones or earbuds if they’re expected to also answer incoming phone calls at all.

              Personally, I’d loathe having to ‘request permission to speak’ every time, but only if they are in turn otherwise able to shout at and interrupt me (because I just do not ever wear headphones). As in, if I’m having to walk across the office to talk to them anyway…who cares if I wait a microsecond? But if we’re in the same common space, ugggggh I do not want to be the only one having to ask for someone else’s time while they can just blurt out whatever/whenever at my naked ears.

              1. sunny-dee*

                Honestly, almost any IT department using a ticketing system wouldn’t really have call support as one of the common communication methods. They’re supposed to use the ticketing system (for prioritizing, for tracking, for management visibility). They don’t generally do in-person support.

                1. doreen*

                  As far as I can tell, my job has a ticketing system – but for a lot of issues ( such as password resets) , I’m supposed to call the helpdesk, they solve the problem and almost simultaneously create and close the ticket. If they can’t solve the problem, they still create the ticket.

                2. Jadelyn*

                  Just anecdotally, this is not at all true ime. Most places I’ve been that had a ticket system *also* utilized some level of phone support.

                3. NotAnotherManager!*

                  At every organization I’ve worked in during my career, the help desk ticketing system was only available to the IS department, and you have to call or email for actual support. All calls/emails are logged for tracking and trend analysis purposes.

                  I am dying laughing at the idea of an attorney entering their own support ticket and being give no potion for phone support. There would be a mutiny and certainly an ouster of the CIO.

              2. Koala dreams*

                Isn’t it easier to answer incoming phone calls if you are already wearing headphones/earbuds? Nowaday most headphones/earbuds come with microphones built in so it’s super easy to answer phone calls.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            I’m confused about that as well – wouldn’t it defy the purpose of a ticket?


            1) as a customer of IT support, I would be really peeved if I’d opened a ticket for something critical, they started working on it, and were then forced to stop working on my ticket because someone else had walked up to their desk and they have to be interruptible at all times

            2) I’ve seen the IT tickets at my workplace: a good deal of them have to do with upgrading or deploying software on production servers. I am getting a lowkey anxiety attack trying to imagine what might happen if an IT support person is working on such a ticket, and random coworkers keep walking up to their desk and interrupting them, because they can. Not even trying to imagine if there’s an expectation of “and then he needs to pause work on his production server or whatever and start working on my issue, because I physically came to his desk” – I start dry-heaving when I try to think of that.

        3. The Cosmic Avenger*

          It’s funny you say “ticketed support system”, because I was thinking that when I’ve used ticketing systems, we were constantly redirecting users to input their issues directly into the ticketing system so we could prioritize and organize the requests. Going to the desk of one of the support staff was a way users would try to jump the ticket queue and get their issue taken care of immediately. But I know it’s not like that everywhere, which goes back to your main point, “it depends”.

        4. Parenthetically*

          ticketed support system = no headphones or earbuds, you need to be interruptible at all times

          Huh, count me as another one who would think that the point of a ticket system is that it routes through the system so you DON’T have to go down to IT and chat with the IT guy.

          1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

            Sorry, should have been clearer. My hubby works in the ticket support side of IT (raising a ticket by sending an email, rather than a separate system), and he needs to be interruptable by phone and in person as well as email since the majority of “tickets” actually involve people being unable to use the ticketing system or phone due to network/telephony issues. Doesn’t necessarily warrant a “chat with the IT guy” (he does his chatting while at his customers’ desks fixing their issues!)

            1. Parenthetically*

              the majority of “tickets” actually involve people being unable to use the ticketing system or phone due to network/telephony issues

              Oh nooooooooooooooo

              1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

                Yeah – they’re in the middle of several simultaneous upgrades (the tech director is a twit) and it’s… not going well!

        5. Gail Davidson-Durst*

          Yeah, I was thinking the manager would do much better to set up a ticketing system where people can put in a request in an orderly fashion rather than running up to the IT folks’ desks. Even though their job is fixing stuff for people, it seems like a terrible approach to have them always switching to “latest and loudest” and never having a time where they can focus on figuring out fixes!

        6. Anax*

          Yep! Was coming to say exactly that – for me, it’s a very deliberate signal, ‘please only interrupt me if it’s important because I’m concentrating.’ Sometimes it takes half an hour to get back into the zone, when I’m working on a tough patch, and that’s not always obvious to folks who ‘just need me for a second’.

          Software development in particular often involves holding a ton of information in the brain all at once. For a rough analogy, imagine that you were trying to write a twenty-page English paper comparing the themes of six different books, and just when you have your books open to the citations you want to reference, and you’re figuring out how to state this elegant thesis… someone comes up behind you and starts asking about math homework.

          “IT support” can include positions with that kind of dedicated concentration, depending on what exactly they’re doing – and if they’re in that sort of position, headphones would be super justified.

          1. Windchime*

            It’s more like they start asking you about math homework after slamming your six books shut. It can take a long, long time to get back to where you were before being interrupted.

            Most of the time when I’m wearing headphones, it’s because there is so much conversation and noise all around me that I literally cannot hear myself think. So I need my noise-cancelling headphones and my white noise app to block it out.

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          If you’re the help desk and your primary role is to help people with IT issues, I guess. I have no idea if that’s this employee’s primary role or not though.

        2. Jadelyn*

          Helpdesk techs. Smaller companies likely won’t have someone dedicated only to end-user internal support, but larger companies very much will. My org has a team of 3 dedicated end-user support reps.

          1. goducks*

            Agreed. Either you need to be 100% instantly available (no earbuds or headphones) or you don’t.

            For what it’s worth, if I have to approach someone, I would rather they have headphones than earbuds, because at least I can see that they’re not going to be able to hear me. Earbuds, especially wireless ones, can be difficult to see.

    2. Melissa*

      I wish that worked in my office. My cube faces out, with my back to the wall. So the obvious way to get my attention is to stand in the walkway, in my line of sight. I’m extremely responsive there, because I can see people approaching, and I tend to ull my earbuds out as people approach. But a few coworkers try to get my attention by coming in through my meighbor’s cube, and standing silently, sort of behind me in a blond spot. Basically, they take the back door into my cube, and just STAND there.
      It’s not causing any problems beyond startling me when they get impatient and touch me, or my neighbor says “She can’t SEE you from behind. “ But it sure is annoying.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      Literally came here to say this. You wanted an open office, LW, you live with the consequences.

      1. Lucette Kensack*

        I mean, I hate open offices as much as the next person, but this is a bit of a silly response. A manager can’t suddenly conjure up a different office design — and there’s nothing to suggest that the LW wanted an open office in the first place.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Then we can have a great debate when a manager starts with “we don’t have a policy to keep the door open but I prefer it, it unnerves me with closed doors and knocking vs just entering, etc. So I made Jimmy and Nelly start keeping their door open and they’re mad about it, now what?”

      I listen to music in my office. I still have to adjust it when someone comes in to chat.

  4. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    Lining up on team “what is the functional difference between headphones and earbuds that makes one okay and not the other” right here.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Around-the-ear headphones may be sound-cancelling / sound-reducing compared to the average earbud.

        1. Avatre*

          Having researched a lot of those as a possible purchase for myself—noise-cancelling earbuds are frequently bulkier than regular earbuds. There’s an extra chunk that sits in your outer ear, generally. The one pair I’ve owned was actually painful for me to wear for too long because of that. Plus if they’re wired, you end up with a bulky battery pack attached to the cord (I’m not sure where they put it on wireless pairs).

          Now, remember all those comments above from people with small or oddly-shaped ears/ear canals who just cannot do earbuds, period?

          Also, low-end noise-cancelling headphones are easier to find than low-end noise-cancelling earbuds, for those on tight budgets.

          tl;dr: It seems like it should be a one-to-one replacement but it’s actually not.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        But they are also more difficult for the visitor to notice when s/he walks up and starts talking.

    2. JanetM*

      Appearance? Headphones are more visible and therefore more off-putting? I don’t know.

    3. mark132*

      I wouldn’t look too hard for any particularly good rationale. I think it’s really just this manager’s personal bias.

      1. Marthooh*

        I want to amplify thi response, so—

        Cheerleader: Gimme a W!
        Team: W!
        Cheerleader: Gimme an H!
        Team: H!
        Cheerleader: Gimme an A!

        Twenty minutes later…
        Cheerleader: What’s that spell?
        Team: What’s the functional difference between headphones and earbuds that makes one okay and not the other, raaaahhhhhh!

  5. sam*

    On the earbuds…

    earbuds can be even more irritating, because they’re not as obvious to other people who will often just start talking without realizing that the earbud-wearer can’t hear them (I wear giant headphones on the subway SPECIFICALLY as a signal that I am not available to speak. That doesn’t work as well with earbuds hidden by my hair). Also, some people legitimately can’t wear them because they can cause ear problems.

    Also also, she got annoyed because she saw one of the offenders wearing headphones ten minutes later? Did she just expect all of her workers to be walking around with a variety of different kinds of headphones/earbuds just in case someone complained about their normal headphones? If you are going to make this silly rule, at least give your employees a few days to, you know, actually get new headphones.

    1. MommyMD*

      Or employee could be a grown up and finish the shift without ear buds or head phones. And then running to HR? Rolleyes. Sometimes people need to remember they are at Work.

        1. thestik*

          Honestly this is the first comment of hers that I’ve seen that could even remotely be considered rude.

            1. VelociraptorAttack*

              Come on, it’s a little rich to be rude to another person when you’re referring to someone’s supposed trend of rude comments.

              There are a ton of ways to get your point that you clearly feel her comments tend to be rude across without being rude to someone who doesn’t agree with you.

            2. Jule*

              I laughed out loud at this because it’s so blatantly much ruder than Mommy MD’s initial comment. So thanks for that!

          1. Parenthetically*

            MommyMD pretty frequently takes the least charitable interpretation of an employee’s behavior and comments accordingly.

            1. Tinker*

              The pattern that I expect is something more like expecting and sometimes supporting highly autocratic behavior on the part of managers — “Boss is Boss and you better obey Boss instantly without any backtalk because Boss will have you out on your ear if you give them any sass” — but basically yeah.

              I’ve never been quite sure whether that’s more of a “that’s how my managers treat me, so I give advice to other people based on the assumption that it’s how the working world works everywhere” thing or a “that’s how I treat my direct reports, because I think that’s the right way to be” thing.

          1. thestik*

            Man, I missed this one. I admit I’m taking umbrage at on fleek. It in fact makes me want to double down on my stance that the original comment wasn’t rude. Blunt? Yes. Rude? Not so much.

        2. Jadelyn*

          The phrasing may not have been particularly gentle, but the point is valid. If your manager says “Instead of item A, I need you to use item B” for something that is totally optional, and you don’t have item B available, the solution is not to just keep using item A – it’s to stop using item A, and bring item B in the next day (or whenever you can get your hands on it).

          And especially with the fact that the employee’s response was to argue about company policy (???) and then go to HR (??????!?!?!!?), this definitely seems less like “Oh, I don’t have earbuds, I’ll just use my headphones today then bring earbuds tomorrow” and more “f*** you, I like my headphones, I’m going to keep using them anyway.”

      1. Bend & Snap*

        Since when do headphones = not an adult? For may people, they’re the only thing that helps us concentrate in open offices. They’re also a regular part of AAM advice on dealing with noise at work.

        1. Lance*

          Yes. Different people work, and indeed concentrate, differently. I for one can’t stand utter silence (or, alternatively, the sounds of coworkers off in other cubes having conversations), so I need a bit of music playing to concentrate well… thus, headphones/earbuds, since I’d rather not bother coworkers. I can concentrate without them, sure, but it’s not near as easy.

        2. Jadelyn*

          I think you’re misinterpreting MommyMD’s comment – it’s not that people using headphones are not being adults, it’s that deciding “I can’t immediately fulfill the entirety of my manager’s directive (no headphones, only earbuds), therefore I’m going to ignore it entirely instead of abiding by the part of it I can fulfill (just the no headphones part)” is not a particularly mature way to respond to the situation.

      2. PersistentCat*

        Or maybe the headphones are an accommodation in place from when they started and they wanted to check with HR before pushing back. Just saying, legit reasons to go to HR exist MommyMD

        1. Jadelyn*

          Legit reasons to go to HR do exist, yes, but the employee didn’t just go to HR, he argued that there’s no company policy about it (the implication being, I don’t have to do what my manager says unless the handbook also says it, which is borderline insubordinate), and THEN went to HR. That doesn’t seem to me to be “I have an accommodation, I need to talk to HR” so much as “my manager is making me do something I don’t like, I’m going to go tattle.”

          1. Mike C.*

            Managers shouldn’t be making arbitrary rules that get in the way of doing a job without a business justification.

            1. Jadelyn*

              Um…did you even read my post? Was this a nesting fail or something? Your comment doesn’t seem to be in response to anything I actually said. Because in my actual post I am not, in any way, arguing in favor of managers making arbitrary rules, and I’m genuinely not sure what point you’re trying to make here.

              I’m just pointing out that the employee’s behavior was highly unlikely to be linked to an accommodation considering the conversation leading up to the employee going to HR, and this doesn’t at all read to me like “a legit reason to go to HR”. And even if it is a stupid, arbitrary rule – which I agree it is – HR is still not the one to go to for this.

            2. EM*

              She had a business justification, which is IT support needs to appear approachable. It just wasn’t one he agreed with

          2. nonegiven*

            There was no policy, therefor I didn’t ask for accommodation for my [fill in teh blank.] Now I need to ask HR what I need to do to get accommodation.

      3. Tammy*

        In addition to the other reasons people have listed below, any number of people in my office also use their earbuds/headphones with our videoconferencing and phone system. Should an IT worker “be a grown up” and not answer their phone or attend meetings for the rest of the day because her manager has an aesthetic objection to headphones?

        This response seems very unduly combative to me.

        1. Kat in VA*

          +1. I use my AirPods and dial in for audio-only calls, because I’m reasonably sure my coworker would be annoyed by listening to the Q2 Sales Forecasting call over my computer speakers.

      4. Tisiphone*

        Work doesn’t have to be a nest of distractions either. You’re there to do a job, and if you can’t concentrate because Bob across the aisle can’t be bothered to wear headphones while listening to music, it’s worse than two people standing directly behind you yapping away about every topic under the sun except work. And that’s bad enough.

