I’m a very, very spoiled woman. I work from the comfort of my own home. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s noises or smells invading my workspace. I only have to worry about the odd smell from the baby when he gets too close to my office door. But, he can’t help that. He’s only 14 months old, for goodness’ sake. I am isolated from the distractions of others, and I kind of like it. I can concentrate a lot better when I don’t have to hear someone else clacking away at the keyboard or singing along to their iPod. Yes, even though you think headphones make you silent, they don’t – they make you louder. And your voice is horrible.

I have a very close friend who is dealing with a tough workplace situation right now. She works for a company that often utilizes contractors. One of the contractors they hired is, to say the least, difficult. My friend says that the co-worker does his job well, but he has these personal habits that drive the other co-workers mad. For example, his gum chewing is noisy. Jackhammer noisy. Bird in an airplane engine noisy. And, if you’re trying to write detailed client reports about very important financial transactions, the last thing you need is someone slapping their gums together in harmony with all that surrounds him.

Plus, my friend’s coworker talks a lot. He comes in each and every Monday morning and provides the gory details of his weekend. He does a lot of things that are considered less-than-mainstream, so his stories not only take up a lot of valuable time, but they also leave people feeling like they need a shower. Apparently, for example, he no longer wears underwear. He’s become “so minimalist that way.”

It’s a difficult situation for my friend. At this point, she’s not in a position to terminate the co-worker’s contract, and the person who is in the position doesn’t feel that it’s the right move. After all, the co-worker completes his tasks when he says he will, and they are technically sound. The problem isn’t really the co-worker – it’s the people around him, who are unable to concentrate on THEIR tasks, and, therefore, unable to get their work done as efficiently and effectively as possible.

I counseled my friend that it’s time to take a stand – she needs to let the holder of the purse strings know that by not taking action on this situation, the holder of the purse strings is creating a culture where respect is not valued. Basically, the etiquette-challenged co-worker doesn’t respect his colleagues, and by not working to solve that situation, the holder of the purse strings shows a lack of respect for the the colleagues. Management by Ignorance – the holder of the purse strings ignores the problems, hopes they’ll go away, and enforces the discontent among the other colleagues, who are all high performers.

In order to maintain an organization where the delivered products (whatever they might be: cars, technology products, boxes of cereal) are better than the competition, managers must, first and foremost, respect their employees. The employees are the center of value creation, and when management allows situations like the one my friend finds herself in, the employees begin to focus less on the job, and more on the inherent icky-ness of the situation. They do not see that their contributions are valued, because they are more focused on the day-to-day working conditions, which are far less than desirable.

And the hit to productivity can be significant – in my friend’s case, she plans her time so that she spends as little time at the client site when the co-worker is there as possible. Luckily, her job is a little flexible in that way – she has several clients, and can schedule herself at other places when she knows the co-worker will be at the office. But, a lot of jobs don’t offer that flexibility, and you run into people hiding in break rooms and coat closets just to get away from the problem employee.

If the holder of the purse strings would simply take a step back and look at the situation more objectively, I think he would see that the time has come to take action on the co-worker, and show some respect for the other employees. The other employees will see that their opinions and work are respected, and will see immediate gains in their productivity.

Have a great week, and make sure that you turn up your iPod so that you don’t hear me singing along to “Irreplaceable” in the background.

-Katie

P.S. I am sure that some people are wondering what I mean when I say “take action on the co-worker.” I think that the manager needs to address the outstanding issues, and offer a performance improvement plan. If the co-worker continues to show blatant disregard for the other employees, it’s time for the contract to be terminated.

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