my coworker’s personal life is disrupting our shared office

A reader writes:

I share my office with a woman I’ll call Katie. We generally get along, but she is an awful officemate.

Despite having a desk phone with a headset, she inexplicably takes her conference calls on speakerphone. When I have nicely asked her to switch phones or quiet down, she first puts her hand up and then when she’s off the phone claims that it is easier to speak on her cell phone, even though she doesn’t have a bluetooth for that.

I wish I could say that’s the worst of it. It’s not. She has arguments with her husband at least once or twice a week, sometimes more, and they get pretty personal and heated.

I’m in a role where I am basically tethered to my desk all day and my boss is not keen on me leaving to do my work elsewhere. My work is confidential so it’s not like I can go to a café or other open space to do my work. In order to deal with this, when she’s in the office, I have my headphones on most of the day with the music cranked up. The other day, when she was having another loud argument with her husband, I needed to speak with a colleague about a project we’re working on. I had to message him that I’d have to wait until Katie was done arguing with her husband before I could call him back.

I’ve lost my patience with her behavior so I need to figure out how to shut this down while maintaining my professionalism. (I feel like I lost a bit of it when I disclosed to my colleague why I couldn’t call him back right away.)

But the other thing complicating this is that Katie is highly emotional. After some of these calls she will sit at her desk and cry, although this really isn’t the place for this to happen. I get that life is happening while we’re working, and sometimes emotionally charged things happen in our personal lives that spill over into our professional environments. That’s fine. But this is happening way too frequently to continue to be in the realm of normal.

I want to try to work it out with her before going to our boss. (Also, what would I say to my boss? I couldn’t really say, “She’s incredibly disruptive and awful to share an office with, please move one of us ASAP … No, I didn’t talk to her about it first.”) I need an approach that won’t trigger her since obviously there is a stressful situation at home, but still gets her to stop this behavior. Any suggestions?

Ugh, this sounds really uncomfortable! Having your office mate openly fight with her husband and then cry about it while you’re trying to carry on with your work is genuinely disruptive. As sympathetic as you might be, most people would struggle to remain undistracted by that.

I don’t mean to sound callous. Clearly Katie is under a lot of stress, and I’m sure this is no picnic for her. But when you share work space with someone, you have to be thoughtful about how much of your personal life affects them — and it’s not okay to regularly subject your office mate to your marital fights.

What’s particularly odd is that it doesn’t sound like Katie is taking even basic steps to be a courteous office mate (or to protect her own privacy, for that matter). Presumably, she could step out of your shared office to have some of these personal calls in private! But she’s also taking conference calls on speakerphone (which should really be a felony), and has refused to stop when you’ve asked her to. So I’m thinking Katie is … not especially in tune with how what she does affects others?

(That said, I wonder if you’ve been assertive enough. When she told you it’s “easier” for her to take calls on speakerphone, did you push back at all? Ideally you would have said something like, “I understand you prefer it, but I really can’t concentrate while you’re doing it. I need to be able to work, so I just don’t think we can use speakerphone while the other is here.”)

As for what to do about the disruptive personal calls, you’re right that if you talk to your boss, the first thing she’ll probably ask is whether you’ve spoken to Katie directly. It’s smart to try to address it with Katie now so that if you do need to escalate it to your boss, you’ll be able to say you’ve tried that.

Normally when you want to ask someone to keep their noise level down, it’s easiest to do it when they’re actually making noise, or immediately after. That way it doesn’t sound like you’ve been stewing over it for days. But because we’re talking about marital fights here, it could feel unkind if you ask her to quiet down while she’s obviously upset and emotional. Instead, I think you’ll have better luck if you wait for a calmer moment (not on the same day as one of the fights) and say something like, “I know you’ve been having to take a lot of personal calls lately, and some of them can get loud. It sounds like you’re having a tough time and I don’t want to make things harder on you, but realistically it’s hard for me to stay focused on work when that’s happening. I’m sorry to ask, but if a call is getting heated, would you be able to step into a conference room instead?”

Or, if you’d rather be more casual, you could say: “Hey, I’m sorry to ask, but I can’t focus when you’re arguing with Mark. Can you step out into a conference room if you’re on a call with him?”

Given that she’s refused your request to stop taking other calls on speakerphone, it’s possible she won’t acquiesce here either. But even if she doesn’t, you’ll be in a better position to talk to your manager about the situation because you’ll be able to answer “Have you talked to her about this directly?” with “Yes.”

If it does become necessary to talk to your boss, try framing it as “Can you help me find a solution to this?” For example, you could say, “I’m hoping to get your advice on something. I’m finding it difficult to focus in my office with Katie. She has loud arguments with her husband on the phone in our office a couple of times a week, and is visibly upset afterward. I’m sympathetic, of course, but it’s making it hard to focus, even with headphones. Last week I had to reschedule a call because I couldn’t speak with the person while she was having a loud argument next to me. I’m wondering if there’s a way to move one of us to a different space. Alternately, would you be open to me working from a conference room when this is going on?”

Now you’ve alerted your boss to what’s happening, but you’re not complaining. You’re asking for help finding a solution.

A good manager will hear this and intervene in some way. Maybe it’s moving one of you, maybe it’s giving you more flexibility on where you work from, or maybe it’s talking to Katie about what’s going on — but she should do something other than tell you to just live with it.

Of course, if she’s not a good manager — if she’s overly passive or simply negligent — then she might leave it to you to handle and you’ll end up back with your headphones. But even then you might still feel better knowing that you’ve confronted the situation directly.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 273 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    The petty side of me wants to suggest that LW should just start doing the same things that Katie is doing. Take calls on speakerphone. Have loud, obnoxious personal calls. See how she likes it.

      1. MechanicalPencil*

        Or start chiming in. “Yes! Last week Katie was saying you never emptied the dishwasher. That’s TWO WEEKS in a row. Come on, Mark. Get it together.” Or whatever applies. Start scribbling notes and passing them to Katie on points she could make.

            1. Artemesia*

              I got tired of pretentious men having loud conversations in airport waiting rooms. ‘Well, we have two million on that deal and I insist that blah blah blah blah’ but I waited till the call was loud and personal to do this. The guy was yelling at his wife (having just finished his pretentious ‘business call.’) and so I leaned over got his attention and said ‘why don’t you tell her etc etc’ He got huffy and said ‘this call is private’. I gestured to the 20 of us surrounding him and said ‘well, obviously not.’ And he did get up and glared and left.

              A conference call on a speaker phone in a shared office — no way. I would have been insistent and not accepted ‘it’s easier’ and if necessary escalated it to bring a whoopee cushion or crank up loud music when a conference call is on.

              This is a situation where with passive boss and passive aggressive office mate only a fair degree of insistent and aggressive protection of your right to work will result in success.

              1. Isabel Kunkle*

                I always wanted to do that with people having loud fights on public transit/in apartment buildings at 3 AM.

                Past Downstairs Neighbor, Who Has a Habit of Being Loud: “You LIED to me! About EVERYTHING!”

                Me, Upstairs, Sadly Not Saying It To Her: “Yeah, hon, but if he did it in an indoor goddamn voice I’m on Team Him.”

              2. Collywood*

                I knew I was going to love this comment from the first sentence. I totally was a thread of passive aggressive things people have done to pretentious people having loud private conversations in public spaces. Kinda like the above the law post where they followed up on some guy having loud conversations about layoffs on the accela (?)train.

          1. JSPA*

            She may well believe that your use of the headphones etc means that you’re not listening, and not disturbed.

            Having opinions after the conversations can be a very effective way to get her to prioritize privacy. Say they’ve been talking about things you’d really rather not hear. The “you don’t [act like you find me attractive] anymore, and I always have to drive” (to highly paraphrase) class of information. Plus some argument about the vinyl siding.