      5. Dahlia*

        Yeah, in this day and age no one uses headphones while working. Not a single adult in the world.

      6. staceyizme*

        I’m not sure that it’s rude, per se- maybe just a bit myopic in it’s assertion that instant compliance is either virtuous or possible. It could definitely be a case of the employee needing time to concentrate on something specific, or time to go out and purchase earbuds… We just don’t know what the manager’s rationale for attempting to insist on earbuds is and I think most people would be annoyed to be confronted with a standard that smacks of being micromanaged.

      7. SaffyTaffy*

        Sometimes, MommyMD, you genuinely have valuable insight, but you often deliver it so unpleasantly. That makes people dislike you, and it’s no good being “right” when people don’t want to listen to you.

      8. Rusty Shackelford*

        MommyMD, you do understand that sometimes people want to block out distractions so they can Work better, right?

      9. sam*

        or maybe employee assumed that the manager was a logically functioning adult who when they DID NOT BAN LISTENING TO HEADSETS ALTOGETHER, made the reasonable assumption that this new “rule” would take into account that people would perhaps need a transition period of one freaking day and not 10 minutes.

        In addition to using headphones to sometimes just help me concentrate on other work, sometimes I use them do to actual work related things like participate in skype calls and watch work-related videos (mandatory training, etc.). Does your concept of work not include the need to ever listen to sounds?

      10. Phoenix Wright*

        I’d be incredibly annoyed if my boss demanded that I stop wearing headphones because he didn’t like them. It’s work, not a prison.

      11. tootorboot*

        Oh, please.

        When you work on an open plan, noisy floor you may actually run into some coworkers who need some help blocking out all the distractions so they may better get their work done. It is not immature to want to be ablee to focus on your work.

        Work is not a proper noun.

      12. Kat in VA*

        I listen to music at work. I also use AirPods so I can hear people if my volume is low enough, which it usually is.

        If I wasn’t able to listen to music, I’d be far more stressed than I already am. The most anyone has *ever* said was “Oh, are you on the phone?” because AirPod use is endemic at my company, or – on the rare occasion I don’t realize someone is watching – ask amusedly if it’s a really really good song.

        I work in a reasonable quiet environment consistently punctuated by loud men with booming voices who boom even louder when they’re excited or in a pack. Not permitting me to listen to music at a low enough volume that I can have both pods in and still carry on conversation would be a petty dick move.

        And yes, I am at Work and we’re all Adults At Work, and something Adults At Work get to decide is if their earbuds/headphones are crippling enough to not use them At Work. I’m sure you don’t intend to come across as patronizing, but you are nonetheless.

        1. Kat in VA*

          I should also note that said AirPods were a Christmas gift to me, from my executives.

      13. Traffic_Spiral*

        Yes, I am at work – and I don’t work in a dungeon as a submissive, so I expect my boss to stay out of my ass on certain things.

      14. Judy Johnsen*

        Yes, but how to finish the work day, when one has headphones, and was using them. I think going to he was to cover themselves. Maybe not right, but what can one do.

    2. Kasey*

      Shortly after my promotion last year, I started wearing headphones specifically so people (read: new boss) would actually see that I’m listening to something. He didn’t see my earbuds so would start talking before I even realized he was standing there. It got annoying, for both of us, having me ask him to repeat himself. With my headphones (which are allowed and much more comfortable), he gets my attention (knocking on my cube entrance) when he sees my bright red headphones. It takes but a moment to remove them and we’re not wasting any time with repeats. (I’m super thankful NOT to have an open office. And I work in Finance, not IT.)

  6. MissMisaphonia*

    I also think this rule is overly rigid, especially since the manager is ok with earbuds as opposed to headphones. But specifically regarding the employee “disregarding” the rule by continuing to wear the headphones: I have to have noise in my ears to concentrate. Presumably, the employee doesn’t also have earbuds at his desk. He would need that evening to either buy earbuds or retrieve them from his home. I don’t think the manager really has room to get mad about insubordination unless he was still wearing the headphones the NEXT day.

  7. Arya Snark*

    The headphone thing seems a bit much and not something I would push if you want to keep otherwise good employees around. Being so nitpicky about something that has very little, if any, impact would be something that would seriously make me consider moving on to an employer with a more understanding and reasonable approach to management.

    1. Lance*

      And that’s really the thing: what is the impact, or is there in fact one? OP’s suggesting other people are probably just as unnerved by this as they are… but are they actually, or is OP just projecting? Personally, I’d be leaning toward the latter; if I need someone for something, it’s not going to make any difference to me whether they’re using earbuds or headphones, the act of getting their attention is all the same.

      1. Emily K*

        Yeah, this is getting really close to the “employees who serve me should never appear to have other priorities besides me” area that you see in a lot of customer service jobs. I agree with Alison’s comment that if these are help-desk type roles where you expect/encourage a lot of walk-up traffic and are trying to create an approachable vibe, that’s one thing – but if these are IT staff with broad responsibilities or the help desk has a phone/ticket system/catch-all inbox and some people just prefer to approach in person, then I don’t think in a healthy office environment that the need to look approachable to that limited group of people who have a personal preference for walking up to the desk should trump the benefit to staff of using the headphone style most comfortable/preferred by them to reduce distractions and increase their productivity.

        1. valentine*

          Given the awkwardness and wait time, I’m picturing the employees in their own office, facing the wall opposite the door. A simple “What’s the best/fastest way to get your attention?” could have gone a long way.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        Being unnerved by headphones but fine with earbuds seems a very specific unnerving.

    2. Anonybus*

      I work around a few people who will, in lieu of saying something to a person’s face, choose to stage a conversation that they intend to be overheard instead. (Note: I had trouble believing anyone would be bothered to do that, but according to people who know them better, this is actually is A Thing They Do)

      Headphones are the best way to opt out of this game. I find them necessary for sanity around here.

  8. Alice*

    There are plenty of ways to show that you’re friendly and approachable while wearing giant earmuff headphones — and there are plenty of ways to be standoffish without any sound equipment at all!

  9. Mike C.*

    … there’s a brief waiting period for the employee to remove the headphones and acknowledge the person. I find this unnerving when I approach either of them and have to wait

    This is incredibly unreasonable. They’re your employees, not your servants. They aren’t there to instantly respond to your every whim at the specific moment of your choosing, they’re there to work. You can wait that moment or two for them to take their headphones off.

    They’re adults for goodness sake, treat them that way.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Especially in light of yesterday’s letter about the IT support setup with no ticketing system… I was really starting to wonder about the processes at this place too. Alison’s answer touched on it vis-a-vis what the expectations of the position are… but if the expectation really is “drop everything whenever somebody comes to the desk” — that may point to a deeper process dysfunction.

      There are, I hasten to say, plenty of jobs in which “drop everything” is indeed the expectation, and for good reason. I’m not sure IT support is always — much less should be — that kind of job; not all IT support units are or should be front-line helpdesks.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Or even things that are less life-and-death, like a receptionist or the host at a restaurant. But in most IT jobs, there are times when the employee should be doing focused independent work like analyzing a bug on someone’s laptop, and headphones can help with not getting distracted by things that aren’t intended to interrupt them, like the copier making noise or coworkers walking by having a conversation.

        2. D'Arcy*

          Speaking as a former EMT, literal emergency responders emphatically *do not* work on a “drop everything” basis. We respond to dispatch calls and someone running up to an ambulance screaming that they have an emergency is going to be firmly told to call 911.

          We do not, under ANY circumstances, accept “walk up” patients.

    2. Decima Dewey*

      OP would also have to wait if the employee were on the phone to a client, or if Grandboss were standing at employee’s desk discussing a different project.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I can really understand the letterwriter’s pain on that one, actually. I’m anxious AF when I’m “lurking” around waiting to get someone’s attention but I shoulder that burden myself, I know it’s a “me” thing. I get butterflies in my stomach and can feel my heart race a little, it’s more like that weird “anticipation” feeling when you’re waiting for a package to arrive, does that make sense?

        So I get why the word choice was chosen. I don’t get the reaction though.

        1. Parenthetically*

          Yeah, I get the word choice too, but it’s one of those things where LW just has to decide on a course of action and determine not to let it be weird — a brisk tap on their desk/cube wall and a cheery wave? A heads-up on Slack that they’re dropping by in a few to touch base about XYZ? Something, almost anything. Just not “I feel awkward; it must be Bob’s fault, better make him use earbuds” as she’s doing now.

      2. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

        Seconded – there’s probably more going on here than we are being made aware of. It doesn’t necessarily change the advice, but definitely lends speculation to if there are any other red-flaggy aspects of that company.

    3. Sloan Kittering*

      My only exception is if they’re literally a help desk. I would find it offputting for a receptionist or a librarian at the information desk, or the IT help desk person – somebody whose primary role is to be available to assist people – was wearing bulky headphones that are designed to tune people out.

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        Yeah, at my workplace the IT staff I interact with most are the front-facing help desk, so my first reaction was “Sure, of course they can’t wear headphones!”. But then I realized this was probably not customers coming up with questions but colleagues dropping by with IT requests/questions in the middle of other, more headphone-appropriate work.

      2. PersephoneUnderground*

        This was my impression from the letter – I think allowing earbuds may have been an attempt to meet in the middle, even if it wasn’t entirely logical, because the main objection in that situation is the appearance of being unavailable when your job is to be available to help people. Otherwise I agree with Alison. But the LW may not be crazy to want to ban big headphones but not earbuds, depending on the details of the job.

        1. valentine*

          Unless the idea is that they can always hear you through earbuds, it is unreasonable to insist on them when the issue is getting their attention and wait time. I think OP1 just feels like time is dragging, rather than the employees actually taking ages to remove and respond.

      3. JOA*

        I worked Help Desk for 3 years… People asked for help by calling in or sending an email. We wore headsets to assist people (try being on the phone all day AND using your computer without one!). People were expected to do so in order for us to track inquiries and keep appropriate staffing levels.

    4. softcastle mccormick*

      This. Our supervisor is similarly “unnerved” by listening devices at work and having to wait to be acknowledged, and banned them all as a result. It makes us feel like children, and like we don’t have a right to take a second to compose ourselves, or to ask them to come back later.

    5. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      and for the third time I will ask, “there’s a brief waiting period for the employee to remove the headphones and acknowledge the person. I find this unnerving when I approach either of them and have to wait” how does this issue not arise with someone wearing earbuds?

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        EXACTLY! I don’t understand this boss’s issue. I really, really don’t.

    6. fposte*

      If anything, I slightly prefer people to wear headphones, because I’m less likely to start talking to them without realizing they can’t hear me and because I don’t worry about them ripping out part of their ear by going too fast. (To be fair, headphones will happily take out hair.)

    7. Annette*

      Disagree. Customer service is about immediately responding. It’s not about adult vs. not adult. Or employee vs. servant (this distinction = not my favorite B.T.W.) Just a type of work that requires you to act differently than in other jobs.

      1. staceyizme*

        There are a lot of roles that have a mix of responsibilities. Just because someone is in it support or customer service, it doesn’t mean ” always immediately immediately available, no exceptions”. Someone might work in a small IT department that supports internal clients and also performs maintenance and upgrades that require some time to concentrate. Customer support roles could involve sourcing documentation from phone, fax, chat and email and channels. It’s just basically never a good idea to assume that someone owes you their immediate attention. A few seconds to shift gears or a polite inquiry as to next available opportunity is a much better approach.

        1. Alice*

          This is all true — but if the internal clients are coming over for help on the assumption that IT = helpdesk, the problem of interruptions won’t be solved by saying “it’s ok to wear headphones!”
          If it is the case that the internal clients are coming over for immediate help, there could be a few other ways forward
          – tell the internal clients “office hours are X-Y; otherwise use the ticketing system”
          – check that the IT staff really are responding in good time to the incoming tickets
          – consider whether you need more IT staff so that a helpdesk is always open

          1. PersephoneUnderground*

            The problem could be that they need to just go over sometimes (because something time-sensitive hasn’t been dealt with yet for instance and the client is actively waiting for it), but they don’t because the helpdesk looks busy/they don’t want to interrupt, and the headphones contribute to that perception. Could be addressed by always having one person actively available “covering” the helpdesk function while the others concentrate, though, rather than a blanket ban.

    8. CheeseNurse*

      This letter touched a nerve for me because I am having a similar battle with one of my managers. She doesn’t want me to wear headphones *ever* because I may not hear her greet me the few times a week she comes up behind me to say good morning. We’re in an extremely loud open office, and my back faces a busy thoroughfare leading to one of the few meeting rooms on our floor. I’ve told her several times that I can either work there with headphones, or not work there at all. I’m not going to be rude, but I’m a professional adult doing my best to get my work done in an extremely unpleasant environment, not some bad little kid in school. I’m also not bluffing. They take my headphones away and I’m going to find a more reasonable employer.

  10. L.S. Cooper*

    I’m an earbud wearer, and often have people come up to talk to me. It takes a second to get them out and pause my music, but I’m always responsive as soon as I notice someone come up to stand next to me in my cube. (I can also generally hear a little bit of what’s going on outside of my music or podcast, and thankfully, the human brain is excellent at listening for its own name!)

    1. Kat in VA*

      I have a friend at work who is an older gentleman – he doesn’t have earbuds, but his hearing is impaired enough to require hearing aids.

      When I approached him, I startled him over and over, didn’t matter how I did it – calling him name, knocking on his cube wall, tapping his arm.

      I started heel-thudding heavily when I walked up to him and while it’s a source of amusement for his cubicle mates to hear me clomping up an elephant sporting three inch heels, I don’t startle my friend any more and everyone is happy.

      1. Tiny Soprano*

        Yeah I’m somewhat hard of hearing, and because I’m young people don’t realise until they either startle me or I have to ask for them to repeat themselves. I’m sure there have been plenty of times where people have thought I was being rude when I simply didn’t hear them. Colleagues used to walk up to my desk and if I was concentrating and I didn’t see them, I wouldn’t know they were there. So for me it doesn’t make a difference. Earbuds, headphones or naked ears, you’ll still need to make a visual cue to get my attention. I’m sure this LW would find me a very frustrating employee.

  11. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Earbuds are uncomfortable for some people, they’re also not noise-blocking like headphones can be. So especially in a role like IT, where they need to focus on finding issues that may be buried goodness-knows where, why would you want to make their lives difficult because of optics and some self imposed discomfort by having to wait a few extra moments for them to pay attention. I would have probably pushed back and went to HR too at that point, since there wasn’t enough give and take for this random rule that was being imposed on them, despite having had no issue until one day being pulled into an office and told to “stop”.

