Co-workers' annoying habits is a touchy topic to bring up

Dear Joan:
Here is an etiquette topic, which I haven’t seen addressed in your columns. Perhaps some of your readers will recognize themselves as offenders and will clean up their acts if you tackle this issue in an upcoming column. (It sure can’t hurt!)

Many of us in the workplace don’t have private offices and must share cubicles or "pods" of workstations with one or two other people. This forced intimacy creates situations where we all have to respect our co-workers and keep our own annoying little habits to a minimum. I’m pretty tolerant of others, but I do have limits.

In my current job, and at the one before it, I’ve had to share my cubicle with several people who have regularly clipped their fingernails at their desks. In my mind, this is not only disgusting and unprofessional; it’s something, which these people really should do at home, on their lunch breaks, or even in the restroom.

Can you suggest a diplomatic way in which co-workers with annoying habits can be told to knock it off? I know of many other people who have been grossed out by behavior much worse than this, but were too polite to say anything. I’d appreciate any help you can provide.

You’re on tricky ground when it comes to telling someone to stop a habit such as talking with their mouth full, trimming their fingernails or chewing their hair. You always run the risk of embarrassing them or offending them. There is no easy way around it.

If you are friends with the person, it can sometimes be a little easier but a lot depends on the person themselves and how you think they will react. For instance, you might be able to use some humor such as, "Good grief, Ted. What’s next, flossing and shaving at your desk?" If he picks up on the real message, you can tell him that you wish he wouldn’t do it at his desk. The problem, of course, is that he may just think you’re trying to be funny and miss the whole point.

Another way to bring it up with someone you know well is to open a discussion about annoying habits you’ve observed in a variety of people. Chances are he will have some favorites he’ll add to the list. A segue might be, "I guess everyone has some annoying habits they don’t even realize they’re doing. Do I have any that bug you?" If he tells you about something you do, listen carefully and stay open to making a change. Then you have an opportunity to let him know what you’d like him to change.

If you aren’t very close, it’s more difficult. You run the risk of souring the relationship and you can’t move to a new workstation. The situation could be worse than the annoying behavior you are trying to stop.

Weigh the situation carefully. If you don’t think the message will be well received, you may have to learn to ignore it. When you share close quarters—just like college roommates or marriage partners—you learn to choose your battles.

Dear Joan:
In this wired world, it seems that the rules of good manners need to be clarified. For instance, is it proper etiquette to take a phone call on a cell phone during lunch or a meeting? Is it necessary to copy the whole world on every e-mail you send?

I am annoyed when I’m talking with someone at lunch and their phone rings and I am subjected to their conversation. I feel it is rude. E-mail is great but some people are just abusing it and loading up my system with junk. Sometimes I have over 50 messages a day and many of them are just FYI’s [For Your Information]. What do you think?

I agree with your common sense approach, but common sense isn’t always so common. Here are some quick tips:

The rule of thumb is to turn your phone off during a meeting or lunch. However, if you must take an important call, inform your lunch companion and apologize in advance. Turn your phone to vibrate mode or lower the ringer volume. If the call comes in, speak normally and get up and go to a hallway or to the lobby to finish the call.

Companies are starting to develop guidelines on how to handle electronic communication. For instance, some companies advise users not to clog up the system by sending unnecessary, lengthy documents. They also advise employees against sending copies of documents to their managers, explaining that managers are already overloaded with e-messages. Many companies also have guidelines for voice mail, such as recording a fresh message each day so callers know if you’re in and when you can be reached.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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