            Have a throught-out, detailed opinion or suggestion ABOUT THE SIDING, with apologies that you could not help but overhear, as you’d had to wait on the conversation to be over, to be able to make / take your own call.

            She will have to face that you’re also now well-versed on the other parts of the conversation. She could go to the boss and complain that you’re not minding your own business about her personal calls at work, but chances are, that’s not going to fly. Especially if the worst she can say is, “she talked to me about my VINYL SIDING! And in a conversation where I was also arguing with my husband about the state of our romantic lives.”

        1. Cranky Neighbot*

          I mean, don’t, but L O L.

          My coworker who, thank TPTB, moved to a different cubicle, used to have the same phone conversation with her kids every day. It would have been satisfying to chime in. Rude, but satisfying.

          1. 2 Cents*

            I once had to listen to the woman behind me talk to “Sweetie Face” and “Snuggle Buns” (her two GROWN daughters) every day. Then relay those separate conversations to her husband verbatim. When Sweetie Face got a yeast infection, it was all I could do not to leave a printout on her desk of remedies for her next phone call.

            1. Fluff*

              Dying, almost snorted on my monitor. And yes, you should totally leave a printout on treatments for Sweetie Face.

            2. Kc24*

              That’s horrid.

              I used to work in a public service department where we all had desk phones. There was one lady on the team who was of the generation where it was apparently fine to give out the number for and take personal calls on said desk phone. She was probably about 60 odd. Anyway, she had medical leave one time (it was for something do with her her lady parts) upon her return she kept making/taking personal calls and was never particularly discreet about it. I’ll never forget over hearing one day “it won’t stop bleeding!”. The mental images. I looked over at our 40 something unmarried male manager and I swear in that moment the blood had fully drained from his face and he looked like he was going to chuck. Horrifying.

            3. Librarian of SHIELD*

              Yikes. I cannot imagine the idea of my mother’s coworkers knowing that about me…

          2. Rebecca in Dallas*

            Not at work, but when I lived in an apartment, a mom used to yell at her daughter EVERY MORNING from her front door (which was directly across from mine). I guess Mariah was dragging her feet when they needed to leave for school. I finally started yelling (from behind my closed door), “MARIAH, LET’S GO!”

          3. TardyTardis*

            I lived next to “General Hospital” with a large, sickly family. Little did she know that they’re all in my next novel…

        2. animaniactoo*

          Unfortunately, I could see this significantly backfiring if Katie then takes it as support for when she’s in the middle of an argument and starts actively *looking* to OP to weigh in. Or discuss it at other times.

        3. WellRed*

          As a reporter, I have fantasized about leaning over, pen and pad in hand, introducing myself as such, to the person on a loud call in public to ask for clarification on what was just said.

          1. Free Meerkats*

            Long ago, when I worked a job where I could ride the bus and cell phones weren’t nearly as common as they are now, I did this.

            If someone was having a loud conversation on the bus (back then a lot of it was “Look how important/rich I am, *I* have a cell phone that’s not in a satchel!” And it was almost always dude-bros.) I’d obviously take notes and ask them about the call when they hung up. I don’t recommend this, the reactions ranged from shock to “WTF?!? I’m going to kick your butt.”

            1. Sharrbe*

              I kind of miss taking the bus every day. Lot of interesting people and stories. My favorite was this big tough guy who was on the phone and unleashing every explicative imaginable during the conversation. Ended it with “Ok ma, love you. bye.”

          2. Richard Hershberger*

            I was once on a commuter train with a guy sitting behind me, very loudly and slowly and distinctly giving his social security number out.

            1. Joielle*

              I had this happen once on a train but it was his credit card info! Including card number, expiration date, CVV number, full name, and address. I think he was trying to buy something. COME. ON.

              1. SheLooksFamiliar*

                I heard the same thing while in line getting coffee at Second Largest Coffee Place In The US. Couldn’t help but turn around and ask, ‘Seriously? You’re giving ALL THAT out in a room of strangers?’ Gah.

                Maybe I imagined it but I think at least one person in line looked annoyed that I stopped the lady from shouting out all her private info.

              2. Librarian of SHIELD*

                I had a customer get mad at me once when I pointed out that the entire library just heard her recite her credit card information over the phone, as if I was the one who had violated her privacy.

                We may not need as many public phones anymore, but we sure do need phone booths.

              3. embertine*

                Same! It was on a hugely crowded train and we were both in the section of people standing, in other words every one of us was close enough together to have written it down..

          3. Artemesia*

            LOL Years ago at the NOLA airport when a woman was going on and on about the Bush daughters’ as yet unannounced college choices that she appeared to be privy too, I was so tempted to do something like that — I have many times been sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant or airport waiting room and heard fairly private details that should not have been discussed when you have no idea who is eavesdropping. Once a development officer was pushing a big donor’s widow to divert his willed donation from our small college to the medical school — a really rancid behavior within an organization i.e. steal from the least well endowed unit to fatten the already fat med school. I have heard details about firing someone (who doesn’t know he is to be fired) and details about the upcoming divorces of well known locals. Many of these things are private and should not be noised about and others could be damaging financially or otherwise.

        4. June*

          A coworker mentioned to me that in his previous office, they also had a Katie who did the same thing in a cubicle farm. They started keeping a scoreboard in the front for Katie and Mark’s fights as if it were fantasy football.

        5. Frustrated In DC*

          That is both brilliant and awful. I’m applauding from my desk and half-wish that you’d do that, but it probably/definitely is not the way to go. Probably.

      2. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        Or invite people over and stand around listening intently to the fights while offering comments.

    1. Health Insurance Nerd*

      Right? The next time she’s on speakerphone would be a good time to call your cell phone or cable company to try to renegotiate your monthly rate, or call your hard of heard grandma to see how her bunions are….

      1. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

        Or something really personal – pap smear, STI test, paternity test, etc. Bonus points for playing “I can be louder than you can” whilst on the phone.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Or talk about nothing at all. Just make it a total stream of consciousness chat about any and every errant thought, at full volume, embellishing the mildy interesting parts in great detail. And repeating everything at least twice.

      2. Flash Bristow*

        Or a made up person (non existent call, but Katie won’t know that) whose call gets increasingly ridiculous…

    2. Construction Safety*

      I’m thinking play rastabilly skank music while on the conference calls and play the part of a marriage counselor while she’s on the phone with the future ex-husband, interjecting “That Bad Advice” from the departed blog.

      1. LabDuck*

        I gleefully weaponized the work Spotify account when my lab had personality conflicts. Nothing brings feuding coworkers together like a mutual hate of the thrashgrass (thrash metal + bluegrass) genre.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          A friend used to get alone time for inventory by playing Cajun. This apparently is less effective now that he moved to New Orleans than it was in Manhattan. :D

          1. Bee*

            One of my high school teachers told us about winning a volume war with his downstairs neighbor with bagpipe music – he didn’t even have to get halfway up the volume dial before the neighbor came upstairs to apologize and beg him to stop!

            1. Anonomoose*

              I won a volume war with the restaurant we share a wall with by playing the lectures from a microbiology course I was taking at high volume. Graphic, but scientific descriptions of diseases apparently put people off their food.

              1. SheLooksFamiliar*

                A friend of mine grew up in a church that hosted book and record burnings a lot. He brought a bag of albums and books to one – Pat Boone, BJ Thomas, The Gaithers, Amy Grant before she went mainstream, Tim LaHaye, and lots of Billy Graham stuff. He’d been planning for a while and yeah, he caused quite a ruckus.

            2. TardyTardis*

              I used to be a nurse’s aide in college, and later met a former ER tech in an office–we cleared the place in 5 minutes playing “Grossout”.

