1 WWYD: The Obnoxious Coworker | The Billfold

WWYD: The Obnoxious Coworker

Today in “WWYD,” working with someone you don’t particularly like:

I share an office with a person I find extremely obnoxious. He speaks loudly, chews loudly, invades my personal space, sneaks peeks at my monitor when I am looking at my bank balance, says things like, “Can I ask you a question?” instead of just asking a question, and is overall The Worst.

Today he asked me if he could use my iPhone charger (I keep one at my desk). I told him no, because I was using it (I was), and my boss told me that I was behaving like a Heather in saying no. WWYD? Am I obligated to share my personal belongings with him so he can continue to speak loudly on his cellphone at his desk? I should be honest and say that if it was pretty much anyone else I work with, I would have handed over the charger no problem. — A.

Many years ago, I worked with a guy named Carl (not his real name). Carl was hired because he was very smart and good at what he did, but when it came to people skills, he had a lot to learn. Carl also spoke loudly and didn’t understand boundaries. He was awkward, and interrupted conversations. He would help himself to our lunches without asking. We had a radio that played music in the office (there were conference rooms if you needed to make phone calls or hold meetings), but when Carl started working with us, he turned off the radio and insisted that he could only work if it was absolutely silent in the office. Once, when another friend and coworker invited me to go out to lunch with her to meet one of her friends who was visiting from out of town, Carl asked where we were going and invited himself along. Another time, when Carl and I left the office at the same time and found ourselves taking the same subway train, he abruptly walked away from me in the middle of a conversation we were having because he saw an open seat and wanted to sit. He then took out a book and started reading it as if I wasn’t there.

Carl was our Dwight Schrute.

Sometimes at happy hour, we would swap Carl stories to each other (Carl didn’t drink, so he never came to any of them), and the manager who hired Carl would laugh and then say, “Well, I think it would be good if we all tried to help Carl understand what he can do to get along with people better. He’s probably not aware that some of the things he does bothers people.”

He was right—it’s about setting boundaries. It seems funny that you would have to tell a person to wait until someone is finished talking before asking a question or telling someone something (“Carl, unless it’s an emergency, can you wait until we’re done talking here before saying something? It’s rude to interrupt”), or that you should ask before taking someone’s food (“Carl, if you want some of my fries, I’m happy to share but can you ask first?”—by the way, I think the “Can I ask you a question” quirk is just that person’s way of trying to be polite), but not everyone is blessed with people skills. Once you set clear, distinct boundaries, people should understand how you want to be treated. We all gently tried to set our boundaries with Carl, and although he still did things that confounded us, things improved.

Carl was our Dwight Schrute, but he was also hilarious in his own unexpected way. He was very well-read and always had fascinating fun facts that he pulled out of thin air. And most importantly, he was truly, totally smart and good at his job, which in the grand scheme of things made our jobs much easier. If I needed his help with something, I knew he would deliver. After a while, Carl bothered me a lot less than he used to.

So. You’re not obligated to share your belongings, but it also seems a little petty not to share your iPhone charger with someone when you know you would do it for anyone else in the office. We don’t have to like the people we work with, but we do have to find a way to get along with them. This is not to say that you should just “grin and bear it.” This person may not know he’s being obnoxious. Set clear boundaries, like we did with Carl. And if he knows he’s being obnoxious and doesn’t do anything about it, or continues to invade your personal space after you’ve told him that it makes you uncomfortable, well, you don’t have to pretend to be nice to him. Be all the Heather you want to be.


Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments.



34 Comments / Post A Comment

honey cowl (#1,510)

Mike, either you are an annoyingly good person or you are faking it. This person sounds just like my former Arch-Nemesis Coworker, who was so horrible I finally quit that job. Then he moved back to the east coast, good riddance, he was the worst person in the world.

Mike Dang (#2)

@honey cowl Haha, well, we all have our different versions of Dwight Schrute. Like I say at the end, if this person is truly awful, it’s totally fine to be a Heather!