    As managers we’re able to make tweaks to rules and limit them if necessary for our departments but you still have to be respectful of the fact that if every other department can use a device like headphones, making it a “nope” in your department will come with this kind of reaction. You need to have a really solid reason and you need to pitch it better as to why you want to eliminate them.

    1. Lyra Silvertongue*

      And as IT people, they really won’t lack for other workplaces that do allow headphones. I had understood it to be a perfectly acceptable standard in IT work for the reasons you mentioned. If they banned headphones at my boyfriend’s IT office, people would definitely push back hard.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Our IT has their own office and it’s usually one person at a time [they roam from office to office], they still all use headphones because it’s their zone and how they operate the best. The idea of asking them to change because I have to get their attention is flooring. They’re pleasant people and do a darn good job, why would I rock that boat!?

  12. Mr. Tyzik*

    The headphones/earbud thing isn’t about listening to something during work but about a power play. OP doesn’t like waiting for acknowledgement, made up her own rule, chastised someone in a ridiculous period of time after addressing the rule, then tried to assert more control by stating outright it’s her rule and must be obeyed.

    No wonder the employee was rankled enough to go HR over such a petty move. This is not a hill to die on. OP doesn’t mention that she’s heard any complaints, so it’s a power play over nothing, essentially.

    This is an example of “When I say jump, you say, ‘How high?'” style of leadership.

    1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

      But OP said they were fine with earbuds. Presumably, there would be a period of acknowledgement required before responding if the techies were interrupted while wearing earbuds.

    2. Bilateralrope*

      I’m guessing this employee has some medical issue with earbuds. One the employee wants to keep confidential.

      And doesn’t trust this manager to keep it quiet.

      You say jump. I say ADA.

      1. MarsJenkar*

        There are other reasons, not all of which fall under ADA, why an employee would strongly prefer over-the-ear headphones over earbuds, such as poor fit, concerns about hearing loss over time, the fact that the headphones ARE visible having their own benefits, etc.

      2. Dahlia*

        If the idea of someone not being able to hear you come up “unnerves” you, are you just planning on never hiring Dead/HoH employees?

        1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

          Oooooh – I know I shouldn’t pick up on spelling, but the idea of hiring a Dead employee would unnerve me too!

  13. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    Why is everyone approaching these people for support so often that a 30-second delay for them to take their headphones off has become a problem? Does the company has a support ticketing system, IM, phones, anything other than physically walking in on a support person when you have an issue? Forget the headphones, I want to know what the expectations are if the employee is working on support issues A, B, and C and someone approaches them about support issue D. Are they expected to drop A, B, and C and start working on D?

    1. KeyboardJockey*

      This is what I came here to say! Nobody should be trying to get IT support’s attention in person so frequently. Between this and the letter yesterday with the CEO who hates ticketing systems, I’m wondering what people have against just letting us tech folks do our jobs in logical ways.

      1. PersephoneUnderground*

        Probably bad past experiences where “put in a ticket” meant “I’ll ignore your problem for a week or close the ticket telling you it’s fixed because I couldn’t duplicate the problem, while you are still having it” :p Good IT shouldn’t suffer for that, but it takes some time to learn to trust that your ticket will actually be handled without you talking to them in person.

        BTW my posts on this aren’t meant to be arguing overall, just filling in the user side of the perspective. Alison is likely right that the blanket headphone ban isn’t the best solution to whatever the root problem is, if there really is a problem beyond the OP’s perception. (Such as unresponsive IT or intimidated users who avoid the helpdesk and then try to fix things themselves. Etc.)

        1. Bluephone*

          Ah, I see you’re familiar with my company! It’s gotten better but most of my IT needs are because my computer is in such bad shape that I can’t even use the online ticket system—forcing me to see IT in person. At least they do actually act on help tickets now, in less than 9 months.

    2. cncx*

      yes, as an IT employee, the real issue is why are there so many people coming to the desk when things like IM and ticketing exist. I don’t wear headphones all the time, but when i do it’s usually because i’m absolutely saturated with being interrupted for stupid stuff and really need to calm down and focus. And doubling down on what you said- people who come to IT people’s desks to interrupt them jump the queue-i was doing a business critical task for a VP yesterday that i had to stop to “attend to” someone who had an urgent luxury problem at my desk.

      tl;dr headphones aren’t the issue, the fact that there’s a line of people at IT’s desks is.

  14. Lime Lehmer*

    OK we are now forced to work in open spaces and trying to find a way to work with our losing our minds, or assaulting a co-worker. Ear buds versus headphones really?

    I wear a hearing aid, so I can not use earbuds.

    Requiring me to use earbuds would mean that I need to remove my hearing aid. ADA issue?

    1. Quiltrrrr*

      I was scrolling to see if anyone brought up the hearing aid issue. I have giant headphones that will fit over my hearing aids, and can’t use earbuds. When I get new phones and they come with earbuds, I give them to my kids.

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        *raises hand* Another hearing aid user here, and I agree that forcing me to use earbuds rather than headphones would be a major issue.

        If I have to take my hearing aids out to use earbuds, not only do I have to worry about losing the (VERY expensive) little devils, but when someone wants to talk to me, I would have to not only remove the earbuds but put at least one of my hearing aids in before I can converse. (And believe me, you do NOT want to try to have a conversation with me sans hearing aids, unless you have a very loud, clear voice or are a big fan of having to repeat everything 2 or 3 times. There is a reason I wear these spendy little devices, and it’s not because I just adore having a hunk of plastic wedged into each ear for most of my waking hours!)

        I won’t even go into how much less enjoyable listening to music would be without said devices, but forcing me to do so would definitely make me anything BUT a happy camper.

  15. Princess prissypants*

    LW, don’t be that boss. Jeez. If you don’t want people to play music that potentially annoys coworkers and/or drown out noise from coworkers, give them a private office space. Otherwise, accept that this is a reasonable consequence of putting people in cubicles and open offices.

      1. headphone lover*

        it’s also not easy or not possible for underlings to make their office around them quieter. In my experience, the biggest noise offenders are the higher ups who have offices, who keep their door open and have conference calls on speaker, yell at loud pitches, bring in their dogs and their relatives to make noise, etc. etc. It’s hard for me to ask a higher up or a WAY higher up to be quiet. I don’t. I put on my noise cancelling headphones.

        i once had a VP running around popping bubble paper in everyone’s face. That time i told her to please quit it.

        1. Kat in VA*

          I work with a lot of gentlemen who were in different branches of the service. They all tend to be kinda boomy dudes anyway (deep voices are the norm here, for some reason), but they’re also all just about half-deaf, so they boom at each other and at me and down the hall at other people and it’s just a damn boomfest some days.

          So I’m very appreciative of having a little music to offset all that booming going on. My coworker can ignore it even when there’s four or five of them clustered around the area, just banging on at each other. Me, I just turn up the volume until they eventually go their separate ways.

          *I know I used the word “boom” a lot, I just can’t think of any other word. They’re not precisely bellowing or yelling at each other; they all have very deep, resonant voices so “boomy” was the best I could describe them.

  16. Vanilla Nice*

    The no headphones rule seems like a case of “can” vs. “should.” Sure, you can enforce a rule like that, but it seems like it runs the risk of alienating employees for little payoff. The fact that the employees felt the need to go to HR seems to suggest that something deeper is going on here,

  17. LizB*

    Earbuds are uncomfortable for me, but people in my office think that headphones = do not disturb (rightly!), so they sometimes don’t come to me with questions I do actually have time to answer. My compromise is, if I’m doing stuff that can be interrupted but also want to listen to something, to either wear my over-ear headphones on just one ear (with the other side askew, resting on my head behind my ear), or wear over-ear headphones where the two ears are connected by a flexible wire rather than a curved band and keep one ear on and the other clipped to my shirt. If I’m actually on a call or doing something that shouldn’t be interrupted, I wear my headphones fully.

    1. Windchime*

      I keep seeing people mentioning the one earbud solution. I hope that people who do this know that many of the rest of us have to listen to the psss-psss-tsst-pss-ts of their dangling earbud and it’s super annoying.

  18. Sorin*

    I’m very not clear on what the time difference between removing headphones and removing earbuds is? I haven’t like, timed it or anything, but I really doubt I’m faster at removing earbuds since most of the time involved is actually pause music.

    Also #2 is a big ol yikes.

    1. Tie*

      Yeah, kind of surprised the headphone thing is getting more attention than question 2…

    2. Kat in VA*

      I’m wondering – would said manager have an issue with bone conduction headphones too? (The kind that you wear in front of or over the top of your ears that conduct sound via the bones in your skull.) . They look like headphones (albeit smaller) but they also leave your entire ear open to view.

      This is just such a weird, petty, and frankly stupid hill to die on.

  19. Autumnheart*

    This headphone rule seems entirely capricious and based on nothing more than the manager’s personal preference. The change will have exactly zero effect on performance, since employees would still be wearing (smaller, less visible) headphones, and still have to stop to take them off. And OP also expected instant compliance with the rule, as though one can simply change over-the-ear headphones into earbuds? There’s nothing reasonable about any of that.

    Since this is an old letter, hopefully OP has since learned how to differentiate reasonable requirements vs. unreasonable ones. This is tantamount to telling someone to change their clothing in the middle of the day. It’s one thing if you want to cultivate a certain professional presentation in your department, but unless you are subsequently sending them home and/or giving them a stipend to immediately update their possessions, expecting same-day compliance is really over the top.

    1. MommyMD*

      It’s not like asking someone to immediately change their clothing. Clothing is essential. Listening devices for personal use are not.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        I think the point was more “the new item you need is not here immediately” especially because it’s not about listening devices, it’s about which specific listening device they should use.

      2. Autumnheart*

        Specific types of clothing aren’t essential. If my manager arbitrarily announced that everyone should start wearing blazers to look more professional, and then came at me 10 minutes later because I still wasn’t wearing one, that wouldn’t make the manager’s expectation a reasonable one.

  20. DCer*

    To the woman needing PT – I too had to have some female-anatomy related medical care. My male bosses very quickly understood that “I need to have treatment for a medical condition, it’s not life-threatening, but something I need to take care of” to mean “It’s about my uterus, don’t ask.” Its a universal code.

    1. MommyMD*

      I once felt extremely bad at work and needed to go home. That’s extremely rare. When a new male manager questioned me about it in front of literally everyone including the male head of the department I said “it’s about my period” very even and deadpan. It wasn’t but the males’ eyes opened, mouths dropped and manager said oh yeah you can leave right now lol.

      1. Maria Lopez*

        You can make the manager even more uncomfortable by saying it’s about my menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding. You’ll make him faint right there.

    2. Casey*

      I don’t think that I would immediately jump to “Oh it must be a female-anatomy related issue” if someone didn’t want to get into the details of their medical care with me. The Letter Writer says this: “I feel strange saying something like “it’s a private medical issue that I’d rather not talk about,” because I feel like that makes it quite obvious what the problem is.” It seems that she is hoping that her male bosses do *not* quickly jump to this conclusion and that she can both avoid getting into the details, while also not revealing to her manager what she is getting PT for.

      I think that the breezy, not too serious “just something I need to get taken care of” is vague enough and shouldn’t prompt further questions, and also shouldn’t prompt the manager to think “ah, female issues” immediately, which is something it seems the Letter Writer is trying to avoid.

      1. pentamom*

        Right, it could be embarrassing digestive issues, or something that is unpleasant to describe or discuss but isn’t even embarrassing at all. I wouldn’t assume it was specifically female, and even if someone does, so what? People are GOING to speculate, but as long as the details aren’t actually a topic of discussion, and there’s not enough information for him to actually form a real idea of what’s happening, I don’t think it’s something to worry about. I think she’s overthinking this reaction. “Just something I need to take care of” seems exactly right to me.

        1. Casey*

          Totally, digestive issues are a good example. I think that DCer might have wanted this comment to sound reassuring, but I guess I find this idea of a universal code where if you don’t provide details then it must be about your reproductive organs to be a bit… unsettling and the opposite of reassuring? I think the letter writer is hoping for exactly the opposite of this.

          I agree that you can’t stop people from speculating, but if you’re breezy about it and maybe add a topic change to something work-related, they won’t have enough details, and will assume it’s something uninteresting and not worth their speculation.

          1. goducks*

            Frankly, if someone uses a brush off don’t want to talk about it sort of thing if I inquire if everything is alright, digestive issues are the very FIRST place my mind goes.

      2. fhqwhgads*

        I do, however, think that LW is probably wrong in that worry? I realize that might seem silly given where I’m nesting it, but I think it’s the worry projecting that she’s assuming he’ll jump to the correct conclusion about why she doesn’t want to name it, when really if she’s casual and just doesn’t specify a reasonable manager, and a good boundary respecting manager will not ask for further detail. I know it’s not always the default; there are plenty of shitty managers out there, but really the default should be NOT inquiring for more specifics. It should be totally normal to just not specify and be taken at one’s word that it’s a medical thing but, you know, don’t worry I’m not dying.

        1. Casey*

          Agreed, I think that the LW is probably incorrect in their worry and that most managers won’t ask for details. My issue with DCers comment is that it’s strongly reinforcing LW’s worry and essentially telling them “Yep, if you don’t provide any details your manager will immediately jump to assuming it’s about your uterus.” Which I’m pretty sure is exactly what the LW does not want to hear!

          I think plenty of people have been chiming in saying they wouldn’t jump to this conclusion if their employee declined to provide details or used a brush off when asked further (also agreed with you that managers shouldn’t ask for detail, but some do out of concern/politeness)

    3. goducks*

      I don’t know that it’s universal code. I’ve had men give me some version of this, too. I just take it to mean that it’s probably not something like a knee injury or a bad back, the type of thing that people tend to be pretty open about, but instead it’s something medical and they don’t want to share. I do not assume it includes the reproductive system. There’s a lot of medical issues that a person might not want to discuss openly.

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      I wouldn’t have made that assumption. Honestly, if someone told me she was going for physical therapy, it would never in a million years occur to me that it was pelvic floor therapy. I didn’t even know that was a thing. (Exercises, sure. Working with a PT, nope.) I suspect that if you say “oh, just some boring stuff, everything’s fine,” no one will guess it’s about your Lady Business.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, 99.99% of people are going to assume it’s for an old wrist injury or something, even if we know about the pelvic floor therapy.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      If this is the condition I think it is, I have/had it, too, and I just told my supervisor that I was going to need days off at regular intervals for PT. He actually stopped me at that point and said I didn’t need to tell him why; just put in for the medical time. I never got anywhere near mentioning female anatomy.