          2. Anonny*

            There’s always The Wurzles. Or the Gregorian Chant Nightcore Dubstep Remix of Cotton-Eye Joe. Truly a curséd tune.

              1. Anonny*

                I can’t really blame you, I had the exact same reaction when I first heard of it.

                Also I now remembered that there was a Crazy Frog pop song at one point. I feel that making a Gregorian Chant Nightcore Dubstep remix of that would be extremely effective for this purpose, but would also guarantee you a spot in the circle of Hell reserved for people who commit technically minor but still incredibly heinous sins, like microwaving fish or farting in elevators.

        2. Nonny Maus*

          I had absolutely no idea this existed, but now feel I must find some! Any recommendations for where to start?

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            I just googled thrashgrass and I’m currently enjoying “The Native Howl”…. I think this may be something my metalhead friends & I can go enjoy together. ;)

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              but but doesn’t everyone love Weird Al’s polka hits?

              I mean, you haven’t lived until you hear Enter Sandman as a polka…

              1. AKchic*

                Oddly enough, there are some who don’t… which is why I used it. It’s also why personal music got banned from the EAFB Burger King in 2002.

          2. juliebulie*

            Yes! I too am intrigued! I like thrash, I like bluegrass… based on a previous experience involving beer and fruit juice, I realize that it’s not always a great idea to mix two things that I really like, but I still want to try.

            1. Crocheted familiar*

              I got a bartender to mix a ‘sour’ beer with undiltuted lemon juice (half beer, half lemon juice) because I was disappointed with the level of sour it was originally. He looked at me like I was totally mad when he handed over the tasting glass, but it was honestly great and it became my go-to drink there. Beer and fruit juice doesn’t always go badly (though admittedly lemon juice generally isn’t what people mean when they say ‘fruit juice’).

        3. Quill*

          To be honest I would have loved that lab compared to the 10 songs on repeat we could pick up on the radio on the lab…

          Though I guess it was worth it for all the times the radio sang “why don’cha ride with me, ride with me, see where this thing goes”

          And the lab full of techs would shout “NOWHERE”

        4. Zombeyonce*

          That’s good, but next level music torture is a record of children’s songs on repeat. The same 12 songs over and over again. People will riot.

          1. Toothless*

            A friend of mine has a Spotify playlist called “Songs To Ruin The Mood When My Roommate And Their SO Are Being Too Affectionate” that has a lot of that kind of thing, that might work :D

      2. Arnold Rimmer, BSC, SSC*

        Yes, she’ll soon be pleading with you to put on some Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Motörhead.

        1. Darsynia*

          I’d go with Umbrella. Because when you hear something repeated a bunch it turns into an earworm, and that earworm is super recognizable. The person you’re feuding with will hate themselves any time they start ‘ella ella ella hey hey hey’ in their head.

        2. Former Employee*

          But who doesn’t love Rihanna?

          (As I told a relative, I like Beyonce, but I love Rihanna. I think they were surprised – they are in their early 20’s & I’m older than their mother.)

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      You’re listening to music on your headphones? Listen to it on your computer speakers instead. Loudly. During her phone calls. “Oh, sorry, I’m just trying to drown out your conference call. No, I can’t turn it down; this is easier for me.”

      1. Drew*

        “No, I’m not commenting on anything. ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ just happens to be my favorite song.”

        1. Quill*

          “I don’t know how my playlist turned out to be “the sound of silence” on repeat for three hours, must have been my cat.”

          1. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

            Do seven “What’s New, Pussycat”s followed by ONE “It’s Not Unusual.”

            1. TardyTardis*

              Only if you can have “Delilah” or the Tom Jones version of “Kiss” come up at 50th song intervals…

        2. DerJungerLudendorff*

          And finish off with Cell Block Tango, in case there was still of acrap of subtlety left somewhere.

      2. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

        Oooh, “Yakety Sax” – The Benny Hill Theme Song. It really does make everything funnier.

    4. AdminX*

      I flash to the scene in Scott Pilgrim when Scott’s sister walks away clearly on the phone saying “I know, it’s SO PATHETIC.”

    5. LKW*

      My thought is to call her manager on speakerphone for a work chat. Let the manager overhear the argument … as often as possible.

      1. JSPA*

        That’s for after a direct ask doesn’t work, and after a mild request to the manager doesn’t work.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Yeah, but this would be something, wouldn’t it?

          Or bring popcorn and some co-workers to watch and listen when the fights happen (no don’t!)

    6. kittymommy*

      The really petty side of me would put an OOO message with “I’m sorry I’m not available as Katie is having her twice weekly fight with the hubby. Please call back in 30.”

      1. DerJungerLudendorff*

        “Our office is undergoing regular marital maintenance, please call back after lunch. If the screaming persists, please file a support ticket with our manager.”

  2. Health Insurance Nerd*

    I definitely second Alison’s advice to wait until Katie has calmed down to address this with her, this situation sounds awful. If (when!) you do speak with her, if she reacts how you expect and gets upset/defensive, I think it would be worthwhile to mention that to your boss as well. Something along the lines of “I did mention this to Katie in an effort to resolve the issue independently, and she became extremely upset/defensive”, at least then your manager will be prepared for her reaction when they (hopefully) intervene. Good luck!

    1. Marley*

      I would add in: “I’d already spoken with her recently about taking conference calls on speakerphone, to no avail.”

      In fact, that might be an argument for going straight to the boss, as the officemate has already shown a disinclination to provide basic office courtesy.

      1. Never Been There, Never Done That*

        Not just a disinclination of basic office courtesy but also an inclination to emotional meltdowns when something doesn’t go her way. I feel for the LW, I HATE confrontation and to have to confront someone that sits next to me all day long, ugh. I know this isn’t the right answer but honestly if it were me I would go to the boss and say something like, “I really need to talk with Officemate about her inappropriate behavior. Since we both know she becomes…..upset…when confronted how do you think I should best approach her?” Totally passive aggressive I know but I would want back up and at the same time the boss would be looking for a response and maybe, just maybe, cover me if things get bad.

        1. anon61*

          It doesn’t sound like the wrong answer to me at all. The OP’s has already tried to deal with her loud coworker on her own. To me, it is absolutely the manager’s/boss’es job to deal with this crap, not a co worker’s job. And it isn’t “tattling” either. Tattling is turning in your co worker for something that doesn’t affect you. But if your co worker is making it hard to impossible to do your job, because she is always on the phone being too loud and totally inappropriate, then you have no obligation to try to work it out with her first, and, in any event, the OP has already tried that.

  3. Master Bean Counter*

    The 12 year old in me would get the poot app for my phone and have fun during conference calls.
    The adult in my would just look at her after every single call and say, could you please not do that in the future, it’s disruptive. But really I’d be going to the higher ups and asking for an office switch, for me or her.

    1. GreenDoor*

      But Master Bean Couner, why wait unti lafter the call to look? I’d make a point of dropping what I”m doing, turning my chair to face her, leaning in with eyes wide open like I”m just loving all this personal info I”m picking up. When she hangs up…immediately start asking questions based on what was over heard. “So…what did he SAY when you mentioned the dishwasher?” “Wow! What are you going to do about him never changing the empty toilet paper roll??”

      Perhaps the OP constantly putting on headphones and hunkering down is creating the false impression that the coworker has privacy and that no one cares about her personal calls?

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        Undivided attention. Say it during the call and then the husband says but I told you Katie…And my words are gone. Poof, like a poot.

  4. banzo_bean*

    Maybe OP could make a request to the boss for bluetooth headsets for both Katie and herself. If taking conference calls is part of Katie’s job then a bluetooth headset doesn’t seem like a farfetched solution to half of this problem.