@honey cowl Oh Mike *seems* like a great guy, until you go over to his apartment for a tasteful low-key dinner party and you’re looking for the bathroom and you open the wrong door and guess what?

Closet full of human organs.

@honey cowl I QUIT A JOB BECAUSE OF A CARL, TOO! My life feels like a dream now.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@stuffisthings HUMAN ORGANS

Sorbee (#2,256)

I agree that you can set boundries for stuff like interrupting or the food thing, but what about tics like chewing loudly or with your mouth open? Is there a way to politely tell someone their table manners are horrible without being a huge jerk about it?

Also, I worked with a guy who would CONSTANTLY clear his throat during allergy season. It was super annoying but I could never figure out a nice way to tell him to cut it out, short anonymously leaving some Mucinex on his desk.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

@Sorbee I want to know the answer to this too! How can I say “hey man, you are chewing super loud and I find it gross” without sounding like a terrible, mean person?

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

That was a Dang good answer (the was my question, btw). I am trying to be less petty about my Carl — we even shared a laugh today!

Not knowing you or your relationship with with your boss, him/her calling you a Heather sounds pretty obnoxious and maybe sexist! If you’ve avoided setting boundaries with the annoying coworker in order to be “nice,” I can certainly understand why. But it is probably better to confront the annoying stuff as it occurs rather than retaliating by refusing a favor you’d offer to any other coworker.

Saying “Hey, it ruins my concentration when you take long personal calls at your desk, could you move to the hallway?” in a calm, casual tone isn’t always easy and might not even work, but at least you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you took the high road.

@cuminafterall Forgot to mention, some people are just incurable, and if he’s one of those, vent via Office Messenger/email to a trusted work friend. Leaving a less-than-professional paper trail is not ideal, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

@cuminafterall Huh, I would have to disagree with you on the sexism. At least, I didn’t take it that way.

@aeroaeroaero I’ve had boss/worker relationships where it wouldn’t have sounded sexist to me at all, but seeing it written down and having no other context, that was the first thing I thought. It’s funny how a comment can sound so different depending on who’s saying it and who’s hearing it.

faustbanana (#2,376)

@cuminafterall Please, no reminders that work IMs leave a paper trail. I’m living in a wonderful fantasy world where none of my horrible/profane IM rants about certain co-workers are saved for posterity.

If it’s Microsoft Office Communicator I’m pretty sure those messages are gone forever once you both close your IM window – this is by design, so that IMs can’t be subpoenaed in the event of a suit like emails can be.

shannowhamo (#845)

@cuminafterall I didn’t notice until you pointed it out but it could have a whiff of sexism in that it sounds like the boss is dismissing her discomfort/distaste for the coworker as silly, mean girl antics instead of real reason to be bothered. Not like slap-her-on-the-ass-and-call-her-sweet-cheeks level workplace sexism but a little iffy.

So many thoughts! Also, a question: how did your boss come to tell you that you were being a Heather? Did he/she just happen to be in your office? Or did your co-worker tattle on you? Because obviously the latter would be…strange.

You say that you share an office with this person – is it possible to ask to move offices? Even something as simple as the guy breaking your concentration with frequent, loud phone calls could be an acceptable reason, depending on what your job requires. You just need to document your reasons for wanting to make the move. Actually, documenting them might be a good idea anyway. If your working conditions are uncomfortable, having a paper trail can be useful.

BUT I am not sure that all your objections are totally reasonable? For instance, while I don’t think we should spy on our co-workers’ computer screens, the argument can be made that you shouldn’t be checking your bank balance or conducting any other personal business on your work computer. And I suspect that “Can I ask you a question?” is the result of your co-worker’s realization that he annoys you, and he’s trying to ask if this is an ok time to interrupt. (Your obvious irritation may be at the root of your boss’s “Heather” comment, too.)

So…no, you’re never required to share your personal belongings with your co-workers. But you are required to TRY to get along with them, no matter how much they annoy you. It is, hands down, the worst part of being a grown-up.