      Also: I understand the disinclination to lie but, frankly, you should not have to explain why you need medical time and I would have zero–ZERO–problem fibbing about this. Why you need it has exactly no impact on your bosses or coworkers and you do not owe them any more detail than that you need weekly medical time for X number of weeks. The fib is the price they pay for prying into your business (if they ask).

    6. Venus*

      Our workplace has specifically told management that they should never ask the details of a medical problem, except for how it impacts on work ability. I think more and more people are similarly realizing that they shouldn’t provide details (because it invites judgement – I have a coworker who needs PT for his knees and he gets judged on it because he behaves as though he’s addicted to physical activity and has been known to push his body beyond its limits). The concept of ‘personal / private medical problem = gendered issue’ is quickly disappearing.

    7. PTtoo*

      Samesies – I did PT for pelvic floor issues. In my case, because I have also always had back issues, I said I was doing PT for my back. Frankly many of the at-home exercises are the same as what I used to do for my lower back. It felt like a harmless white lie that I didn’t NEED to tell, but if that makes you feel more comfortable, you can go that route too. I hope PT goes well! It helped me IMMENSELY and my vulvodynia is very well managed these days.

  21. MommyMD*

    TWO WEEKS? I can hold my breath for two weeks. If two weeks invited such ire that it makes one decline a job offer for that alone, that’s a bit of spoiled entitlement. Maybe I read the question wrong. There are people here who wait months.

    1. QueenB*

      I think the LW had waited 2 weeks for a formal job offer, after having been informally offered the job. That is quite a long time for an email when you’re raring to go. I think if the company knew they couldn’t get back to them in a couple of days, which is the expected timeline for most people I think, then they could have let them know that there was a delay. It’s polite.

      1. goducks*

        I agree that it’s polite and frankly, it’s good business sense. Until there is a formally accepted job offer, the employer should be aware that at any point they could lose their leading candidate to another offer. Keeping them engaged is crucial.

      2. Alianora*

        Yeah, I read it the other way at first but upon rereading, I think you’re right. It wasn’t two weeks between interview and job offer, it was two weeks between informal job offer and offer letter. Which is pretty long.

    2. Parenthetically*

      I read it that way too but then I re-read and I think it’s two weeks between INFORMAL offer and FORMAL offer. “We’d like to offer you this position, and we’ll send over an offer letter for you to look at.” THEN it’s a two-week waiting period. I certainly would be extremely impatient in that scenario.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I would definitely be visualizing funding vanishing, or the CEO who needs to do a sign off changing her mind.

    3. Holly*

      I don’t know if I’d characterize OP as acting spoiled but it sounds a bonkers reason to decline an offer you really want. At least in my field, that timeline is not weird.

    4. Jadelyn*

      Is the personal attack (“spoiled entitlement”) really necessary to the point here? It’s entirely possible to say “I think OP has unrealistic expectations for hiring timelines” without calling them spoiled or entitled.

    5. Paperdill*

      Working in public health care, two weeks sounds crazy fast to me – hah! But I understand different industries have different standards.

  22. Clawfoot*

    Ten minutes? Did the boss expect the employee to just up and produce a pair of earbuds within 10 minutes?
    I use headphones at work, because earbuds hurt my ears after a little while. I do not have earbuds at all. If I had to switch to earbuds, then the switch would have to wait until the company supplied me with the equipment they wanted me to use (and equipment that didn’t actively pain me to use).

    Also, what exactly is the difference between waiting for someone to take off earphones and waiting for someone to pull out an earbud? I’m not sure I see a significant difference.

    1. Batgirl*

      But the defiance! The humanity!
      I’m sure the OP’s feelings of anxiety are genuinely described; but there was a whole lotta knee jerking going on there that should have remained internal. Ten minutes indeed. Settle down.

  23. My cat is my alarm clock*

    How could the employee instantly change to earbuds the same day? They might not have any!

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        That’s unreasonable and bordering on tyrant levels. This was the OP’s random choice and random time to spring a new rule into place.

        Why couldn’t it wait until the end of the day to have a meeting to say “Okay so starting tomorrow, we’re going to only use earbuds.”

        With rules, you put a “start date” into place. Just like how we don’t suddenly just spring laws into immediate action either, so why try to do it in an office?

        This leads to turnover and workplace drama over a ridiculous powerplay.

        1. Emily S*

          Yes, it’s unnecessarily rigid to expect instant compliance with something that isn’t a safety or legal compliance issue.

          My org recently rolled out sweeping changes to our expense reimbursement and vendor payment policy. They first of all rolled it out 7 days ahead of the date it would take effect, and in addition they provided for a transition period where if it’s logistically difficult to switch right away (some departments will need to renegotiate terms and open new accounts for various things), we’re permitted to go on paying for things that old way over the next month or two to avoid any business disruptions. The new policy is important, but not so important that work should be inconvenienced for the sake of it.

      2. MayLou*

        Sometimes I need to wear headphones to do my work. I’m an admin rather than IT support but I’ve had to watch HSE videos, user guide videos and listen to podcasts related to our project. If I wasn’t allowed to wear headphones, everyone else in the office would also be listening to a man with a monotone voice explaining how to set up a new enquiry feature on our case management software, or watching a step by step guide on how to set up your workspace (this was in my first week, obviously I’m not doing that every day).

    1. hbc*

      If I said “No headphones,” I would expect the other person to…not wear headphones unless they addressed why they wouldn’t or shouldn’t follow through right away. “Well, I don’t have any earbuds and I’ve got that conference call later today…” or “I can’t wear earphones and it’s really distracting in there. Can you ask the marketing guys to tone down the GOT off-topic chatter or let me wear them for the couple of hours a day when they tend to go full-throttle?” Or even “Can we find a way to signal approachability that still allows me to block out background noise?”

      But that sounds like two grownups having a conversation about their relative needs, whereas this situation sounds like a parent/teen power struggle.

  24. MommyMD*

    An employee who is asked not to wear head phones and then in defiance promptly does has issues other than headphones.

    1. Fae*

      I’m going to push back on your statement because he probably DIDN’T wear them in defiance. He probably thought it was okay to wear them for the rest of the day until he could go out and get a pair of earbuds; that’s what I would have done. I would not have thought “oh hey my manager wants me to switch over to earbuds that must take effect right this second and not tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to buy a pair of earbuds.”

      1. LaDeeDa*

        I agree with Fae, I read it is as they didn’t have earbuds, so they would make the switch when they got some.

      2. RandomU...*

        When your boss clarified that they meant effective immediately, would your first reaction be to hightail it to HR to complain?

        Something besides earbuds was going on between this employee and boss. That’s not a normal reaction.

        Most people would say “Oh sorry, I didn’t realize you meant for this change right away. I don’t have earbuds to switch, is it ok if I make the change tomorrow?” Or “Oh sorry, I didn’t realize you meant for this change right away.” and remove the headphones.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It’s not when the company rule is that headphones are fine. Then it’s a boss that’s making new rules willy nilly without solid reason behind it, other than “Don’t like, makes me uncomfortable, gonna change it immediately!”.

          Going to HR is the right place to go. It’s asking for clarification and mediation. HR is always the right place to go for this kind of issue.

          Don’t discourage others from making sure they’re not being bullied or unfairly treated by a boss. Bosses overstep all the time, you know this, you’re on AAM!

          1. WKRP*

            There is no company rule about it. There’s no company anything about it. And unless the rule encouraged bullying, harrassment, discrimination (which it might have, but we have no information to support that)– hightailing it to HR seems VERY extreme for this situation… UNLESS, there’s a history of difficulty between these two. (Which again, we have no information about).

            Based on what we do know — Bad rule boss, uncommunicative employee — both acted poorly and could have avoided such drama.

          2. RandomU...*

            “Going to HR is the right place to go. It’s asking for clarification and mediation. HR is always the right place to go for this kind of issue.”

            No, it’s really not. This wasn’t bullying (based on the information in the letter). It was a manager instituting a rule for their group that is within their purview. It was the manager asking the employee why they weren’t complying with the rule that they had just spoken about. The rule was about earphones.

            This is the workplace/HR equivalent of a frivolous lawsuit.

        2. Dahlia*

          If I’m being treated differently because of the shape of my ear canal, I’m not really gonna see the person doing so as reasonable.

          1. JM60*

            It’s on you to explain that the shape of your ear canal precludes you from using earphones though. If you fail to do that when you boss clarifies that the no headphone rule is meant to be immediate, then that failure is on you, rather than discrimination by your boss. Furthermore, making a beeline to HR is overkill when the problem was at least partly due to your failure to communicate relevant information.

        3. Fae*

          Would I run to HR? Maybe, depends on the tone they used when they corrected me. If they came up and said “oh hey, I meant for that rule to take effect this minute, please don’t use your headphones.” I would use one of those lines you suggested.
          If they came up to me in a huff about how I was in “complete disregard” of their new mandate? I probably would go to HR, because at that point my boss has shown themselves to be unreasonable and I’d want to cover my @ss.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            Also when boss has demonstrated how they do things… bloody sure I’m going straight to hr as a basic cya move. This is not someone I trust to be reasonable.

        4. Emily K*

          “Something besides earbuds was going on between this employee and boss. ”

          Yes, and I can imagine a “something else” that involves the employee being immature or insubordinate, and I can also imagine a “something else” that involves the boss being abusive or refusing an accommodation. We don’t have enough information to say with certainty which. of the two it is.

          1. Judy Johnsen*

            If we do not have enough information, maybe we should not use labels on people, such as ,” insubordinate” , etc.

      3. pamela voorhees*

        There’s also the very real possibility it’s simply a habit – brain absolutely heard and understood the new rule, but when the employee sat down, headphones were there, and body automatically reached for headphones.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      No. There was most likely a misunderstanding involved. That’s what happens when you expect to be able to force someone to change something mid-stream even though it’s been acceptable until that very moment.

    3. PersistentCat*

      Nope. They may have an ADA accommodation that was approved. Like me. They could have handled it better, but maybe they wanted to discuss with HR as to how to discuss with their manager in a tactful manner, especially if their tenure started prior to the manager beginning. Your comments today are very uncharitable. Aren’t you a doctor? Noise-cancelling headphones are a reasonable accommodation for many issues; such as anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, others…

    4. Temperance*

      Eh, my husband has ADHD and earbuds help him focus on his work. I can see how this is an issue.

    5. MissDisplaced*

      I’d be in defiance over such a stupid and petty rule too. Especially is it ONLY because LW doesn’t “like” it versus any real practical reason.
      And no, I would not remove my headphones/headset, WHICH by the way are also used for online meetings so there.

    6. staceyizme*

      Defiance? “Manager” isn’t a synonym for “absolute monarch”. Employees shouldn’t have morally charged, pejorative terms lobbed at them over Headphonegate. Adults can reasonably differ, even over minor issues. Is the employee trying to meet a fast approaching deadline? Does he plan to buy earbuds and need a day? Does he have a migraine and removal of the offending headphones would send him over the edge of tolerance to pain? Does he have small ear canals or a hearing aid? Is he desperately trying to avoid the office gossips? Nobody knows. So I don’t think that you can reasonably roll the eyes and toss off a assertion of “defiance”.

  25. Ahead Fish*

    I literally can’t put earbuds in my ears for any length of time without irritation. I’d be so annoyed if only people who could tolerate earbuds could listen to music or podcasts while they worked.

  26. LaDeeDa*

    Don’t be that manager. Ohit takes them 5 seconds to remove their headphones and that annoys you?? Give me a break. I think that wearing headphones is better than earbuds because you often can’t see if a person is wearing earbuds, with headphones I know right away they can’t hear me.
    IF your concern was that people don’t know if it is ok to interrupt them, which I really don’t think is your concern, have them post a note on the cubicle that says “please wave to get my attention.” Or have them put a mirror up so they can see when people are approaching.
    People are being forced into these awful open concept spaces, and coworkers are annoying; Someone is talking loud, some is eating, someone’s chair squeaks. Let people find what works for them.

    1. Rebecca*

      This, exactly – being forced into open spaces, no sound deadening…of course managers have their own offices, often away from the cube farm, but the rest of us have to listen to Jane cough all. day. every. day., without fail, someone else is the throat clearer, someone else eats potato chips and you’d swear there was a microphone near their mouth, someone else talks to loudly on the phone, ALL AT THE SAME TIME…and it’s nearly impossible to concentrate. At least headphones or earbuds can provide background noise to drown it all out or at least give the brain something else to focus on, like music, and I see no reason unless you are an in person customer facing employee (like at the DMV) that you shouldn’t be able to use this method to cope.

      1. Yvette*

        All are excellent points. I always wonder how many of these “NO HEADPHONES” types have private offices.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I feel like if we all worked on our internal communication, we’d have a lot less of these kind of things pop up.

      As you mentioned, if you’re concerned about interrupting, that’s a discussion to have. “It makes me feel like I’m disturbing you when I drop in and you’re wearing headphones. Do you prefer I ping you on IM first or is how we’re doing it okay with you? I want to make sure we’re on the same page here!”

      Then you expect them to be truthful to them. Most people will either say “no it’s no problem to get my attention, that’s what I’m here for” then you take it and go about your business. If they say “Actually, sometimes it’s a bad time, if it’s not urgent, can you do it this other way instead? [ticket or email or ping me on IM etc].” And adjust.

      Communication instead of just throwing around rules and adjusting to your comfort level by flexing your management powers is how you avoid people storming off to HR on you.

    3. KC*

      i recently put a mirror up because my back is to the entrance of my desk and i use noise cancelling headphones. i should have put it up a long time ago…

  27. WKRP*

    I agree the earbud/headphone rule is silly. But, I feel both are wrong in this scenario (while also believing the scenario should never exist in the first place). Curious why the employee didn’t push back? Based on the note (and I might be wrong) it seems, manager had a conversation with employee. Employee either agreed or said nothing and the manager assumed the point was made. So, I’m not surprised that the manager was then surprised by an employee who made a passive aggressive challenge to the rule without attempting a professional conversation.

