Peace & Quiet–or Not So Much

Hello Evil HR Lady,

I enjoy reading your blog! I’m not sure if this question is within your “realm” but if you have the time and inclination, any input would be helpful. A bit of background: I’m the (relatively new) chairperson of a 14-person dept. at a small, 4-yr college. Chairs are members of the faculty and since we are a unionized faculty, I am technically NOT the immediate supervisor of the other faculty in my dept.

That said, the chair is usually the first person a faculty member comes to (and certainly students do this) when they have a complaint about one of their colleagues. My department recently moved into a newly renovated building and all the faculty offices are lined up along a long, hallway, each next to the other.

My office is 2 floors below, so I am not “with” my colleagues. The new faculty offices, unfortunately, do not seem to offer much soundproofing. Even with the office door closed, noise from conversations in the hallway, “loud-talkers” having phone conversations and of, course radios tend to filter in. In addition, there is a diversity of needs that people seem to have for working (ie.writing lectures, grading, writing grants, etc.) such as:”I work best with music in the background””I don’t want to have to close my door all the time when I am working in my office””I need a very quiet environment to work””I like my door open so students feel welcome”etc.

Currently, there is one person has a very low tolerance noise, especially for music playing in her work environment and her office is directly across the hall from an individual who not only has a loud voice and entertains students in loud conversations involving much laughter (wish I had profs that were like this) also likes to play his radio “so low that I can barely here it myself”. They both like to keep their doors open. The quiet person requested the other turn their radio down or off the other day as it was distracting her from her work. The radio person became upset saying the request was unreasonable as the volume was already very low. Furthermore, the quiet person has others around her with loud phone voices (not much to do about that).

Tensions are mounting. The easy solution is to have a “no radio” policy or a headphones only policy. I have been told that this is not fair to those who require some sort of background music to work and why would we then not require the ones requiring quiet to wear noise-blocking headphones. It does seem sort of strict to have a “policy” about this. Can’t we be adults and use common sense and good manners? Sigh. So I’m wondering – in office environments similar to this, cubicles etc. is this an ongoing issue? Is there more to this than to me, what would seem to be a simple solution – the default is as quiet as possible or is the background/music requirement for working as valid as the need for quiet? Thanks for reading through all this.

Ahh, behaving like adults. You know, my experiences lately tell me that children are expected to behave more like “adults” than adults are. Two kids can’t get along? We say, “Billy and Sally, you have to be in the same class all year long. You will have to learn to be nice to each other or you will both be in the corner much of the time.” (Well, we say that until Billy and Sally have their screaming irrational mothers show up and lecture us for daring to discipline their little darlings, but once again, I digress.)

First of all, I’m going to direct you to one of my favorite blogs, Confessions of a Community College Dean. He has more direct experience in this subject, and he’s very interesting. But, all HR people have experienced the “my co-worker is bothering me!” whine.

Yes, rational people would say, “hmm, my colleague is bothered by my music. I’ll wear headphones.” Or, “I’m bothered by noise, I will shut my door.” But that is no fun. So, it comes down to policies.

It’s unfortunate that you are having these problems with people in offices. Most of corporate America seems to be living in cube land, where the problems are much more pronounced. (Thankfully, I have an office. I didn’t about a year ago, even though what I deal with is confidential even in HR standards. We were finally able to prevail on the powers that be when my job share partner, after having a long discussion with an attorney regarding an employee’s termination, turned around to find that same person standing in the neighboring cube. Fortunately, she hadn’t heard anything, but we were finally able to knock some sense into the space planning people. Boy, I am full of digressions today.)

I wish I had a magic solution for all of this. You can ask people to keep the noise down. You can re-arrange people so that the loud talkers are together and the quiet people are together. You can require that professors shut their doors when they are having conversations–but from a liability standpoint, I would prefer to keep the door open in such situations.

What I would do with the chronic complainers? Bring the entire group in together and say, “You know, the walls are really thin. Some people need music to concentrate. Some need silence. We all have students in and out of our offices. What do you all suggest?”

Chances are, no one will have any good solution. The tensions are probably running high not because of a radio, but because of competition amongst your faculty. But, they will be forced to stop coming to you with complaints because you’ll be able to smile sweetly and say, “Karen, we discussed this in faculty meeting. I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”

Now, of course, if anyone is being egregiously loud or super sensitive to noise, you can help that person come to their senses. (Easier said than done!) Since you aren’t a direct supervisor,though, I don’t know how much influence you really have.

Good luck!

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4 thoughts on “Peace & Quiet–or Not So Much

  1. When it comes to whiners I will listen to them ONCE (or enough to determine they are whinning and acting like children). Then we all get together in the conference room and I tell them it is up to THEM to find a solution that works for everyone. I will sit in the first 15 minutes of the meeting as mediator (they never last more then 10 by the way) and after that they are on their own. Almost every time the two (or three) parties have “agreed to disagree” and shut the heck up (for the most part) after that.

    Similar to what Evil said, when they start up the whinning again I can smile at them and say “we discussed this in the meeting where it was your and Bob’s responsibility to come up with a solution…do we need to have another meeting?” (bats eyelashes).

  2. I worked in cubeland for the last year of my job (my boss never fought when someone from another group wanted our offices and happily sent us to the cubes in the converted warehouse without covered parking ten miles from the main offices while he remained in his office). As much as we hated our work situation, I don’t recall anyone ever complaining to the boss about the noise, the lack of noise, visitors, the cubemate’s maniacal laughter, his cellphone ringing incessantly, his refusal to hit “send” before he left for a meeting so his phone would go straight to voicemail rather than ringing and ringing and ringing.

    Nope. We just sucked it up. That’s what work is like when you work with other people — they are always going to annoy you.

    I don’t know if it was just my company or if it is a for-profit/non-profit thing, but it just didn’t occur to the people I knew to complain to the boss about how our co-workers behaved.

  3. We’ve had the noise issue. We tried asking nicely for people to be quiet. We tried meetings. We tried training classes. Yeah, that all worked about as well as you would think.

    There is a device sold for safety applications that flashes a bright light when a specific decibel level is reached. You set the decibel level yourself. It’s about $250. That at least cuts out all the “he said, she said, he’s too sensitive, she doesn’t like me” bull#@$%.

  4. Give me a break … just get used to it for heavensake. It’s noisy.. geez learn to focus on your work and you will filter it out. I’ve done it so I don’t even hear anything anymore. So people are loud… geezus… everyplace I’ve ever worked is noisy ..get a life.

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