Work Advice: Surviving the coughing co-workers

Q: The in-box has coughed up several letters on the same topic.

Reader 1: A co-worker sounds like she has hairballs. She coughs and then sounds like she's throwing up at the end, and never even says "excuse me." She said she went to the doctor and is taking medicine, but I wish she would stay home! How are the rights of a sick employee balanced against the rights of those who wish to remain well?

Reader 2: The employee in the office next to mine has a horrible smoker's cough that ends in gagging. People on the phone and clients can hear it, and she reeks of smoke. It is hard not to be judgmental because my father died young of lung cancer from smoking.

Reader 3: For months, my cube neighbor has had a dry hacking cough, eight hours a day. I leave work stressed out and angry, and dread arriving in the morning. I told the office manager about my frustration and the adverse effect it has on my ability to work. She said she has sent him home many times, and he has no more sick leave. He has also been sent to HR. He says that he suffers from asthma and allergies, but that this cough (in his opinion) is not related. To my knowledge, he hasn't seen a doctor.

A: Flu season, dry air, pollutants, nervous tics, barnyard upbringing … whatever the cause, a barking co-worker can drive you barking mad.

Constant coughers should do what they can to curtail the consternation they cause colleagues — including lozenges, soothing drinks, medical care and telecommuting.

Managers should be willing to entertain reasonable temporary solutions: the aforementioned telecommuting, or desk swaps, or setting up quiet space for client calls. And they should avoid trying to diagnose a worker's condition — besides triggering the protections afforded by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it's presumptuous — and focus on the work environment. Similarly, complaining co-workers should focus on disrupted productivity, not opinions about the cougher's health or habits.

If management is deaf to both coughing and complaints, you'll have to resort to other measures: earphones, white noise, reassignment to Tibet.

Or you might try to muster some sympathy. Offering throat-calming treats may bring you both relief — and make a colleague more receptive when you note: "You've had that cough a while. Have you had it checked out to make sure it's not something serious?" You'll catch more flies (and fewer other bugs) with honey sticks than sour looks.

Ways to manage a necessary absence

Q: I'm a services consultant in a small company. I'm also the eldest daughter in my family, with responsibility for managing the care of parents six hours away. For the next six months or more, I'll be traveling there once or twice a month for up to a week at a time. Fortunately, our CEO gives me lots of leeway. My co-workers are great, too — we all pitch in to help each other.

Although I can work part time while away (even running a project from the chemo infusion center), my absence is noticeable to our clients. One or two colleagues can hold down the fort, and I have a staff vacancy I plan to fill. But in the meantime, what should I say to clients who are used to getting same-day responses from me? And should I apologize for oversharing — for example, "Sorry I didn't get back with you this morning, I was on the phone with my mother's oncologist"? It's true, and they ease up on their immediate expectations or prioritize their requests, often with expressions of support and concern. Some of them are "work friends," meaning we discuss limited personal news — the loss of a pet, an upcoming wedding — over lunch and coffee.

A: Give no unnecessary explanations or apologies. Instead, spend your energy behind the scenes, arranging contingency plans so that you have little to explain or apologize for.

I understand the urge to preempt clients' frustration with an excuse no decent human could fault you for — but sharing too much can backfire. You should assume even sympathetic clients are mainly concerned about getting the quality of service they're paying for. Rather than explaining why your line was busy, try this: "I received your message, and I have several ideas for you."

You can let your closest work friends know you're tending to a family matter, while assuring (and ensuring) that their needs will still be met on time. And try not to take advantage of their sympathy.

Use technology to manage expectations. Set your default voice mail greeting and email auto-response to let clients know you or a colleague will respond within, say, 24 hours. Include a number they can call for urgent matters.

Work Advice: Surviving the coughing co-workers 01/27/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 11:47am]

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