    1. Fae*

      I said this to another commenter, but I don’t think the employee was trying to be passive aggressive or defiant when he went back to his desk and starting wearing headphones. He probably thought it was okay to wear them for the rest of the day until he could go out and get a pair of earbuds; that’s what I would have done. I would not have thought “oh hey my manager wants me to switch over to earbuds that must take effect right this second and not tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to buy a pair of earbuds.”

      1. WKRP*

        Different strokes for different folks to be sure. As an employee, I would assume my boss meant ASAP unless otherwise stated. If they’re talking to me about it, it’s obviously something they want done. As a boss, I would worry that my employee either didn’t understand what I told them or didn’t care. Particularly, if there wasn’t a conversation about it. And even moreso because the employee ran to HR after their boss emphasized the rule rather than mention he didn’t realize the rule began today– that’s also a bit of a red flag.

        (And again, I say all of this under duress, because again, this rule is ridiculous)

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          But the rule involved the employee needing to have something they did not have on them at the time; earbuds. I agree with Fae that it probably did not even occur to them that OP meant the rule was effective immediately because of how unrealistic that was. It’s like, if I’m wearing blue jeans right now and if my boss pulled me into their office right this minute telling me that the new rule was to wear red pants, I would not assume it has to happen ASAP, because I don’t have red pants. If the boss gets on my case five minutes later for still not wearing red pants “in open defiance of the rule”, I’d probably be inclined to go to HR too.

          1. WKRP*

            I hear what you’re both saying, but we’re not talking about a rule where an employee runs the risk of walking around half naked. They’re headphones, they’re not a necessary accessory like pants. At best, they’re an ADA accommodation, otherwise, they’re simply a tool people can use to focus on their work and avoid disturbing those around them.

            A better analogy would be telling my team they couldn’t use a stapler and had to use binder clips/paper clips for their paper needs. If I had an employee who heard the rule and then walked back to their desk and used a stapler, I would wonder why and ask. And if said employee ran to HR rather than discuss the situation with me, I would also (again) wonder why.

            And before we launch into whether or not the employee needs headphones as an ADA accommodation, I’m not going to assume they do or don’t (there’s no detail that provides that information) What I will assume is that there is potential an issue of trust and communication between the manager and their employee. And I don’t think either of them are handling it very well.

            1. Dahlia*

              No, it’s like if you told them not to use a stapler, and then *didn’t provide clips*.

              1. WKRP*

                Well, we’re digging in the weeds. The point I’m trying to make is that unless there’s an accommodation, an employee doesn’t need to use headphones to do their job. They need pants.

                1. Admin in Arkansas*

                  Ughhh, I should’ve just waited for this comment and agreed instead of writing mine.

            2. Emily K*

              I can definitely imagine a scenario where I weigh the relative pros and cons of one more afternoon with the earbuds, which the manager might see and get upset by, vs the fact that I’m about to be on an hour long webinar/conference call/training video and my 2 officemates will definitely have to endure and will definitely be upset by.

              1. WKRP*

                Sure, such a scenario might exist. But, again. Would it be difficult for the employee to tell the boss about such a scenario? If the answer is yes, then that demonstrates the issue isn’t the headphones, but the relationship. If the answer is no, then running to HR is an extreme response.

                1. Emily K*

                  But we don’t have enough information to make any judgment at all is what I’m saying. “made a beeline for HR” could mean so many things and have so many possible explanations. We don’t know exactly what words were exchanged, we got a very high-level summary of the gist of what happened from one person’s point of view. I don’t think it’s helpful to make up our minds that there must be one particular thing going on when we just don’t know enough. Better advice would ask LW to reflect on what was said and possible explanations/context for the behavior in deciding how to handle responding to it, not to give advice that assumes there’s only one explanation when we’re filling in a many blanks due to the lack of detail in the letter.

                2. WKRP*

                  Every letter posted here is one side of a story and we all have to deal with the fact that we’re not going to get more information. If we consider every possible scenario, then we’re just spinning wheels to validate, justify one side vs. the other. I stand by what I said, based on the information provided. Which is to say that the boss’s rule is silly. And that it appears there is a sufficient lack of communication between boss and employee. If both parties actually discussed the issue there would likely have been a better outcome. And if the outcome wasn’t better, then that indicates there is a lack of trust in the professional relationship and that is the bigger issue than whether one wears headphones or earbuds.

  28. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    #2, never ever meddle in someone’s FMLA or Safe Leave. If you need more assistance or there’s a burden now placed on the department, that’s always a “company” issue not an employee issue. That’s why they have rules for which companies are required to accommodate the leave, you have more than 50 employees so you should be able to figure out coverage issues.

    Resist the urge to police anything regarding mandated leave and if you have an issue, thinking someone is abusing the law, you need to consult an employment law attorney, don’t do this one on your own, that’s an ugly landmine that will blow up in the tune of big fines and penalties for your company.

  29. Schnapps*

    I also am befuddled by the earphones vs. earbuds difference. It seems to me that earphones would be quicker to take off because you just grab the band and pull it backwards down to your neck vs. pulling out two separate earbuds.

    And in any case, banning one or the other seems like overkill unless you’re in a front-facing position that requires you to be immediately responsive to people.

  30. AnonEMoose*

    I have a different point of view for the OP to consider. I wear earbuds to help me block out distractions, such as other conversations, people walking by, noise from the nearby coffee area, and so on. My coworkers know that if they need my attention, they should do one or some combination of the following:

    Wave in my line of vision (but NOT close to my face).
    Say my name.
    Knock on the end of my desk.

    I respond to any of those quickly. If I weren’t allowed to wear the earbuds, I’d have to work harder to block out the ambient noise, which would make me LESS responsive to people trying to get my attention. When I’m wearing the earbuds, I’m able to keep a slight bit of my attention listening for cues that someone needs me. If I have to block out everything on my own (without the earbuds), then I really DO block out EVERYTHING.

    The OP’s employees may or may not be the same, but it might be worth considering.

    1. Goose*

      Yes, it is exactly the same for me. So much of my bandwidth is going to trying to block noise or being constantly unnerved by it that I make mistakes and my productivity suffers.

  31. LaDeeDa*

    Twice a day reporting: if that is something new that has never been asked of you or anyone else before, you need to have a conversation. A good manager would have explained it up front, but since they didn’t, you are you going to have to ask.
    You may be working your butt off, but maybe you aren’t prioritizing in the way they want, or maybe working your butt off isn’t getting the results they want, and they are trying to understand. Maybe they have noticed you on your phone or non-work related websites a lot. Hopefully, it isn’t anything like that, maybe they are asking you to track to justify a new headcount since you are working so hard!
    Again, the manager really should have addressed the why before asking you to do it, but since they didn’t you really need to ask them.

    1. Dagny*

      The problem is that this manager is imposing a requirement on one staff member, and that person is the only one who belongs to a protected class. That is a poor idea. I doubt this manager ran the idea by HR before doing it.

      If there is an actual performance issue, this is not how to solve it. This is micromanaging.

      My advice would be to have a meeting with the manager and one of HR or her one-over-one, and include the magic words, “I’m the only person in my department being required to do this.” Differential treatment is discrimination.

      1. LaDeeDa*

        The manager should have, from the get-go, explained why OP was being asked to do this. I don’t HR needs to be brought in yet, OP just needs to ask. IF there seems to be some discrimination or some unfair treatment, then bring in HR, but until that conversation has been had, she has no idea what is up.

      2. Just My .02*

        Differential treatment may be discrimination, or it may not, depending on the reason for it. I agree that it should have been explained to the employee, but it could be for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with discrimination. Just because she is the only woman in the department doesn’t automatically mean she’s being discriminated against.

    2. Mediamaven*

      The manager should have been clear, but maybe they were and we aren’t hearing both sides. All I know is, anytime I’ve seen someone put on that aggressive of a reporting schedule it’s because they aren’t meeting goals and accomplishing projects. I imagine that’s at plan here.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I wanted to reply to this. Something similar happened to me in an OldJob. I was performing well, was well-liked by end users and teammates and getting good marks on my performance reviews, when all of a sudden my boss started requesting status reports, pulling me into his office to ask what I was working on and such. Then a couple of months later surprised me with a six-month probation and an “unacceptable” mark on my performance. Come to find out, the boss sat on the opposite side of the building, hardly ever saw me in person, and received all his information on my day-to-day work from a PM who sat next to me. Apparently there was a lot of misunderstanding in how the PM perceived my work performance. Boss never asked anyone else for their assessment of my work (like, maybe, the end users?!) and I had no idea he had that backdoor distorted-information channel going on. I almost lost my job over this. Looking back, the random status update requests were the first sign that something was off, but I was new to the work world and assumed it was normal process, and so never asked him why he was doing it until one day he had me in his office and was threatening me with termination.

  32. OhBehave*

    OP – given the extreme behavior of the employee when you reminded them of your discussion (made a beeline to HR), what is their reaction to being interrupted?
    Are the interruptions valid or could it have been handled via email?
    Did you give them earbuds to wear immediately? They probably don’y have them at work.
    Others have pointed out that they would have to remove an earbud, so still a delay.
    What are we missing?

  33. Lynca*

    I don’t even think you need to specify what the physical therapy is for. “I have a physical therapy appointment X day in the morning for the next 8 weeks.”

    Most people would just assume it’s for a knee/back/shoulder problem.

    1. nnn*

      You could passive-aggressively enhance that assumption by “unconsciously” touching your knee/back/shoulder while saying that you need physical therapy.

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

      I think that even saying it’s a physical therapy appointment would invite more questions, especially if the boss is worried this will be a workmen’s comp issue for a repetitive motion injury, or that the company should provide some sort of accommodation like a standing desk or special chair. It’s probably best to be as vague as possible using Alison’s script, “weekly medical appointment for the next eight weeks…I can definitely get a note from my doctor if you need it.”

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        In my experience, when I’ve notified my manager I have PT, no further questions are asked. But I realize some managers are nosier than mine.

        1. 'Tis me*

          Smiling and saying “other than needing the time off, it’s not something that should affect or be exacerbated by work, it’s just one of those annoying niggles that’s better taken care of now so it doesn’t become a serious nuisance.” then changing the subject – basically assuming that the manager is asking from a place of concern and checking if you need any accommodations and assuring them you don’t should satisfy most people? If they push further then say “It’s just an old injury – you know how it is, you assume it’ll get better and then realise ages down the line that it never quite has, see a doctor and realise you should have mentioned it ages ago” (which if it’s childbirth related probably isn’t a lie)… if they push further, reiterate about the note if it’s needed, say how much you appreciate their support, and offer to ask the doctor if there are any accommodations they can think of which would help.

  34. Yvette*

    With regards to #4, I have been in the position of knowing people who have gotten Dr. notes and they are extremely, purposefully vague, along the lines of: “So and so had an appointment at my office, on Date/Time, she/he is cleared for return to work ” So no need to worry about your Dr. “outing” you. And anyone who presses for specifics after the phrases Alison suggested is either completely clueless of social norms, or totally lacking in boundaries.

  35. softcastle mccormick*

    I work in an office with a super-strict no headphones, earbuds, nothing of any kind rule, and I just want to say that it SUCKS. It’s the WORST. Our management has the same reasoning you do, and say that we shouldn’t feel “entitled” not to be interrupted at any time for a question from anyone, which is super frustrating. We have one supervisor who, like you, feels awkward asking people for their attention, or, god forbid, having to wait or come back at a later time.

    It makes people chattier, you can’t escape from mindless conversations, eating noises, weird sounds, complaints, etc. It makes it hard to focus and easier for folks to interrupt you with non-sequitors or generally disrespect your time/lunch breaks. When a coworker is driving me crazy, I have no escape. When the printer is making odd sounds or they’re installing something weird in the hall, you can’t block it out. I /hate/ it, and everyone else does too. Not to be dramatic, but please, PLEASE don’t be like our management team. I beg of you.

    1. LaDeeDa*

      OMG I don’t know how you do it. I can’t. I found that people think twice about stopping by just to chat when people have their headphones on. It is a signal for “I am actively trying to concentrate and block out distractions.” People know they can interrupt if it is necessary, but they do think twice about non-essential things.

      1. softcastle mccormick*

        It’s actively awful. My team is chatty by nature, and not allowing them to focus using headphones (something we’ve all literally begged for) actively causes 20-minute cubicle conversations, office gossip, debbie-downer-style complaints out loud, and just general TMI talk. It’s absolutely the most counterproductive thing, and is non-negotiable in any way to our supervisor who will get visibly upset if you bring it up.

  36. LaDeeDa*

    #2, please please please do not do anything, especially anything that could jeopardize her FMLA. You have no idea what she is doing, and what she is going through, or how much of a dangerous situation she is in. Let her deal with it in whatever way she is dealing with it.

    1. Samwise*

      Right. For all OP knows, the soon-to-be-ex is the one violating the order and the employee was too afraid to make him leave. Or who knows. OP needs to BUTT OUT.

      1. Advocate for DV survivors*

        And this contact, despite the order barring him from contacting her, may be safer for her than reporting the violation.

  37. Alison Read*

    In regards to the co-worker experiencing domestic violence – it feels like the OP needs to do some self analysis on what they’re trying to accomplish. I got the feeling OP felt dangling the revocation of FMLA benefits might convince the co-worker to make that final break or maybe they just want to punish her? Either way, neither outcome would really change the OP’s situation and likely would not change the co-workers behavior. Domestic violence is so very complex, particularly with children in the mix. Making the break involves so much more not to mention completely re-wiring a learned behavior. I get it that it’s frustrating for those on the outside to watch. The OP needs to accept she can’t change her co-worker’s behavior and like Alison suggested, limit her effort to focusing on remedies to address what is actually impacting her.
    TL/dr: You’re not going to change DV victims’ behavior; telling on her will not accomplish OP’s desired result.

    1. Andy*

      /\/\all this up here/\/\
      think about what you’re hoping to accomplish with that info. What’s the goal? Assume that she’s doing her best, even if that doesn’t look like what you are expecting it to look like. She is.

    2. EPLawyer*

      What is the goal? If you need her to stop oversharing in the office — which you can totally do — you need to tell her that. Not in a rude way as in saying when you bother to show up can you shut up about your problem, but more in a I know you are dealing with a rough time but I need folks to be able to focus on work kinda way.