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

@swampette@twitter Agree with everything you said! To be fair (1) the letter may have been edited and/or (2) the co-worker may be the entitled type. However, it seems like the co-worker is more clueless and socially awkward than malicious and that the LW’s dislike of the co-worker … is disproportionate to the co-worker’s faults (particularly if LW hadn’t tried to clearly set boundaries). That being said, Mike Dang’s advice was spot on.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

Unfortunately there is really nowhere for me to move.

My boss and I were having a conversation at my desk when the charger incident occurred. No tattling, thank god.

The “can I ask you a question” thing mostly irritates me because he is ALREADY asking a question, and I know it is probably him trying to be polite, it’s just that the faux-consideration is pointless and a waste of time (like 3 seconds, but still time).

I feel like you would be incredibly hard pressed to find someone who sits in front of their work computer all day long and uses their machine SOLELY for work. Having said that, I just don’t really want a coworker (or anyone, really) poring over my bank statement. It feels weird.

Oh, and @CubeRootOfPi, my letter wasn’t edited at all. I guess I am just…kind of mean sometimes!

shannowhamo (#845)

@aeroaeroaero I hate people looking at my computer screen no matter what I’m doing! I have one particular co-worker who will openly read whatever I have up and then say something about it like “ooh shoes.” I would never do that to someone! (I try not to look at shoes but sometimes I have a legitmate reasaon to be on Amazon -I’m a librarian- and then I end up looking at shoes!)

Elsajeni (#1,763)

@aeroaeroaero I can understand being bugged by him looking at your bank statement, but at the same time… you share an office with this dude, so it’s his space, too. And you said he was “sneaking peeks,” not, like, reading over your shoulder and commenting on your spending habits. You can’t really make the rule “never glance in my direction in case I have something private on my monitor.”

joyballz (#2,000)


I know Captain Awkward has some work boundary stuff in her archives. Good luck!

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@joyballz I recently discovered Captain Awkward and am currently working through archives. I love you, internets!!

Megano! (#124)

I have no idea wtf “being a heather” even means.

Also Carl most definitely had low spectrum autism.

null (#1,101)

Megano! (#124)

@hippie johnny I don’t know anything about that show. Are they bitches?

@Megano! It’s a great movie from the 90′s staring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.

selenana (#673)

@EngNaturalBeauty@twitter It’s basically Mean Girls but radder with explosions.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@Megano! YOU MUST WATCH THIS MOVIE! It’s a way better black comedy than Mean Girls. I can quote so much of that movie. There’s nothing better than some of the Heatherisms. And if you think differently, I must ask: “Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?”

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

I work with a version of this. I work in IT, and there are a lot of socially awkward people anyway, but this guy takes the cake. He is nearly 70 years old, and works in the cubicle next to mine. He farts loudly at his desk, then sprays cheap aerosol air freshener to cover it. According to my male co-workers, he shaves in the work bathroom while only wearing a wife beater. His desk is a disaster zone (papers all over the desk and floor). He barges into my cubicle to ask questions, while I am on the phone with a customer.

I could keep going, but let’s just say I’m glad I now work at home 50% of the time.

ThatJenn (#916)

@ImASadGiraffe This sounds creepily like a guy where I used to work, including age, and if you hadn’t said you were allowed to work from home sometimes I would’ve wondered if you worked where I used to.

I would wager that both the coworker in the letter and Carl have undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome (related to austism). This means they can’t read typical social cues and probably don’t pick up on the fact that they make you uncomfortable at all. When diagnosed, it is typically treated with therapy that focuses on developing social skills and reading body language.

I think setting boundaries and communicating clearly is key to success here. This is a great opportunity to help this person and also improve your working environment.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Jenny Cohen Kabaker@facebook Why do you think the letter writer has undiagnosed Aspergers? Because she thinks her obnoxious co-worker is obnoxious?
I’m an adult and I expect my adult co-workers to act like adults. Everyone has quirks and weird habits but it is not my job to help my co-workers or classmates grow up.

Safari (#3,209)

@josefinastrummer Note the word “coworker” there? Jenny wasn’t talking about the letter writer.

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