    1. Constance Lloyd*

      I agree a headset is the solution, but the employer has already provided one that pairs with Katie’s desk phone, so if this can’t be paired with her cell I don’t think the employer should have to provide her with a second. Katie seems to want to use her cell phone, on speaker, and fails to see or care that this is an imposition.

      1. banzo_bean*

        I don’t think the employer should have to, but if it really is helpful for Katie to join using her cell phone I think its a worthwhile solution. You can get bluetooth headsets for >$20, so it’s not an astronomical cost to absorb.

    2. Truthieness hurts*

      Katie already has an office phone with a headset that she refuses to use because she wants to use her cell phone. It’s not the office has responsibility to supply her with personal equipment.

      1. banzo_bean*

        Not required, but if it’s a cheap solution to a problem, the company might be open to it. During employee reviews I always ask “is there anything we can get you (supplies or otherwise) to help make your job easier?” If an employee requested a $20 bluetooth headset to make conference calls easier, even if they had a headset for their office phone already, I would gladly order it.

        1. Darsynia*

          Katie’s side of the argument will still be audible, no matter if the other half is not. This might be somewhat of an improvement for conference calls, but not for an argument with her spouse when even without hearing the husband’s side of the audio, Katie’s is still distracting. So it’s a partial solution, and should be framed as one to management if suggested.

          The last thing the letter writer wants is to look like they’re nitpicking by complaining about yet another phone problem after addressing another one just last week. The pattern of behavior is important to note when going to management, in my opinion.

      2. Jennifer Thneed*

        I don’t think she prefers her cell phone so much as she prefers the speaker option ON her cell phone. Personally, I hate the sound quality but I’m not Katie.

  5. Drew*

    I think I wouldn’t start with the loud arguments since Katie is likely to be on edge after them. The conference calls are the same problem without the emotional content, and if you can come at her behavior from that angle and get it fixed, you aren’t wading into the morass of marital issues.

    You’re entirely reasonable to tell Katie you can’t focus on your work when she’s on speakerphone/cell phone in your shared workspace, and she needs either to take those calls privately or move to a different space. That’s true no matter who is on the other end or what the context of the call is. “Katie, I’m sorry, but I need you to take it private or take it elsewhere” is not a request that she should bristle at – and if she does, that’s something you can take to your/her boss.

    Now, as to the personal calls, I don’t think you have to pretend not to know what’s going on with those. My approach would actually be to leave the office in the moment and go to my boss to say, “Katie’s having a loud argument with her husband in our office and I can’t concentrate, so I’m taking a quick break to clear my head,” but I can be petty sometimes.

    Best of luck – this is a tough situation.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      “Katie’s having a loud argument with her husband in our office…” I would add “again.”

  6. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

    Perhaps OP could call their boss while Katie is fighting with her husband? Boss would be sure to hear and maybe intervene?

      1. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

        It is for sure, but it sounds like Katie doesn’t really understand that there’s a whole world that exists around her little bubble. That said, I’d talk to her first and see if it improves. I’m just doubtful any change would last long before reverting.

        1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

          Yes, this. I worked with someone like this. She was this super nice person that bad stuff always happened to, the poor thing, how rough!

          But after I worked with her for a long time, it became apparent that she had poor boundaries and was somewhat emotionally unstable and in grave need of counseling. She was the subject of many closed-door whisper meetings at work, because we were the sort of touchy-feeling workplace where we try to help out people in a bad place, especially ones who had been dedicated good employees for a decent tenure, but her behavior was affecting her work and she was becoming the toxic person in the workplace. It was a really tough situation to navigate, because we had to do right by her, do right by her colleagues, and do right by the company…and there was no way to do all three at once.

          Good luck!

          1. Frustrated Today*

            I’m this situation now with a direct report and it really sucks. But I hope to have it resolved soon!

            1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

              Well, this was a not-functional workplace, so what actually happened was everyone who was at a managerial level to address the issue left in fairly short period of time and then their replacements also left in a fairly short period of time. She ended up moving on naturally after a year or so.

    1. Jennifer*

      That’s what I was going to suggest. Someone in management needs to witness this behavior.

      1. LKW*

        If not her manager, then HR. Just call for a question on policy. “Oh, that’s Katie, having her bi-weekly argument with her husband. I’ve asked her to refrain from doing that in the office, and I’ve spoken to management to no avail. I would like to come and talk to you about it. In the meantime, can you tell me if there is a new policy around workplace gifts?”

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      This is what I was thinking. Save a low-priority esoteric issue that needs to be discussed on screen: “I’m not sure what setting has gotten mixed up on this, would you be able to come down and help me figure it out?”

  7. Guacamole Bob*

    Ugh, I feel for you, OP. The personal calls would really get to me.

    My team’s set up (shared offices) and the scarcity of conference room space in our building mean that we regularly have two people on a conference call in a shared office while the other person in the office is trying to work. I’m on both sides of it at different times – being part of the call or having a call going on near me that I have nothing to do with – and it sucks but we all just do the best we can to put headphones in and tune it out. We all understand why it’s happening and we’re professional about it because it’s what’s required for our work to get done. (There are plans for us to move into a new building with a different setup, but that’s a while away.)

    But long, heated personal calls in a shared office? Especially on speakerphone? That sounds incredibly distracting and awkward and awful.

    1. VERYAnonymous*

      i’ve got someone who has long, heated phone calls on speaker phone semi-regularly. it is wildly uncomfortable, and i know WAY more about them and their SO than i ever wished to. It’s incredibly awkward. It’s also really hard to ignore, and to mentally kind of weigh in on (“well of course they’re mad, you DO belittle them, but they ARE making snap-decisions without asking you first”).

      Then, they call every friend, sister, mother, cousin, etc to talk it over with and get support after so we all get to hear that too.

      1. Polaris*

        I legitimately asked to be moved because of another co-worker’s loud speakerphone calls. Random yelling + open doors + anxiety = many panic attacks. As the person in question was many years my senior and also not in my department, moving me was more effective than trying to discipline him.

        1. VERYAnonymous*

          oh, i just shut their office door while they are on the phone. perhaps a bit passive aggressive, but got the message across pretty clearly.

          1. pope suburban*

            I *wish* I could do this, but alas, there’s no door. The best I’ve been able to do is flee in mortification when my supervisor has irritable phone conversations, or, immeasurably worse, in-person arguments with her spouse. She’s irritable and condescending, he has Peter Pan syndrome, and I don’t think I ought to know any of their details since I’m not a member of their family, but here were are. There’s no way to broach it, given her disposition and my role here, and that’s…unfortunate. A door would be a nice thing with which to try to halt the awkwardness.

  8. CupcakeCounter*

    Best bet is to get boss to witness (or be inconvenienced by) Katie’s phone habits.
    I’d either IM the boss during one of the calls and ask them to come help with a situation in your office so they can either witness the loud personal call or the crying aftermath or set up a call with boss during one of her conference calls and then IM/email saying you need to reschedule because Katie is on a conference call or call with her husband. When boss inquires about why that is an issue, you can say she always takes them on speakerphone and it can get really loud at times.

  9. Muriel Heslop*

    So I just read this with my middle school Social Skills class and one of them said, “Katie has bad boundaries and that person is letting her.” Whatever boundary setting works for you OP, we wish you luck! Please don’t let her poor choices affect your ability to get what you need. If she cries when you confront her, you have to let her own her feelings. You can do this!

    Love, Muriel Heslop’s Fourth Period Social Skills Class.
    PS: Please send an update. We need to know what happens so we don’t get stuck like this when we have jobs.

      1. Quill*

        I know, I need to go back in time and enroll my 12 year old self in that (and then get therapy or honestly a school transfer…)

    1. MaxiesMommy*

      I vote to ask Boss to come to my office ASAP, my computer’s making that funny noise again!