      As for seeing her with her ex, you have no idea what they were talking about. I have plenty of DV clients and they still need to talk to their ex about the kids. Who knows, she might have felt that in her car away from where the kids could hear would be the best solution. Better than a public place where everyone could overhear and judge her now isn’t it?

      You can address the work issue of her oversharing as you would any performance issue. But leave her personal life alone.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yep. You have two completely separate problems here. One is that you’re frustrated because your employee seems to be spending time with the person you’ve arranged to make it easier for her not to spend time with. And the other is that you don’t have enough staff to get all of your work done. Keep them separate, and recognize that you only have the ability to affect the second problem.


    I know this is weird, but my ears are oddly shaped, and earbuds are painful for me to wear. If this is just an optics issue, please rethink.

    1. Maria Lopez*

      Even if they are perfectly normally shaped, if you have TMJ the ear buds will hurt.

  39. Juli G.*

    The next time you complain that your HR team is taking too long with an important problem… remember that it could be because of incompetence or it could be because part of their time is spent dealing with someone is mad because they were told to use earbuds not headphones by someone that can’t wait 10 seconds for acknowledgment.

  40. LoopyATX*

    I actually left a job because they had a rule that you couldn’t listen to anything while at work. It wasn’t customer facing, I didn’t have a team to communicate with, and didn’t have to be on the phone.

    I just emailed/faxed companies requesting and receiving records sitting in a high cubicle. Also, you couldn’t have anything personal any where on your desk.

    It was mind numbingly boring and the day went so slow. I lasted 2 weeks.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I get the feeling they had really high turnover. For mind numbing jobs like that, you have to allow the comforts of a personal device or desk decor, etc. Just yikes. I’m glad you left.

  41. Utoh!*

    I think the earphone/earbud could have been nipped in the bud if the manager included their staff in coming up with a solution, not just decree one to satisfy her (since she had not heard any complaints from end users). I agree with this as I also work in IT, and think we need to be aware of what is happening around us, though we also have days where we can work on projects and it helps to have something as a buffer for distractions.

    1. Batgirl*

      Right – a civil conversation gets more respect than any manager title. If OP had just said “I feel like the headphones are a signal not to interrupt” they could have been reassured as to the contrary or opened up a win-win dialogue.
      Instead they jump in with a bunch of assumptions that very likely aren’t true: that the employees aren’t helpful, that the headphones are a FU, that a lack of immediate compliance is ‘in complete disregard’. How can the employees raise logistical matters, like accommodations or simple workflow tools, in those circumstances?

  42. Aggretsuko*

    I would rather have a quiet office so I didn’t need headphones, but since that will never happen….

  43. Bilateralrope*

    Let’s assume the headphones are used to block distracting noise. It’s easy to see how they are a nessacary tool for IT to do their job.

    My understanding is that to get a similar level of noise reduction in earbuds, you need active noise cancelation. Which makes them more expensive.

    So, if this rule stays, should the employer or the employee pay for them ?

  44. voyager1*

    I worked somewhere that didn’t allow earbuds at all, not even just one in the ear. However you could play music or have talk radio on as long as it didn’t disturb the others. It was rather comical listening to Rush Limbaugh and Terry Gross in the same dept.

    That being said I think the employee is completely in the wrong about going to HR about earbuds. I would take that as a power play by the employee and would consider that going forward with any issues going forward.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I don’t think that at all. I think employee went to HR to check the policy facts.
      And because manager is being ridiculous considering headphones/headsets are also used for online meetings and such.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I find it amusing that it’s viewed as a power play by the employee but not a power play by a manager who randomly decided to remove headphones from their department, without even a days notice. That’s a power play to me and then getting mad that they went to someone seemingly above the boss, that screams insecurity in your decisions. If it’s no big deal and HR was all “meh manager’s call, sorry dude.” then it’s just one of those things.

      It’s HR, it’s not like he went to the manager’s boss.

      1. voyager1*

        She is the boss. He rule her rules. I think the difference between headphones and earbuds is silly too. But as employee I wouldn’t waste whining to HR about this. If I was the manager and my employee did this I would take that into consideration going forward when it came to things like raises and promotions. You would say that is petty, and it is probably, but I am not going to put up with that kind of insubordination. It is earphones this time, maybe next employee doesn’t like his hours or his work. I would want to stop this running to HR over silly stuff real quick.

        1. Tinker*

          If I went to HR in a circumstance like this one and my manager openly violated our non-retaliation policy in response, I would call the corporate ethics line and report the violation.

        2. Need a better name, CPA*

          So, you’re saying you would retaliate against an employee who reported a problem to HR?

          1. voyager1*

            Retaliation is your word. But if I managed two people and one is a whiner and the other can take direction, then yep when it came to a promotion then I would promote the second person who doesn’t whine and make problems for me. I think you would be hard pressed to find a manager who doesn’t feel that way.

            That is why AAM states frequently about choosing your battles as an employee when expending capital.

            1. Tinker*

              …. oooookay.

              So, if the “whiner” person came to you subsequently and asked “why’d you promote Bob over me” would you literally say to them “because you whined and made trouble for me with HR?” Would you put that in writing or say it in front of witnesses?

              1. voyager1*

                If that is the exact wording they used, I would still give a very professional response about how he was excelling at his job and duties and how that earned him a promotion.

            2. Phoenix Wright*

              Please tell me you don’t actually manage people. Employees deserve better than being punished for reporting problematic situations to HR.

          2. Richard*

            Are you saying there shouldn’t be any consequences for an employee that disregards a direct instruction minutes after it’s given?

        3. Batgirl*

          “I would take that into consideration going forward when it came to things like raises and promotions”
          Only if you managed to retain the employee.

  45. WillyNilly*

    I have ear issues, I cannot use ear buds. Its external earphones or nothing. Seems like a truly bizarre thing to need to get a Drs note and ask for an accommodation for (though my ear issues are medically documented already, so I guess I could…)

    Set the rule either they can wear neither, or either, but choosing which style someone else should use is ridiculous.

    1. Arctic*

      My ears are just dumb. So not a medical issue. But buds definitely don’t work for my stupid ear holes at all.

  46. Comms Girl*

    I have a bit of tinnitus (ear ringing) and earbuds tend to make it far worse than headphones. Earbuds can be really inconvenient for some people, and I agree with the people above pointing out that earbuds are barely noticeable and can thus cause more awkwardness as colleagues of cliente will sometimes keep on talking until they realise the other person is still not listening.

  47. Arctic*

    But how many internal users are just approaching IT with an issue? That’s really bad policy for an IT department. They need to be able to work on issues by balancing most pressing/first come first serve/most complicated. Not by dealing with whoever is in front of their face at any given moment. That’s why IT departments usually have tickets.

    I realize there is a big customer service (even when the “customers” are internal) aspect to IT. But they also genuinely need to be concentrating on what can be fairly complicated tasks without distractions.

    You’re the boss. It’s up to you. But I think a communication protocol would be better than an outright ban.

    LW#2: Don’t go there. You don’t know what’s up. If there are work issues address those within the confines allowed with FMLA.

  48. Bopper*


    1) Have you put them into a noisy open environement but they still need to focus?
    2) Have you put them so their desk is facing away from where people usually approach?
    3) Is there a ticket system for certain types of issues?

    Our company has a Walk In Center for people to go to with computer issues…but they have their own room and can focus and are expecting people to walk in and then have a seat across from them.

  49. Meg*

    I’m on the side of headphones shouldn’t be an issue if you allow earbuds. Earbuds are incredibly uncomfortable for me because I have an ear canal deformity which makes it almost impossible to find comfortable earbuds.

  50. IndominusWrecks*

    The earbuds vs. headphones thing makes literally no sense for the reason the OP is complaining about. There will still be a momentary pause while they take the buds out. If you’re fine with people wearing earbuds, you should be fine with them wearing headphones.

  51. Close Bracket*

    I find this unnerving

    I think this falls in the category of “you may find it unnerving, but the employee is not actually doing anything wrong.” Waiting a few seconds for someone to take off their headphones is not a big deal. The solution is to learn to manage your feelings of being unnerved.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yep, exactly. This is a pretty clear case of a manager shifting the onus for their uncomfortable feelings to their employee instead of handling it themselves.

    2. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

      I wonder if OP is also unnerved by approaching a techie, finding them on the phone, and having to wait before “interrupting” them since presumably waiting for a telephone conversation to finish takes longer than the four seconds it takes to remove headphones. Or possibly eight seconds to remove earbuds, since there is a longer reaction time to realise someone isn’t listening because they’re wearing earbuds!
      What, exactly, is the unnerving part?

  52. MissDisplaced*

    Headphones versus Ear Buds. Honestly, is this a hill you’re willing to die on in order to enforce? Because you’re being very nit picky LW#1.

    People wear headphones or headsets for online meetings because they HEAR better. Or are you banning their use for meetings as well? And if you’re putting people in an open office format full headphones are a must.

    This whole open office thing is getting to me. Not only are workplaces creating these horrid wide open spaces without privacy no one likes, they are also enforcing all kinds of rules about headsets and monitors in them to boot. I just found out we’re moving to an open office plan without seating arrangements… and there will be NO MONITORS supplied unless you have a medical need and special request. Nope! You are expected to work on your tiny 14″ laptop no matter what kind of work you do. Nor will you be allowed to use/bring your own monitor & keyboard if you bought one as I did when I started. It’s a stupid, ridiculous rule.

    Talk about making employees so miserable they want to leave. Because they will.

    1. JustAnotherHRPro*

      I am EMPHATICALLY opposed to open office spaces. Just thought i would take a moment to concur with you.

    2. Slartibartfast*

      If you have to type all day every day on a 14 inch laptop, you’ll have medical issues soon enough.

    3. KC*

      i would leave, that’s ridiculous. so many people will start having neck and hand issues from the poor ergonomics of laptops…

  53. staceyizme*

    Managers are obligated to manage themselves first in order to manage others well. The LW writing in about a direct report wearing headphones didn’t articulate a reason for the rule, just a preference. If the headphone wearer “made a beeline to H.R.”, it could be indicative of some managerial blind spots that don’t serve the team as well as they serve the manager”s preferences. The difference between earbuds and headphones is fairly small. Why expend professional capital on something minor? Most adults prefer to make their own choices about earbuds/ headphones, coffee/tea, type of pens… this seems to fall in that category. L.W. comes off as a bit oblivious or a bit entitled, kind of a “because I said so” type. Most workers (and certainly most skilled workers) wouldn’t care for that approach.

    1. Batgirl*

      Your first sentence nails it. I’m sympathetic, but the manager could deal more constructively with his/her anxiety.

  54. Tammy*

    I alluded to this upthread, but I really think LW1 is focused on the wrong thing here. CAN she make a policy edict that her preference for earbuds over headphones should be enforced for her team? I mean, yeah, sure. CAN she make such a policy decision based on her belief that other people are as bothered by the brief delay it takes to remove headphones (but not by the delay it takes to remove earbuds)? Sure, if she wants to.

    But is it a good idea? I don’t think so. In general, we should trust the people we hire to be mature, respectful, professional adults who exercise good judgment. Part of that means respecting our team members’ autonomy, and it means not making policies to micromanage people’s lives for no good reason. If there’s a problem, we should definitely solve the problem, but even then, we should articulate the problem and work together to find solutions, rather than just mandating solutions (or non-solutions, as seems to be the case here).

    Are headphones ACTUALLY creating a negative perception about how accessible these team members are? Like, have you heard that perception from anybody else? If so, it’s reasonable to sit down with the team member and say something like “I know you like using those over-the-ear headphones. It’s also important that we be seen as accessible to the teams we serve, and I’m concerned that having big headphones on your ears is compromising that. What could we do to improve that problem?” Have a conversation, find out why your team member prefers the big headphones, and problem-solve together. Don’t just dictate your preference as a policy, especially when that preference is seemingly not grounded in objective reality. That’s how you get angry, frustrated, disengaged team members.

    I think this a problem generally in corporate America today: We see the “boss” as the person who has to have all the answers and make all the decisions, and their team members as the “worker bees” who get told what to do. Not only does that set up a very adversarial power dynamic, but you miss out on the collective brain power of a lot of really smart, talented people — who might have information you don’t have that would affect your decisions — that way. I often say that if I’m the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room who has all the answers to everything, I’ve done a terrible job of hiring my team. In fact, I put an incredible amount of conscious work into cultivating my team members’ ability to exercise good judgment and make good decisions, and as a result they’ve achieved some fantastic results so far this year that would have never happened if I’d been the one dictating all the things. I do get the last word, and sometimes I’ll override a decision a team member has made based on information I had which they didn’t have when they made the call, of course. But when I do, I’m as transparent as I can be about the “why” so the team member can learn, because part of exercising good judgment is learning to know when you need to ask for additional information.

    If you don’t really have an actual, objective business problem being created by the headphones, leave it alone and let people do their work. If you do have a problem – beyond just your personal preference – surface that problem to your team members and collaborate with them to come up with a solution that works for everyone. If you don’t trust them that much, maybe look in the mirror and ask yourself why not.

    1. Phoenix Wright*

      if I’m the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room who has all the answers to everything, I’ve done a terrible job of hiring my team

      This is a fantastic phrase, and you seem like a great boss.

  55. Akcipitrokulo*

    Yes, you can say no headphones…. but please don’t.

    Apart from anything else, you risk losing good staff. And is a red flag that would make me wary of deeper issues. Would it make me quit on the spot? No. Would it make me dust off my CV and have a look at what else was out there? Oh yes.

  56. 99 lead balloons*

    Even if I’m not wearing earbuds, I might be reading something or in a state of deep focus while writing/thinking and it takes me a few seconds to transition out of that state anyways. If that would still bother OP1, then they need to re-evaluate what they really want here. Like a lot of other readers, this seems like an insecurity around their managerial authority to basically expect their reports to immediately provide their undivided attention the second they walk in the cube door. Maybe they went straight to HR too fast, or maybe you have a track record of wielding your “I’m the Manager” power inappropriately on other issues, too.

  57. Admin in Arkansas*

    So…like, I get what people are saying about the earbuds vs headphones being a capricious point, but I cannot get behind people acting like headphones are -necessary- to produce work. Many, many, many people work front desks/receptions areas or other positions where people need to be able to walk up to them at a moment’s notice and they are not allowed headphones for obvious reasons but must still produce reports, work on projects, onboard staff, conduct audits, enter leave, etc.

    It is entirely possible to be productive in an office with noise around you and I’m a little taken aback that people seem to think that headphones are natural part of the office when in fact they are a perk.

