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‘My Co-worker Keeps Fighting With Her Husband in Our Shared Office!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

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

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’ll put her hand up to quiet me. Then, once she’s off the phone, she’ll claim that it’s 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 also 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’m 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 public space. In order to deal with this, when she’s in the office, I have my headphones on 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. 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.

The other thing complicating this is that Katie is highly emotional. After some of these calls she will sit at her desk and cry. I get that life is happening while we’re working, and sometimes things happen in our personal lives that spill over into our professional environments. That’s fine. But this is happening way too frequently to be normal.

I’ve lost patience with her behavior. I need to figure out how to shut this down, and I want to try to work it out with her before going to our boss. (Also, what would I say to my boss? “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 want to be sensitive to her stressful situation at home, but also make it clear that she needs 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.

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Keeps Fighting With Her Husband at Work!’