    2. StaceyIzMe*

      Love this! Keep checking in- inquiring minds want to know how life is in the social skills class!

    3. Washi*

      Wow, I definitely did not know what boundaries were in middle school, so your class is working great and/or the youths are way more aware of their feelings these days. Awesome!

    4. TootsNYC*

      oh, I love your class! And I love the idea of using things like this column (Capt.Awkward would be good too, though maybe NSFC) to help them see how things work.

      Oh, please do this more (the getting their input and sharing it with us!).

    5. TootsNYC*

      If she cries when you confront her, you have to let her own her feelings.


      It’s kind of disrespectful to think you can manipulate and control how Katie feels. Be straightforward and respectful, and let her feelings be whatever they are. Don’t try to make her feel bad for having them–just ignore them.

    6. Bears Beets Battlestar*

      I teach social skills class, too! I hadn’t thought of reading AAM to them, but I will now.

  10. Green great dragon*

    Could you channel Steve from yesterday’s letter and start joining in with your own suggestions? I was going to say just for work calls but hey, up to you.

  11. animaniactoo*

    Yeah, my first thought here was the need to declare “easier for her” unacceptable when it doesn’t work for you.

    “It may be easier for you, but I need you to find another solution because it’s incredibly disruptive for me and I can’t just take my work somewhere else to do.”

    Some people do not get context until it is clearly spelled out for them, and some people figure you’d say something if it’s a big enough deal. If you’re sharing a space with someone like this, you need to be much more willing to just straight up say that something is a problem and needs to change vs requesting a specific thing as a “this would work better”. Maybe she’ll get a bluetooth for her cell phone. Maybe she’ll go to a conference room if she needs to be on a speakerphone for a conference call. You don’t care much as long as the thing that’s happening is NOT that she’s having a conference call on speakerphone while you are trying to concentrate and get your work done.

    I’d start there, and wait a week or so to address the husband thing. Frame it as “I’m sorry, I think I wasn’t clear enough about this before – the reason I asked you to switch phones is because it gets very loud in here when you’re on the speakerphone and I can’t concentrate. I understand that the cell phone is easier for you, but I need you to figure out a way to keep it down so that I’m able to concentrate and get my work done.”

    And ultimately, the goal here is to be polite and civil about it – but do NOT take responsibility for how Katie will react to this. If she gets upset about this, or dismisses you, you stay firm in what you NEED for business purposes “I’m sorry that you find this rude/upsetting/whatever, but unfortunately I really need to be able to focus and get my work done. If you think I’m out of line, why don’t we bring this to our manager and get her take on it?” Maintain reasonableness and do your best not to get emotional back at her, no matter how she is reacting.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      I understand that the cell phone is easier for you, but I need you to figure out a way to keep it down so that I’m able to concentrate and get my work done.”

      I like “I need you to do this” more than “can you please do this.”

      1. a1*

        Exactly! Not “Can you keep it down?” or waiting because of raised hand. “I need you to not use speakerphone Thanks.” Be direct. Pleasant tone of voice, but direct.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Eh. It’s generally useful to start out softer and only increase to “I need you to” if the softer approach doesn’t work. Social lubricant is a thing. When somebody dismisses a polite request, that’s when you need to be firmer about the fact that it wasn’t actually quite a “request” but rather a “need” because otherwise you have a problem and therefore their preference is not the most important thing in the room.

          1. a1*

            She already has tried though and nothing has changed.

            On a side note I’d say the Thanks and pleasant tone are softeners and the request worded as I did is fine. It’s not “Shut up!” or “Be quiet” or “I need you to stop talking!” or “Other people exist, you know”. Direct is not the same as rude or mean. It just means be clear about what you want to convey. You can use even more softeners and still be rude or mean as hell. It’s all in your tone of voice and demeanor.

            1. Rusty Shackelford*

              Right. You can use all the social lubricants in your arsenal but still be direct about what you need. Particularly in a case like this, where it’s not just clashing work styles. If I wanted my office mate to stop smacking her gum, I’d start with a polite request. But Katie’s behavior flies in the face of all acceptable workplace etiquette. The OP has the right to start off with an “I need” because it’s what any normal person would need.

          2. TootsNYC*

            I don’t start out with asking anymore. And I don’t care if other people don’t like it or think it’s bossy. I’m not wasting time hoping they’ll respond to a “please can you?”

    2. Food Sherpa*

      I would find the calls on Bluetooth even more disruptive. The single-sided conversation is too hard for my brain to filter out.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I would like to highlight the last paragraph here…OP it is not your job to manage Katie’s emotions. Obviously you shouldn’t confront her in a manner that is mean or rude, but it is okay to be direct. And if she gets upset, that’s on her.

  12. Falling Diphthong*

    How do the conference calls on speakerphone not immediately get shut down by the other people on the call, due to the feedback?

    1. Bilateralrope*

      The speakerphone is probably designed to prevent feedback. Probably some software solution to detect and remove anything the microphone picks up that came from the phone speakers

    2. kittymommy*

      I wonder if she is just a listener to the call rather than an active participant. I know I will do speakerphone for conference calls when I’m not actually engaging in it and just put the phone on mute. Of course I also have my own office….

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        ^ same here. 95% of the conference calls I need to be on, I am a listener, not actually participating. So I close my office doors, put it on quiet speakerphone, mute myself, and return working to whatever I need to be working on.

        Our phones are ancient. I’d prefer to have a headset, but the phones do not connect with any. I can’t type *and* have the phone up to my ear. It’s an absolute PITA. I can’t wait til we get new phones and I can shift everything over to a headset.

        But generally, there’s quite a few of us on speakerphone, and no feedback. The only issue is when someone forgets to mute themselves and then decides to talk loudly to someone else off the call, or sit and eat potato chips. And then they get told sharply to mute themselves.

    3. facepalm*

      Every conference call I’m on, the other people are on speakerphone. There’s no feedback. Everyone goes on mute if they’re not talking. But it’s usually hard to hear the people who aren’t right by the phone, and if you tell them you can’t hear them, they just speak more loudly (even yelling across the room) instead of moving closer to the phone. So it’s awful for the people on the phone who can’t hear them well, and awful for the people in their offices who have to listen to people yelling.

      There was once a desk I sat at where the person two rows over in an office to my left and the person behind me would both attend the same conference call on speaker (why couldn’t the guy in the cube go to the office with the other guy, I have no clue) and because of how the sound traveled, it would generate an awful echo effect when I’d hear the office phone 2 seconds before the phone behind me. It was maddening.

    4. Frank Doyle*

      Why would there be feedback? She’s just a person on a speakerphone. There would only be the possibility for feedback if two people were on the same conference call on separate phones, but within hearing distance of each other.

    5. MoopySwarpet*

      Our phones tend to give feedback if you leave the handset on because the speaker is under the handset and the sound bounce gets out of control. It’s mostly ok if we leave the handset to the side or if the phone is on mute.

  13. hayling*

    As much as I hate open offices, sharing an office with someone can be even worse! I shared an office with someone who was friendly with a really hot-headed coworker. Coworker would get really heated and then come vent in our office. His anger took over the whole space and I had to basically leave the room until they were done. Was so glad when that guy left!

  14. Batgirl*

    I think the fact that one of the problems (speakerphone) is quite rude and the other (marital rows) is quite personal makes this seem like a fraught thing to address and you’d have to begin with some kind of personal comment. But it’s actually just office logistics you need to address. I would just go in on the volume angle with an obligatory “you might not realise”. So something like “You might not realise but sonetimes when you’re using the phone I can’t use mine, because of the volume. Could I ask you to take anything loud, like speakerphone or personal calls, into a conference room or I’ll just wave if I need a volume reset. Do the same to me if I’m being louder than I realise ”
    Once you’ve notified her you can take it to the boss. Let her be the one to decide if colleague is being rude or letting her personal life spiral.