    1. PersistentCat*

      <.< I feel like I keep repeating myself but: headphones can also be an accommodation for ADA qualifying "invisible" disabilities, that make it exceedingly hard to concentrate or be productive when sensitive to distractions in your environment.
      Headphones are not a perk.
      Not everyone needs them, not everyone wants to wear them, but if there is nothing in your job description that headphones would be incompatible with (front desks, customer-facing roles, what have you), why force people to go above and beyond to get their headphone usage approved, therefore noticeably "special" or "rule-breaking", when most people could benefit from similar usage? Again, this is assuming that the role doesn't REQUIRE incessant interruption. IT also tends to attract folks with the ADHD and other issues which tend to have the "reduced distraction" family of accommodations.
      Regarding safety issues: Obviously, headphones and heavy machinery don't go well together, but over-the-ears hearing protection exists. Obviously, you need to be able to hear an alarm or your phone ring, or whatever. But I see nowhere on this letter where the OP is like, "we can hear their music!" or "they can't hear their phone ring/a fire alarm!". So. That's my bit.

      1. Admin in Arkansas*

        If they are needed due to ADA, that is an accommodation, not a perk. I was not speaking to accommodations but I would have hoped that would be assumed so that people don’t have to make caveats for every opinion presented in a comment section.
        I was speaking to the tons of people in this comment section acting like noise in an office is a brand new phenomena and there is clearly no way to get work done without headphones.

        1. PersistentCat*

          Admin in AK, I think you’ve missed my point. For quite a few folks, the ability to wear headphones without formally requesting an accommodation is actually incredibly beneficial. For the use of headphones to not automatically make them subject to inquiries about what exactly is wrong with them to be allowed headphones when no one else is…or have your manager try to prevent you from wearing them just because of the “optics” (and this applies to oh so many accommodations that look like benefits)…it’s a terrible thing to deal with at work.
          Instead, adults individually determining that (whatever interval; daily, projects time, etc) headphone usage allows for increased concentration and productivity-the cubical equivalent to shutting the office door-allows every one to benefit. It may not need to be explicitly spelled out, but headphones for ANY usage is still not a perk. Not just a non-perk when you have accommodations. They are a tool for productivity. It is up to the manager to deal with performance issues that concern their employees; if they are using their productivity resources appropriately, no issues should result from simple headphone usage.

          1. Admin in Arkansas*

            I believe I understand your point about headphones being a productivity tool, but for some positions its not an option and those people still get work done, so sorry, it seems to me like if you’re allowed to use a productivity tool that others aren’t (minus if that reason is for an accommodation), then it is indeed a perk.

            It’s also entirely possible that I’m being a brat about not being allowed to wear headphones yet am still held to the same productivity standards as those that can.

            (P.S.: Small pet peeve…AK is Alaska, not Arkansas. Arkansas is AR (Ark. if you’re an AP-phile).)

            1. Tinker*

              I believe I understand my mechanic’s point about air wrenches being a productivity tool, but as a software engineer I am not allowed to use an air wrench and yet still manage to successfully test smartphone apps so sorry, it seems to me like if you’re allowed to use a productivity tool that other people aren’t then it is indeed a perk.

        2. Goose*

          It is not clear in your comment that you are only speaking to the people you believe are just being babies whining about noise and headphones, and not to the people who actually need them. What you seemed to be saying is that you find it hard to believe that anyone would need to wear headphones because you yourself work as an admin, and noise isn’t a new phenomenon. But I may have misinterpreted what you said.

          How can you look at someone wearing headphones and know whether it is an ADA accommodation or not?

          Just because it does not occur to you does not mean that disability is not an important part of these kinds of conversations. Making blanket statements that imply it is ludicrous that any one would need headphones very clearly is not taking people with disabilities into consideration. It is an ableist mindset.

        3. Aspie AF*

          There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking:

          -Someone who needs headphones due to a medical condition often doesn’t look any different from their peers. You couldn’t normally tell that I’m autistic, for instance, and I have the legal right to the accommodation of headphones without it being obvious that they are medically required.
          -Neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD were developed based on boys, and that stereotype persists, even in the medical community. This means that women are underdiagnosed – factors such as gender norms make symptoms easier to mask or dismiss. An adult assessment can be upwards of $4,000 (yes, this is an actual figure quoted), meaning that it’s infeasible for many to get the legal protection of that diagnosis. There are robust methods of self-diagnosis, for instance I self-diagnosed in 2012 and obtained a formal diagnosis in 2018.

          I am more than a bit taken aback that you seem to have trouble empathizing – the circumstances in which people are wanting/needing headphones do not affect you in the least.

    2. blink14*

      100% agree to this – and going by your username, it sounds like we’re both in positions where wearing headphones could actually be harmful to our work.

      I’m in a small department with a couple offices and a few cubes – all open doors unless someone is on a phone call, and this has created a speaking across offices environment. One of my co-workers wears headphones and I’m often repeating myself when speaking to them, because either I don’t know they have them on, or I start talking before the headphones come off. It’s against the grain in our office culture (academia).

      If your job is more independent, is in a large open space, etc, then I can see the uses for it, but otherwise I find it kind of ridiculous.

    3. Tie*

      Different people have different work, different work requirements, and different work styles.

    4. Goose*

      People also have different jobs and have different responsibilities. It shows a lack of imagination on your part that you think no one would need any special accomodation to do their work. It’s true that many many people work front desks, but probably most people don’t? People have all kinds of jobs. Different positions demand different levels of immediate access.

      Offices are not “natural” in any way whatsoever, and it’s ableist and infantalizing to call my ability to cover my ears is a perk.

      1. Admin in Arkansas*

        Again, I was not referring to accommodations. Different positions do demand different levels and I was presenting the side that has to do their job without them since very few in this comment section seem to have such jobs.

        1. Batgirl*

          I’ve had front desk jobs and, even with ADHD, I can do them without noise-blockers because it’s my job to seek and welcome interruption. I’m not doing surgery, I’m looking to help.

          But for high focus tasks where I need to block out noise? I can’t do that without a tool. Oh, and for many years I was undiagnosed so I didn’t have this as a special accommodation. I simply expected managers to have common sense (they did) and to know that noise + high level of accuracy for detailed tasks = disaster even for nuerotypical people.
          There’s a reason librarians shush you!

          1. Goose*

            Yes exactly. Where I currently work I was formerly at the front desk and was the main phone customer service rep. Within that role I was able to work without headphones because the functions of my job required different kinds of focus. I was expecting to be interrupted at any moment because it was a part of my job. I had to be aware of what was going on around me and to be ready for any customers, vendors, or board members who may show up.
            Now I have a wildly different position and I need to focus. I still had sensory challenges in that position but my duties demanded different parts of my brain so I had different needs.

    5. Me*

      I would argue that in most workplaces the number of people that have duties that require them to be immediately available for walk-ups is considerably fewer than those that do not.

      It’s productive for some people to work with noise. But there’s other people who work better without noise. It’s not that headphones are a natural part of an office, but more that managing your employees to a totally unnecessary level for no reason other than a personal preference is, well petty. Good managers don’t make up rules for the heck of it. Employees do better when not treated like children.

    6. Tinker*

      Well, jobs, work environments, and people differ.

      I’m a QA for a mobile multimedia app, for instance, and so sometimes it is literally part of my job to be listening to the audio output from a device. While technically I could do this from the device’s internal speaker as well, I work in an open office with several other people who have generally similar jobs and if we all did this then chaos would reign.

      And then also, for me it’s not a matter of “acting like” the use of headphones to control the auditory environment is generally necessary to produce work given my current office environment, it’s that for me they factually are; I don’t get work done if I don’t use headphones. Granted that this has some to do with that I’m definitely autistic and possibly also ADHD, but nonetheless I am a person who exists and has a job and a sort of person that one can reasonably expect to encounter in the work environment, particularly in my industry.

      It’s not a coincidence that I work in jobs that benefit from being able to iteratively create systems and navigate complicated conceptual webs and not in jobs that are centered more around throughput of medium-complexity decisions — I’ve tried working in jobs like that and they have gone horribly for all concerned, so I do things that I’m good at instead.

      1. Tinker*

        Also, to hopefully forestall going down the “that’s different, that’s a disability” route again — a) I didn’t have a formal diagnosis until two years ago and still don’t have formal accommodations at work because b) I’ve thankfully had fairly limited exposure to work environments where “this is the best way for me to do the sort of work that I do” requires a doctor’s note to protect it from arbitrary managerial whim.

        I do recognize that this isn’t the way everyone lives, but I think that where that’s the case it’s a problem.

        1. scorpysuit coryphefuss arterius*

          This is a really important point! Allowing things that can be accommodations for some / ‘perks’ for others when possible can be a really important way to be a more genuinely inclusive workplace.

    7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      There’s a difference between having a job where headphones/earbuds are not allowed and when you have this option taken away simply on a whim of a manager who decides that despite a company in general being “headphones are fine barring you being in a role where they impede your ability to do your job”, it’s unacceptable to start yanking them away from people.

      You may not need them. You may be happy to work without them. Others are not. Others seek out employment and ask for accommodations that they require to work well and produce their work product. You are different, they are different. You cannot use the “well my job says no headphones and I’m fine, so what’s your deal, man?” That’s not how the world works. So should I go ask why someone is using a mobility device because “well I don’t need it and work fine standing on my feet, why do you need that cane?” That’s pretty severe of course but in a lot of cases, if you read the comments, you’ll see that some people with ADHD or sensory issues do require a quiet space to work and concentrate.

      You’re not in programming, you’re not sat in front of a screen reading or generating code all day. That often requires you to have intense concentration and having the noise canceling headphones assists greatly in making it faster and more efficient.

      I’ve worked in positions that do not lend well to headphones. I’ve had to tell customer service reps who have heavy phones they have to remove their headphones. I’ve also had them then need to devote time to intense data entry and the noise of the phones someone else is picking up and the chatter in the office is very distracting, we don’t have an office to move them to, so to make their lives easier, they use headphones for that kind of product.

      It’s a tool. I can also put together my office furniture by hand and don’t need a screw driver in all instances but man, they make things so much easier and more efficient.

      It’s about the quality of work and it’s about the quality of life the people who are doing the work have at the office.

    8. Rectilinear Propagation*

      I’m a little taken aback that people seem to think that headphones are natural part of the office when in fact they are a perk.

      That depends entirely on the office culture.

      Headphones have been a natural part of the office in every job I’ve held. Referring to them as a perk would be like calling wearing a belt or a ring a perk. It’s not strictly required to do your job but it also makes no sense to have a rule against them or view being able to wear them at work as a favor your employer is doing for you.

      You’ve said you’re not talking about disabilities that would require accommodation but there’s a whole range between not disabled at all and completely disabled. It’s reasonable that someone who would struggle to be productive in a noisy environment refer to headphones as a ‘need’, even if it isn’t due to a disability or completely impossible.

      1. Tinker*

        As a note on this too — there are definitely work environments where it’s not allowed to wear rings. In those environments, nobody is permitted to wear a ring as a “perk” because the reason for not wearing them is to avoid a type of incident that I shall refrain from describing. That doesn’t necessarily make it a perk to wear a ring to the office, though.

        I won’t say that this is absolutely factually the case, but at least I usually consider a perk to be something more like “my company gave me a pair of expensive noise-cancelling headphones” rather than “I’m allowed to do a normal thing that there’s no business reason for not allowing me to do” — that latter (and also, that if there is a business reason that it’s not appropriate to grant exceptions as a reward) I do consider to be a given.

    9. Akcipitrokulo*

      No one has said necessary.

      Useful, yes. And while productive without, more productive with.

      Like no one is saying you CAN’T put a table together with a manual screwdriver… but a powered one is better.

      1. Admin in Arkansas*

        Quite a few people have, actually. Look through the comments.

        Again, I understand they are a tool, but they are a tool that not everyone has access to and yet those people are still held to the same production standards.

    10. not that clever, really*

      I agree. The wailing and gnashing of teeth over headphones is kind of mind boggling to me. Folks are very focused on “but some people need them.” That’s true, but most people don’t. It’s a preference like setting the thermostat to 71 rather than 74. If all the headphones disappeared tomorrow the economy is not going to come to a grinding halt.

      1. Batgirl*

        I would honestly have just done as the boss asked in the moment; but I’d be looking for a new job with a leader who wasn’t subject to random whims.
        I’d also be documenting in an email how I hope the noise distraction doesn’t cause an increase in mistakes (Because it almost certainly will) so the blame ends in the right place.

    11. InterestingNameHere*

      “It is entirely possible to be productive in an office with noise around you ”

      With some engineering and technical jobs – no. No, it is not possible.

  58. JustAnotherHRPro*

    Allison – as someone who is hearing impaired, it is important to also mention that earbuds are more detrimental to your hearing than beats, or another headphone that covers the whole ear. At least that is what my doctor told me. Of course, I don’t listen…

    And to the OP – as an HR professional, I agree with Allison. Unless the headphones are at a detriment to their productivity, I wouldn’t pick this one as your battle. They could very well have white noise or something else calming playing. I would however ask that they put mirrors in their cubes (if their backs are to the opening) so they can be more responsive to people. But I find this rule to be a little unreasonable IMO.

  59. Goose*

    Re: the headphones.
    He may have challenges that you can’t see. HR may even know about a disability he has disclosed and that is why he went to HR. That is what I would do if I had HR and I felt my boss was trying to take away a necessary tool for me to work for no reason other than what he likes to look at.

    I am autistic. I am not out as autistic at work. I work in a very small office and no HR. There are days where I am unable to focus on my work at all without my noise cancelling headphones because of sensory overload. I also have ADHD and have a very hard time focusing because of this. Wearing noise cancelling headphones is a coping skill that I can use in public without drawing too much attention to myself. Some people think that it can look rude, but I don’t think it’s fair to have to live/work in discomfort to make random people more comfortable.
    Additionally, I physically can’t wear earbuds and if my boss suddenly demanded that I wear earbuds and not headphones I wouldn’t know what to do. If I tell him I can’t he will ask why, and I will need to justify to him my physical and sensory limitations. And my option would then be earbuds or nothing which would be sensory hell for me and probably cause me to burn out and lose my job after a few months.

