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How to Quiet a Noisy Coworker

Dear Stanley,

We have an open concept office with some pretty open cubicles. Our office hired a payroll clerk about six months ago, and she is driving us crazy. She has a persistent deep cough, which she's had from the day she started. and it's literally to listen to all day long. We don't even care why she has it, but it's beyond obnoxious and, quite frankly, needs to stop. What can we say to her to bring to her attention that her cough is a daylong disturbance to quite a few people in the office?

Grated in Garden City

Dear GGC,

My goodness, what a compassionate bunch you are! Did it ever occur to you that this individual may have bronchitis or even something worse? Perhaps she's an addicted smoker and is ripping the inside of her lungs out 20 times a day? Do you think she enjoys coughing?

I would suggest that you deputize somebody in your office who has a bit of empathy for those in distress, or can pretend they do. Perhaps the cougher has a "friend" in one of the cubicles? Somebody closer to her than others might be? This person could approach the offender and invite them to something outside the office, like lunch, maybe. Or just a walk in the park. Or a cup of coffee. Something human. At a point during the conversation, the "friend" could then express some concern about the health of the individual. "Gee, Betty," he or she could say, "I notice that you have quite an impressive cough going on there. In fact, it's pretty much continuous. Are you okay? Have you seen a doctor about it?"

The person will probably then say something like, "Not at all! I'm fine! Sure, I cough now and then, but it's not that bad," because denial is not just a river in Egypt. The deputy may then say, "No, Betty. Your cough is pretty continuous. And all of us are actually worried about you. Please see a doctor and let me know what they say. A cough like that should not go unattended."

This is a different approach than saying to a hacking colleague, "Hey! Cut it out, willya!? You're annoying the hell out of everybody, for %@#$ sake!"

This strategy, by the way, also works pretty well with cubicle buddies that suffer from bad breath, body odor, or excessive flatulence. You can always take the problem to the next level with a group intervention, but try this first. Escalation of tactics is only necessary when lower-level and more sympathetic ones fail.

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