  15. Angelinha*

    I swear some people just think that conference calls *must* be taken on speakerphone and can’t wrap their minds around talking to multiple people through their receiver. It’s like a mental block of some kind. My personal theory, which I’ve spent too much time thinking about, is that lots of people’s first experience with conference calls was sitting around a conference room with a bunch of coworkers with a phone on speaker in the middle of the table. They’ve since associated that kind of setup with How You Do A Conference Call and don’t stop to think, hey, it’s just me, I am in a cubicle, why do I think this is any different than a regular phone call?

    Can you tell that a ton of my coworkers do this and I have spent years trying to rationalize it?

    1. nonymous*

      Depending on the call, it could also be about being able to use both hands/being comfortable. I use earbuds or a bluetooth headset and it means I can respond to IMs or pull up a shared document. It would be a literal pain in the neck to have to use the receiver on my desk phone.

      A lot of times when I’m calling someone directly it’s because they need a nudge by voice on an issue that has been defined previously, so it’s less important that I have my hands free.

      1. Observer*

        The OP says that the coworker has a headset, which means that she gets to have her hands free.

      2. Antilles*

        This is especially true if the conference call (like many conference calls) don’t really require your active participation or even attention for a majority of the time. At least twice a week, if not more, I’ll have a call which is basically a 2-hour team meeting: The first 15 minutes are general project updates (useful and relevant), then the next 1.5 hours are going around the call and each discipline mentions their status (not relevant to most of the team). Until they get to my discipline, I only need to half-listen, if that.
        So it’s a lot more efficient to just put the call on speaker so I can do other productive work and half-listen during that downtime. Then when it comes to me, I just take it off mute, say my piece, then re-mute it.

        1. Antilles*

          (That said, for Katie in particular, the fact she was provided with a headset means she should really be using that rather than putting it on open speakerphone)

          1. SarahKay*

            Katie is being inexcusably rude, and I’d say OP would be entirely justified in immediately saying “Could you take that off speakerphone, please?” every time Katie doesn’t use her headset.

            I work for a global company so something like 20% of my work hours is spent dialling in to calls. I’m in an open office, we all have headsets, we’re all used to using them at the same time as working – while listening with half an ear for the point when we have to speak.

            I’m pretty sure that if I tried doing the calls on speakerphone I could foresee the other 80% of my working life coming to an abrupt end in a tragic and inexplicable office ‘accident’!

            1. PollyQ*

              At my previous job, people who weren’t working in offices with doors that could close had their speakerphone function disabled. We all had headphones (or dialed in from home), and it worked just fine. Katie is indeed being rude, almost to the point of hostility.

              1. Jules the 3rd*

                omg that would be so awesome. I sit in an open plan with people in 4 of the 9 cubes surrounding me. 3 of those 4 do speakerphone conference calls.

                I am so totally with Alison on ‘it should be a felony’.

    2. Is It Performance Art*

      I worked with someone who always used speakerphone for conference calls. She had worked in a call center (a job she considered beneath her) where she had to use a headset and considered that a job for “white trash”, which she of course was not.
      Once her boss suggested she use one and she said no and once the boss had left the room, went on a 10 mn rant about how outrageous it was for her boss to suggest this because it meant her boss was calling her white trash and only white trash used headsets. (Multiple executives with offices near ours used headsets, which made it weirder.). She also listed several colleagues whom she considered “white trash”. I was bowled over and horrified.
      My point being, sometimes people associate inanimate objects with unpleasant personal experiences. Sometimes it results in really weird behavior.

    3. Lucille2*

      Just came here to say that people need to realize that being on the receiving end of a speaker phone conference call is pretty painful too. The sound quality is never good. If I’m talking to a group of people sitting in a conference room, fine, I’ll deal with it. But one person? Put on the damn headset so I can actually hear and understand what you’re saying.

  16. Dust Bunny*

    I realized recently that my job has made me a lot less squeamish about just handling stuff, and I would talk to her about it once. Maaaaaybe twice, if I were feeling generous. And then I would go to our boss because this is ridiculous and Katie needs to take her personal dirty laundry out to the car or whatever. It’s affecting your ability to do your job, so it needs to be handled and if Katie won’t rein it in, yeah, your supervisors need to know.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Fair warning, though: I’m kinda touchy today because Coworker’s kids had some sort of minor car incident (flat tire, I think) and have been calling her back and forth, and we have a new intern so there is an extra person in our immediate workspace, and I’m on like one nerve left right now.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Also, I am way over letting emotional people jerk me around. Cry all you want, Katie, but I’m still going to the boss if you don’t cut this out.

    3. Jamie*

      And then I would go to our boss because this is ridiculous and Katie needs to take her personal dirty laundry out to the car or whatever.

      I read this as take dirty laundry to the cat. Which sounds silly, but wouldn’t be a bad idea…cats are amazing personal therapists.

      According to my cats all life’s problems can be solved by giving them more wet food and scritches on command.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Although I think this one comes under the category of changing the litter box.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        . . . aaaaaand I just went back and reread because I do, in fact, post frequently online about my cats and could very well have typed “cat” by mistake.

  17. Free Meerkats*

    “then she might leave it to you to handle and you’ll end up back with your headphones”

    At that point it’s time to just call out the bad behavior while it’s going on. Katie’s on a conference call on speakerphone, tell her to take it off the frelling speakerphone so you can get some work done loudly enough to ensure everyone else on the conference call can hear. She’s arguing with her spouse, tell her to take it outside your shared office. No mincing or softening, straight out state the problem and what the only acceptable solution is.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I work near an open area that will eventually have cubicles built in it. People sit down for personal calls, not realizing that voices carry over these bad walls.
      “I can hear everything you’re saying from my desk” stops almost everyone…just one guy keeps coming back repeatedly.

  18. Terese Hale*

    Even though I’m (thankfully!) retired, I want to chime in here. How about recording a couple of her calls and their aftermath, for the boss? One audio is worth a thousand words, so to speak.

    1. facepalm*

      Legal issues aside, I’d be really disturbed if my employee came to me with recordings of personal phone calls from their office mate before any other type of discussion or attempt at resolution

      1. bertie*

        Right? If an employee brought that to me I would question their integrity and judgement forever.

    2. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

      No no no. One person’s bad behavior doesn’t greenlight something that invasive. Besides, directly addressing it with Katie and then going to the boss if that doesn’t get results should be sufficient. And if it isn’t, there are other, less ick steps that can be taken.

      1. pancakes*


        It would also send a pretty bad message to the boss, to treat them like they can’t be trusted to understand what’s happening unless and until they hear proof of it.

      1. Clisby*

        I don’t know about “most likely illegal” – most states just require the consent of one party (including you.) However, it’s still a bad idea, and possibly illegal.

        1. NothingIsLittle*

          Actually, only 12 states are single party recording states and you only count as a party if you’re involved in the conversation, which LW would not be. This is 100% illegal as described.

          1. NothingIsLittle*

            I wasn’t paying attention and mistyped this. 12 states are two-party consent states. My comment is meant to read as “Actually, you only count as a party if you’re involved in the conversation, which LW would not be, and 12 states are two-party recording states. This is 100% illegal as described.” with the caveat that undisclosed specifics may impact that answer.

            1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

              This is true! It’s why my boss recording me back in the day when she wasn’t actually in the office wasn’t legal, even though I am in a one party state.

    3. bigX*

      Maybe not for the boss – if you are gonna record, just play it back for coworker and coworker alone to get the point accoss that “hey, this is what I am hearing and what you are saying.”

      Worst case, it’ll creep out coworker enough that they’ll stop (or, more likely, go to HR).

