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‘My Co-worker’s Kid Disrupts the Office Every Day!’

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Dear Boss,

I started a new job a few months ago. Everything is great and I like my co-workers, except for one thing: One of my co-workers brings her daughter to work every day, and it’s driving me crazy.

Shortly after I started, we moved to a new office, going from individual office spaces to an open plan with cubicles. One co-worker had been in the habit for several years of having her daughter come and hang out in her office for the hour between when school let out and we were done for the day. With the move, she now has to leave to go pick her daughter up, and instead of said child being quietly contained in a closed-door office, she’s now either in her mom’s cubicle or parked in the entryway sitting area, right next to our cubes.

Which wouldn’t be an issue, except now, every day for at least an hour, often longer, the office fills up with giggles and child-conversation while she tells her mom all about her day. Some days the kid is cranky and so I get to listen to an hour of the mom shushing the child, or otherwise trying to appease her. There are almost-daily debates regarding snacks: the mom brought a healthy snack for the kid, but the child is more interested in scamming our office snacks than eating those carrot sticks. We have communal snacks usually floating around, but pretty regularly they get decimated by this pint-sized locust. And the mom, who doesn’t usually partake in our snacks herself, never offers to replace them – in fact she tends to either laugh it off, or make comments about how we shouldn’t have junk food in the office anyway. I’ve noticed more and more people tucking their treats away out of sight, which has led to an uptake in the frustrated child whining about how she’s hungry.

Our entryway becomes like an after-school playroom, which is an issue when I have clients coming through in the late afternoon with nowhere to sit because the kid spread out her homework/activities. It also effectively puts the mom out of commission for that period, at least for our working relationship — she can work in her cube, but I feel weird about stopping by to talk about projects or to have a meeting with her while the kid is parked in a beanbag, squeezed in the tiny cubicle.

This happens every day, regardless of what else is going on. I’ve been on calls before where I have difficulty hearing the person on the other end because right across the cubicle wall, my co-worker and her kid are having a conversation about fractions.

Our office isn’t a great environment for a kid. Just today, in fact, after hearing some lighthearted jokes that were a little past PG-13, the mom sent a group email asking everyone to remember there were “little ears” listening. What’s more, another employee, also new, has now started having her daughter come by after school as well. She’s of a similar age to child No. 1, and now the two of them giggle/sing/chitchat together, increasing the noise.

Can I say anything? I feel like this wouldn’t be a problem if we still had actual walls. I’m also still relatively new, and while other people have remarked on the kid as a disruption, no one’s said anything to our co-worker, the mom, directly. Our boss still has walls and a door, so I don’t think they realize how loud this child can be.

My co-worker has worked here for many years and is a single parent. I feel for her, and I can see my boss not wanting to rock this boat in case it changed her productivity. Can I say anything, or should I just get some noise-cancelling headphones and reconcile myself to the fact that the last hour of every day will involve children?

Whoa. I’m annoyed and on edge just reading this.

It’s great when an office offers occasional flexibility for parents to bring in a kid when there’s an emergency. That’s a kindness to working parents. It keeps people productive when they otherwise might need to stay home and lose a day of work, and it recognizes that employees are humans with outside lives that sometimes need accommodation.

But letting people do it occasionally is different from having it happen every day, particularly when it’s as disruptive to co-workers as it is in this case. And it sounds like it hasn’t even occurred to your co-worker that she needs to set this up in a way that will minimize the impact on other people.

That’s bizarre, in part because of how inconsiderate it is, and in part because of how easy it would be to do this differently. Normally parents who need to bring a kid into work will set the kid up in a private area, impress on them the need to stay quiet, and have them read a book or play on a tablet or color or so forth. (You don’t say how old your co-worker’s kid is, but if she’s discussing fractions, I’m assuming she’s old enough to understand, “You need to entertain yourself quietly for an hour.”) It’s true that there are some kids who would defy even the best attempts at this — but in those cases, the solution is generally “Don’t bring your kid in every day,” rather than “Oh well, we’ll just have the whole office disrupted from 4 to 5 p.m. every day.”

However. You are relatively new, and that makes a big difference in how you should proceed. If you weren’t new, this would be easier; you could speak up pretty freely, both to her and to whoever has some authority to intervene in what’s going on. But as a new person, if most other people are okay with this, you risk seeming out of touch with your company culture and even looking uptight or chilly if you speak up — which you might not mind, but that kind of thing can affect your relationships in ways that matter. And ultimately, if this is how this office runs, as a new person you don’t quite have the standing to say it’s not okay. (There are some exceptions to this, like if you’re in a very senior role, which would give you more standing than the average new hire, or if you have really strong rapport with your boss.)

Given that, you have two options. The first is to just talk to your co-worker about the pieces of the problem that very directly affect you, like your inability to hear callers when you’re on the phone. Even as a new person, it would be quite reasonable to say, “Jane, I’m having trouble hearing my callers when your daughter Lucinda is talking loudly. Any chance you could either have her sit in a different spot, or just make sure she keeps it down while she’s here?” You could also say, “I’ve got clients coming in, so can we move Lucinda into a cubicle so she’s not blocking the entryway?” (Do be aware, though, that no matter how reasonable these requests are, if no one else is making similar ones, it’s still possible that Jane will bristle, especially if you ask for both of these things rather than just one of them. She shouldn’t, but there are plenty of unreasonable people out there — so proceed with that risk in mind.)

The other option is to discreetly take the pulse of your other co-workers about the situation. When you’re one-on-one, you can casually ask, “Have people always brought their kids in here?” or “Do you think it would be okay for me to ask Jane to keep Lucinda a little quieter?” That might give you a better sense of whether everyone is fully onboard or if other people are annoyed by it as well. If you find other people are frustrated too, there might be room to suggest that someone — not you, the new person — raise the issue more broadly.

And soon there will be a third option too. Once some more time goes by, you won’t be the new person anymore, and you’ll have more standing to just take this directly to someone with some authority over the situation. At that point, you’ll be on more solid ground in saying, “Can we figure out a way to minimize the disruption caused by people bringing their kids in every day? It can make it pretty tough to concentrate or hear callers.” And who knows — maybe there’s a more isolated room where they could hang out, or someone with authority can simply talk to your co-workers about noise expectations when their kids are around. There are plenty of ways to continue accommodating parents that will minimize the impact on other people — which is the missing piece in your current setup.

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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker’s Kid Disrupts the Office Every Day!’