    I understand it can feel awkward to approach someone wearing headphones, but I do not think it’s reasonable to enforce an arbitrary rule on an employee because you feel a little uncomfortable. He may be like me, and the sounds of people working behind me causes me to have startle reactions all day long and it’s really anxiety inducing. Wearing headphones helps. My coworkers can come into my space and knock on my desk or wave in my periphery and it’s much less startling to me.

    1. That One Person*

      Man all this talk of headphones makes me wish I’d brought mine, but I’m more or less on the verge of phasing out earbuds cause of a skin condition in my ears ):

      That aside, I’m not sure why OP didn’t outright rule both outside of phone calls (unless OP prefers they use speaker or the handheld). People shouldn’t be launching into requests as soon as they waltz up to a desk either – you try to grab the person’s attention first. Unless the employees are sitting at their desks with their hands clasped constantly awaiting a new task they’re likely working on things between the in-person visits. This means they’re all going to need that moment of transitioning their attention/finishing a line or thought, or some people might be so focused it takes them a moment to acknowledge the sudden white noise in the background is actually someone talking to THEM and not just background noise. This just means people might be stuck standing there awkwardly for a minute or so regardless.

      If you really, REALLY want this though I think you’ll have to address the “whys” to the employees and do it in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling targeted, and be ready for the discontent as some might understand your reasons and others will be ready to label anything and everything as “stupid” in their book. For me, I disliked new rules and methods the most when I didn’t understand WHY they were being done because they just felt arbitrary, and in some cases just as annoyed when some option was taken away without alternatives.

    2. Close Bracket*

      Will you tell me more about your headphones? I am on the spectrum, and I don’t know whether my distractability from people talking around me is due to that or just bc, but I have been considering purchasing a pair. What make/model are yours? Are you happy with them? Do you have to listen to music in order for the noise cancelling to kick in? Bc having to have music playing would just replace one source of distraction with another for me.

      1. Goose*

        The ones I got were made by Sony and about $40 from Best Buy. I can’t compare them to the more expensive/better known ones as I have not used those. But I love mine and they have helped me a lot. It could definitely be worth the money if it helps you.
        There is a switch to turn on/off the noise cancelling, and you can use the noise cancelling with or without music, and listen to music with or without the noise cancelling. Without music it does not completely eliminate all sound but it blocks most ambient noise and it greatly reduces my anxiety/distraction. I hope you can find something that helps you.

  60. Me*

    I wear headphones not earbuds. I do so because my office is full of people who love to pop in for nothing at all or really unimportant things. Headphones are more visible vs earbuds so it’s a visual cue for people that I’m really busy. It cuts way back on distractions.

    Also earbuds hurt my ears after a while. Banning headphones is kind of a weird rule that comes across really micromanagey.

  61. CouldntPickAUsername*

    you know what, a good chunk of this might be frustration at the awful new uniforms my store is making us switch to but in response to the headphones thing….. suck it up. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have a certain level of professionalism but honestly the obsession with over professionalism in the workplace is too much. Which would you rather have someone not wearing headphones and not working as hard due to distractions or anxiety or would you rather get the job done? Stop acting like your good employees don’t know their own best work habits and can’t manage their workflow, stop acting like your employees are children that need to be lead along by the ear.

  62. Rectilinear Propagation*

    Regarding the second letter, that was NOT where I was expecting that one to go! From the title I thought this was going to be about wanting to intervene.

    My initial reaction to the actual question was…not a charitable one. I suppose they may really be concerned they have an ethical obligation to say something to their employer, but why? I think actually would have made more sense if the LW had thought that their co-worker was making the whole thing up but that appears to not be the case.

  63. CynicallySweet*

    LW 1 – I’d be pretty upset if I was told I couldn’t wear headphones at work (particularity when on deadline). I’m not in IT, but I have a very similar role. And people are very willing to stop by my desk whenever they feel like thinking that they get to skip the normal process and get moved to the top of my to-do list. While occasionally what their asking is important enough to do this with, it’s very rarely the case. I find the headphones are useful b/c sometimes people will be coming over, see they’re on, walk away and I’ll get an e-mail from that same person a couple of minutes later (this happens @ least once a day). They save me so much time of getting interrupted, stopping what I’m doing, listening through the problem, and then usually telling the person to e-mail me anyways b/c a record of changes need to be kept and then trying to figure out where I left off. I think I would be pretty solidly unhappy if I didn’t have my headphones to make people pause and think about how important their question really is!!

  64. Anon-Today*

    Earbuds are worse for ear health, so if the headphones are not noise-cancelling headphones that prevent a person from having normal workplace communication, it doesn’t seem like a hill to die on. If you have evidence that they can’t hear people, you could impose a one-ear-0nly rule.

  65. RUKiddingMe*

    OP2: You really need to dial it way back. If you really understand the abuse cycle then you would know, NCO or no NCO that this type of thing is common. You have no way of knowing why she was with him and it’s frankly none if your business.

  66. Arts Akimbo*

    #4 If I were told “It’s a private medical issue and I don’t wish to discuss it,” I would absolutely not jump immediately to the conclusion that it was pelvic floor therapy. Like, not even my first 20 jumps. I wouldn’t worry about what your manager will think, because odds are he would merely be concerned, not be speculating further.

  67. Purple Jello*

    Perhaps they’re using headphones to subliminally prompt the other employees to use the IT helpdesk ticketing system?

  68. Olives*

    I actually understand why earbuds can be better than headphones. If you need to be able to respond to people, having only one earbud in will allow you to hear people enter your office/cube. Also, if you are facing away from the entrance to your office/cube and have headphones in, I’m sure it’s very difficult to get your attention, so I’d prefer to use one earbud in that case. However, the fact that the employee immediately went to HR and other details in the letter make me think there is more to this story than is told here.

  69. JJ Bittenbinder*

    Oooh, the “You May Also Like” algorithm brings up the letter from the employee whose boss watched her all day by video call as a form of “mentoring.” I wonder whatever happened with that situation. So creepy.

  70. Orange You Glad*

    My rule is 1 earbud is ok. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve ok’d for my team. My theory is that I can still listen to music/podcasts which help me tune out background noise, but let me hear enough that I’m aware when the phone rings or someone calls my name.

    Last summer I had an intern who wore giant (think dj at a turntable) headphones all the time after specifically being told not to. Intern after that wore those bluetooth earbuds in his ears all the time, including while walking around the office. Both these things offended a lot of older people in the office (including my boss) who perceived both these types of headphones as making the person not approachable. My boss is really close to banning all listening devices so I’m trying to get everyone to stick to my original rule.

    1. Close Bracket*

      perceived both these types of headphones as making the person not approachable.

      While implementing your 1 earbud rule, you could work on changing perceptions in parallel.

  71. Steve*

    Headphones are one of the few things that make “open office hell” tolerable. I think this manager is being needlessly draconian. In my opinion, this manager should have a frank discussion about why the employees are wearing headphones, then allow them to wear headphones with the understanding that they will be responsive. And the 5 seconds to take off the headphones and switch their mental process to whatever the manager wants to talk abut IS responsive. The only reason I can see to ban headphones is if there is a safety issue.

    1. Henry*

      I don’t care if someone is listening with headphones or not, I just start talking. No five second wait while they pull out their earbuds or take off their headset. It’s obnoxious to wear them. You are at work you should be working not sitting in a cone of silence, listening to music or podcasts unless you have a medical condition that gives you a reason to wear them.

  72. VictorianCowgirl*

    OP #2: you don’t have any way of knowing whether it was her or her abuser who broke the no-contact order. You have no idea what was happening in that car on the side of the road. Your immediate jump to wanting to instigate punitive actions against her is frankly disgusting and shows a marked ignorance of the cycles of abuse and what it takes to get safe. Educate yourself and activate your decency. Her job may be the only lifeline she has right now. Be thankful for the graces you’ve been given in life and don’t attack those who are already down.

  73. Luna*

    “I think it simply looks bad for I.T. support.”
    Good lord, this makes me think of the dumb reason that it ‘looks professional’ to have employees in certain jobs STAND for hours on end, and not sit down. I don’t care if it looks ‘unprofessional’ — in fact, I’d rather see an ‘unprofessional’ employee sitting, than a ‘professional’ employee standing and making me worry how badly affected their knees and health will be in the long run.

    1. Batgirl*

      Optics are important but I’m honestly baffled at how ‘I am shutting out noise, focused and at work on a task’ comes across as unprofessional.

  74. Loot*

    “there’s a brief waiting period for the employee to remove the headphones and acknowledge the person. I find this unnerving when I approach either of them and have to wait”

    Please elaborate on how them using earbuds instead of headphones solves this issue. If anything it’s only to make it *worse*, cause it won’t be as obvious that they’re wearing them.

    It’s obvious that they are going to push back hard on this, especially if you end up pushing further and banning earbuds too cause surprisesurprise, earbuds didn’t solve the unnerving problem whatsoever.

    And I have to say, I find it absolutely amazing that *a grown-ass adult* can’t cope with waiting the 5 seconds it takes to remove them. Like wow, what other arbitrary bs rules are you going to start implementing cause ~you just don’t like it~

    1. Fiona*

      While you are at work and you work for someone (unless I am addressing a business owner). You do not make the rules. That is why it is not arbitrary.

  75. Malty*

    This is so many comments deep forgive me if this has already been said, but I’d say the headphones aren’t an issue, the issue is you have an employee you explained a rule to and rather than express their concern regarding company policy they just totally ignored you OP. That should not be happening! And I work in retail, where it’s very much what managers say goes and how you look to customers is more important than what’s practical, so I’m used to managers sometimes enforcing rules simply because it looks good and I can absolutely imagine a manager feeling that headphones just LOOK unproductive, but the commenters and Alison are right that you should overcome this impulse and let the headphones stay. (I only throw this in here because some commenters seem shocked you’re even making this is A Thing and surely we all know headphones are fine and let’s be grownups but hey, we don’t all come from functional work backgrounds and if I worked in an office and was allowed headphones I’d cry with joy. We don’t all automatically know this stuff so hopefully you see the comments and learn.)

  76. Paperdill*

    OP#4: Hands up here as another member of the “needing regular physical therapy for pelvic floor issues” club. I don’t have any better advice to offer than Alison has already given, but I just wanted to let you know you aren’t alone. (And yes, it feels hella awkward to have to talk to bosses about getting this time off, I know. I had the exact same conundrum. Take care.)

  77. Sick Civil Servant*

    Ok, I admit that I’m the Queen of weird injuries. I hurt my knees praying in a Catholic Church. I torn ligaments bowling. I had a spontaneous bleed in my middle finger. I could go on &on but I had to get physio for all those injuries. People look at me strangely when I talk about my injuries. Feel free to borrow one of my injuries & claim it as your own. People very quickly lose interest in my physio appts!

    1. VictorianCowgirl*

      Well I relate to you. I tore my ACL and meniscus changing diapers on the floor.

  78. Mrs B*

    Kind of baffled by this one and Alison’s response. I could understand a no listening devices policy, but not a only a certain type of listening devices policy. As someone who also cannot use earbuds, I’d be upset if using listening devices were allowed for some people but not for others because it seems an arbitrary rather than a policy based rule.

  79. Tom*

    OP1 – could there be a legitimate need for over ear headphones?
    I am in IT support as well – and use headphones also for my Cisco softphone.
    So, i could be working -listening to a call in issue – which you may not know.

    And, if i am on such a call – i think it is rude to just hover around me waiting to finish the call.
    Sometimes we too have confidential info (with remote support, there is a lot of things we see, that we shouldn`t) – and it feels like those ‘hovering entities’ are actually trying to eavesdrop. that is ‘not cool’ – and frankly extremely rude.
    And yes, i`ve sent people out of my office for ‘hovering’ while i was on a call.

      1. Judy Johnsen*

        How does someone in the office talk to you about an issue that they need assistance with, if they cannot approach you on a phone call?

  80. InterestingNameHere*

    This policy is ridiculous. Earbuds can block out just as much ambient noise as headphones. The ones that seal in your ear mean you can’t hear much at all. The Etymotic ones, for example.

    People in IT need to concentrate, and even one hushed conversation can throw an hour of deep thought off-track.

    Give them their headphones, geez.

  81. Anonymous13*

    Regarding the question about the employee who was spotted with her abusive husband: Speaking from personal experience, leaving an abusive relationship is much harder and more complicated than it seems. On the outside it seems obvious to everyone else that she should just LEAVE, and it can be mind boggling why she’d still want to talk to him….it’s something that is impossible to understand until you’ve been through it. Many, many women go back multiple times. Abusers are manipulative and they are good at controlling their partners, that’s what lead to this situation in the first place. They create a sense of isolation from everyone else in your life, and can make you feel like they are the only one who understands you. It took me 7 years and many tries to finally get out, I also went back after a restraining order. My friends and family didn’t understand which lead to intense shame and further feelings of isolation, both of which just made me feel I needed my partner even more. It’s hard to explain but it’s an extremely common pattern and a very very painful place for a person to be in their life.

    I’d like to encourage that manager to have compassion for his employee and understand that his outside perspective is not adequate to assess what’s going on. These things take time and a lot of courage, usually multiple attempts. The best thing you can do is be patient, and offer nonjudgmental support if appropriate.

  82. Richard*

    The headphones question in general (ignoring the weird earbud/headphone distinction) is a real choose-your-battles issue. If they’re used to using headphones, and you walk in one day and say they’re no longer allowed to with no warning and minimal explanation, you really have to expect blowback and be prepared to defend a significant rule change that will significantly affect the day-to-day work of your staff. If you can’t point to a serious, concrete reason for this rule, it’ll appear arbitrary and you’ll burn up any goodwill you had with those employees and be in danger of losing them quickly.
    They’ll be thinking, what new rules will you suddenly impose next week? No blue clothes? No facial hair? No food or drink at the desk? These would all be within your authority to impose without warning, but who would want to work for you?

  83. Bill*

    It is quite possible that the person in question is on the Autism spectrum, in which case the headphones (specifically headphones, and not earbuds) are an absolute necessity to be able to work effectively (and since most people on this spectrum can concentrate like a computer, ‘effectively’ is really a misnomer, as their work product is beyond par!). I would not make this a rule.

    Also, where I work, hearing protection is required — in a workplace approaching 500 people. I can tell you that many, many people find earbuds incredibly uncomfortable and even painful, as I oversee the PPE we use. I most definitely allow over the ear headphones to anyone who wants them. It’s about being open to the needs of your employees, who then become much better employees.

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