  19. Former Help Desk Peon*

    Frankly, I’d want to wait until her next personal call started to get heated, then say “Excuse me, Katie, it sounds like you and Bill are going to have another fight. Could you please take it to another room or wait until you get home? Thanks” I mean, I probably wouldn’t….

    1. President Porpoise*

      I did that once, with a roommate that had extremely loud shouting matches with lots of intimate details with her fiancé in my living room. They’d only been dating for like 6 months. Neither of us liked each other (but her fiancé was a nice guy, just lacking a spine – apparently he promised himself as a child that he’d marry the first girl he kissed which is all sorts of dumb), and I was on my last nerve. I was on the phone with my SO, so I came out and told them to knock it off. I also threatened to deny him entry to our shared house – even though I liked him – if she couldn’t speak to him at a normal volume. She screamed at me and then didn’t talk to me for the six weeks she had left in the apartment and it was glorious. And the fights stopped!

    2. mf*

      I do actually think this is a good idea. If she wants to have these personal calls without interruption, she needs to do it in a private place. If you start interrupting her calls, she might finally come to understand that.

    3. Isabel Kunkle*

      “Sorry, I didn’t actually buy season tickets to this production, can you…not?”

  20. Anywhere*

    Take your work calls (with coworkers, not clients) even if she’s having a loud argument, even if you can’t be as productive on the call so your coworkers get frustrated on your behalf, don’t be polite for her sake if this happens constantly. Bonus points if you take the call on speakerphone or invite coworkers to your desk in person. Suddenly having more coworkers listening in / overhearing her might help drive the point that this room isn’t actually a private space. Sharing a room with only one other person sometimes gives an illusion of privacy that clearly doesn’t exist here.

  21. StaceyIzMe*

    I think that it’s clear that you’ve tried addressing this with her when you’ve requested her to speak more quietly. You’re not obligated to endure noise pollution that is so escalated that you have to block out the noise by wearing headphones all day!
    I’d loop your manager in and see if you can move offices. That’s probably the easiest solution, if it’s indeed possible.
    Barring that- is there a conference room that you can book in order to make some calls?
    I just don’t see addressing somebody this willfully oblivious directly as having any good outcome. Either you get to be the bad guy and ask her to act like a decent human being. Or you get to be the bad guy and ask her to act like a decent human being. If “please be a bit quieter” hasn’t had an impact, this is above your pay grade, in my view.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Sounds like OP needs to ask if it’s possible even though she says “my boss is not keen on me leaving to do my work elsewhere” — because this is really disruptive.

  22. Observer*

    I agree with everyone who says you should bring up the issue of conference calls again. Be explicit and when she says that the other way is easier tell her that you cannot get your work done, and she needs to figure something out – either take the calls on the phone with a headset or get herself a headset or whatever for her cell phone. Also, although you may want to wait a bit, tell her that you need her to figure something out regarding her fights with her husband- again, it is simply making it impossible for you to do your work.

    Don’t worry too much that she’ll have an emotional reaction – as long as you are polite and skip any judgement about her personal life, you’re fine. It’s on her to manage her emotions. When you go to your boss (because that’s probably what you are going to have to do) tell him up front when you describe the situation, what you have suggested to her so that he has all of the relevant information.

    Also, I don’t think that telling your co-worker why you had to delay the conversation was unprofessional. I’m assuming you were being factual rather than snarky, and the facts are relevant here. I think I would have been tempted to actually do this while on the phone – your coworker would hear the background noise and MAYBE Katie would get an indication of how disruptive her behavior is.

    Lots of luck. Please do follow up and let us know how this works out.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Late to the party, but I want to signal-boost this:

      OP, you say: “I’ve lost my patience with her behavior so I need to figure out how to shut this down while maintaining my professionalism. (I feel like I lost a bit of it when I disclosed to my colleague why I couldn’t call him back right away.)”

      No, you did not. YOU did not lose any professionalism (unless you were whiny or snarky when telling your colleague what was up). KATIE is unprofessional. You are merely the witness.

  23. anon61*

    “I want to try to work it out with her before going to our boss. (Also, what would I say to my boss? I couldn’t really say, “She’s incredibly disruptive and awful to share an office with, please move one of us ASAP … No, I didn’t talk to her about it first.”) I need an approach that won’t trigger her since obviously there is a stressful situation at home, but still gets her to stop this behavior. Any suggestions?”

    My suggestion is that this is your boss’es job. And that you absolutely can, could and should say “she’s incredibly disruptive and you, Mr or Ms Manager, need to deal with this”. Because it is literally preventing you from doing you job. Also, it seems to me that you already tried to address the rude and inappropriate co worker directly yourself. And that didn’t work. And its not your job in the first place.

    I also don’t think you need to worry about/tiptoe around her emotionalism. Everyone has stress at home. And no approach you can use is going to avoid “triggering” her. Stop putting her feeeeelings first. She is a terrible co worker and you are taking the brunt of it. Who is worrying about that? Not your co worker, that’s for sure!

  24. curious*

    Maybe while Katie is having one of her marathon calls, you could dramatically and frustratingly get up to leave the office, lock your files so that confidential information is stored, then take a break – go to the bathroom, go to your boss, go get a cup of coffee – just do something so that Katie sees you are ticked off. I’d make sure on your way back to loop your boss in. Then I think you should document it, note the date and time whether you email your boss or just keep a record of it for yourself. When you come back act like your really far behind and frustrated with having your work disrupted; dramatically and frustratingly get your files out again, get reorganized. Your boss doesn’t seem to want you to deal with things by taking a break but honestly your not working during this time frame so you might as well do something for you. I know it sounds a bit over the top but maybe Katie will get the point.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Yeah, I somehow feel that Katie would be “oh good, she left, now I can really talk – and you NEVER reciprocate in bed, Mark!!!”

    1. pancakes*

      If Katie was capable of or interested in paying attention to social cues like those, she almost certainly wouldn’t be forcing her office-mate to endure her loud, lengthy & very personal calls. It doesn’t make sense to me, either, to depict this pantomime the letter writer would perform as “something for you.” It wouldn’t be for her at all; it would be contrived and performed for Katie, in an effort to shield Katie from direct criticism of her behavior.

    2. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

      Actually, I would document these events regardless. Not the details, but every day and every time it happens and how long it lasts. Because you don’t want your boss to say, “Well, we all have to deal with a little inconvenience or disruption sometimes.”

  25. AKchic*

    Stop avoiding your work because of her.

    Take your calls. Then… when others *hear* her, apologize loudly. “I apologize that you all can hear Katie’s conversation in my shared office. Excuse me a moment…” then turn to Katie… “Katie, I am on the phone with a client/with clients, I need you to use a headset / take your private call elsewhere / lower your volume, thank you” and then go back to your call “I’m sorry for the interruption. As I was saying…”

    Stop letting her have the illusion of privacy. Stop working around her and her conversations. Make it known to the higher-ups that this is happening and how you are now going to be working around it because hoping that she would figure it out hasn’t worked.

    1. mf*

      “Stop letting her have the illusion of privacy. Stop working around her and her conversations.” <–THIS. I would even recommend saying to her, "Katie, I can't plan my calls around your personal fights and conference calls on speaker any more. It's disrupting my work."

    2. Glitsy Gus*

      I agree.

      Also, after you have clearly told her that this is incredibly disruptive, don’t be all that afraid to say, “Katie, please take the call of speaker, I really do need to concentrate,” when her line isn’t muted. It’s a little passive aggressive, but like you said, it’s time to remove the illusion of privacy and having everyone else on the call know she’s annoying you might get it through her skull.

  26. Earthwalker*

    I find conference calls hard to understand with a standard issue workplace headset, one-eared. Perhaps you (or your boss) could suggest a two-sided (binaural) headset for Katy as a solution to using the speaker phone. Also, is there a chance you might find reason to call the boss about something the next time her phone conversation gets particularly personal and out of hand?

    1. Observer*

      If Katie has a problem with the headset she’s been issues, it’s on her to request a better headset. The OP can’t start trying to guess what her problem is and providing solutions because MAYBE that’s the problem.

      1. banzo_bean*

        Agreed it should be Katie’s responsibility to find a better headset, but if OP is looking for solutions why not suggest it? “Hey I hear these can be helpful for people who are frequently on conference calls.”
        Suggestion solutions to a problem caused by someone else might not be your job, but why not do it if it could solve the problem?

        1. Observer*

          The OP has already suggested the headset, and Katie doesn’t want to use it. So, they would have to research specific models in order to be able to use your line. That’s a lot to ask for something that’s not likely to make a difference.

  27. Argh!*

    Katie needs to know that she’s interfering with the priorities of the office. No matter what the topic or emotional level, it’s okay to ask a coworker to take personal calls somewhere else. “Katie, please take that somewhere else. I have work to do and I need to focus.”

    I also wonder if her personal calls are interfering with her own work. In my current situation, I wouldn’t worry at all about complaining to my boss about this. Going to people directly where I work is a real no-no. We are all babies and we have to ask mommy to intervene for us. It’s called “going through channels” here. The first question would never be, “Did you talk to her about this?”

    (And yes, I’m looking for a new job)

      1. Flyleaf*

        Sorry, I pulled the wrong tool out of the toolbox. Should have said hammer.

        Actually, in most cases the hammer is the right tool, regardless of the problem.

  28. Vicky Austin*

    When I clicked on the link to read the article, it said that I had reached my monthly limit. Could someone please copy and paste it in the comments section for me?

    1. NothingIsLittle*

      Not that I condone not paying for content… (but if you clear your history and cookies, most news websites won’t know you’ve visited them prior and you’ll reset your free articles. Incognito mode works too, because it automatically deletes that data when you close the window.)

      Given that I was not too long ago a broke college student, I understand the frustration with paywalls.

  29. Koala dreams*

    Since you have already brought up the “taking conference calls on speakerphone” with the co-worker and she insisted on continuing, I think it’s fine to bring the issue to your boss. Focus on the facts and the impact on your work (lost focus, the impact on communication with other co-workers and customers/vendors), and not the value judgments (lousy office-mate). When the boss asks if you have already brought it up with the co-worker, you can say that you bringed up the first issue but as it’s only getting worse you need help to solve the situation.

    If you want to speak to your co-worker directly first, I think it’s fine to tell your co-worker at the beginning of the interrupting calls (including the conference calls and the marital arguing calls): The volume is really high and I’m trying to focus / need to make a phone call, can you take your conversation outside?
    However, it sounds like you already tried this and they refuse to cooperate. Unfortunately, there might not be a magic script that will make your co-worker care.

    The crying is more tricky. The kindest thing would be to ignore it, but I would be tempted to suggest to the co-worker that they take a break and go for a walk until they have calmed down. Not that I necessarily would suggest you to do the same…

  30. Anon for this*

    I sometimes have unusually strong emotional reactions to relatively minor things. (I am working on this, but it’s slow.)

    Being an adult, professionally as well as personally, means I try to minimize how much this affects other people. Acceptable: keeping a box of tissues in reach; saying “excuse me a minute” and going to wash my face; saying “my eyes are leaking, but please go on.”

    Sometimes appropriate: having conversations in email or text, rather than in person or on the phone. That way, my reaction doesn’t derail the conversation–we’re talking about travel plans or the TPS reports, not my emotional state.

    Also sometimes appropriate, in a personal context: asking not to discuss topic X with person Y. (Most of us have such topics and people, if not for this reason.)

    What Katie is doing isn’t appropriate, because it derails too many conversations and interferes with other people’s work. Maybe she needs a therapist, or a journal, or to go to the gym after work. She almost certainly needs to stop taking personal calls at work, at least for now. I can take personal calls at work because they’re brief and not very emotional: “Should I stop at the grocery store on the way home?” sort of things.

  31. CET*

    Be direct. Tell her it’s getting way too disruptive in the office and from now on please 1. Do not have conference calls over speaker phone and 2. Take all personal calls outside of the office such as in the hall or outside the building. Tell her sorry but if she cannot do these two things you will need to take it to your supervisor because it’s awfully disruptive and you cannot concentrate and have had to reschedule a meeting with someone who was coming to talk to you because of some argument she was having. It’s just not appropriate for work.

  32. chickaletta*

    No advice to offer better than Alison’s… but I do wonder about her relationship with her husband. Does her inability to define boundaries and lack of empathy carry across to her marital relationship and perhaps be a contributing factor to their arguments? (If this was Vegas I’d bet “yes”). And, does her husband know that his personal arguments with his wife are being broadcast via speakerphone across her office?

    So many burning questions!

    1. Isabel Kunkle*

      I was going to say: poison her coffee. Except not really, Government Internet Monitors. Totally kidding!

  33. Katherine*

    New York Magazine should maybe not advertise for nicotine products.. I got an ad “a new way to enjoy nicotine”. Not a smoker and have never gotten a smoking ad before.

  34. LGC*

    Okay, off topic a bit…but it feels a little red-flaggy to me that Katie has multiple serious fights per week with her husband, and that’s when she’s at work! Like, I hope Katie is just a jerk and likes to argue, but that doesn’t sound right.

    I think there’s room for a, “Dude, is everything okay because I hear you arguing with your husband on the phone a LOT” mention.

    1. NothingIsLittle*

      There might be room for a question about that if they’re close, but it doesn’t sound like they are. I would advise the OP not to ask, because asking makes it seem as though Katie can dump everything on them, when, in reality, she needs to stop having screaming matches at work. If OP wanted to know what was going on, I guess they probably could ask, but this is one case where I’m firmly in the, “not my circus, not my monkeys” camp.

      1. LGC*

        Yeah, I can definitely see the downside. It’s weird because you’re right in that the primary problem is that Katie is having regular screaming matches and she needs to stop. But also, the screaming matches are weird enough that it feels like that needs to be pointed out that she is acting really weird.

      1. LGC*

        I’m not sure if you’re being snarky, but I’ll answer honestly: I felt like it was less antagonistic to lead that way. If she blows it off, LW could say, “Well, you’re being REALLY LOUD and this happens a lot.” (Or something to that effect.)

        Obviously, none of us know what’s going on in Katie’s house, but sometimes extending some grace helps.

        1. pancakes*

          Wasn’t being snarky. I don’t think your suggested question is extending grace in any sense, either, nor is it entirely non-antagonistic — I think it’s pretty transparently indirect and arguably disingenuous to ask someone who isn’t a friend, let alone a close friend, to confide in you about something extremely personal. I also think it’s unreasonable to expect an answer. And whether Katie is or isn’t in a seriously troubled relationship, the problem here is that she’s very loud on the numerous personal calls she’s on in her shared office.

  35. cncx*

    completely tangential and off topic and not related to OP, but i was in an abusive marriage and i have a really hard time listening to other people’s fights, even after a lot of therapy it sets off those old feelings. there’s no way at all i could share an office with someone on that kind of emotional rollercoaster, like i would quit over it and go to my boss yesterday.

    that said, if the fights are encroaching onto work (as mine did when i was married), the situation is not healthy and i feel sorry for everyone involved.

  36. Former Employee*

    A bit late to this one, but for musical suggestions, I would recommend Johnny Cash, specifically “Folsom Prison Blues”, which includes the memorable lyric “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” and the other selection being “Hurt” (the Nine Inch Nails’ song).

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