That’s So Annoying!

I was working on an article for a trade publication about the direct marketing industry years ago, and was interviewing an expert on call centers, when she noted that I seemed to have a “prickly” personality like her own. The article focused on how direct marketing and catalog companies choose their on-hold music. I usually didn’t like it, and would sit on the phone annoyed that I was being forced to listen to it.

This prickly, easily annoyed, side of my personality also leads to easy irritation in the office. A person in the next cubicle crinkling the aluminum wrapper of a sandwich, or a person with a speech pattern I find annoying, who is speaking loudly on the phone, can distract and anger me. I know myself well enough that I spend as much time as possible under a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones, playing music I do like to listen to.

So I was interested when I saw a new survey from staffing firm Accountemps on office etiquette, and what we do that most annoys our co-workers. The top one seems to be tardiness. The funny part is that I’m often relieved when a co-worker is running late because I’m usually not looking forward to the meeting. It’s a feeling akin to being relieved that plans you weren’t looking forward to have been cancelled. I always have this excited feeling when a co-worker, who is essential to a meeting, is running late—“maybe he or she won’t show up, and the meeting will be cancelled,” I think. Apparently, however, there are those who do care about a colleague running late. Thirty-four percent of senior managers consider it a breach of etiquette when a co-worker is running late or misses a meeting. Other big etiquette no-nos from senior managers include not responding to calls or e-mails in a timely manner (26 percent) and gossiping about others in the office (23 percent).

A corresponding survey of workers found slightly different results, with respondents citing talking about colleagues as the most common offense (24 percent), followed by being distracted during meetings (18 percent) and not responding to work communication in a timely fashion (17 percent).

What most annoys you, and how does it tie into the education you deliver to your company’s employees? Is work etiquette something you come to the company with, or is it something that can be taught and reinforced after a person is hired?

Some people will always be more sensitive than others. Just as I’m easily irritated, I easily pick up on the irritation of others. I usually can tell when I’m annoying another person, and usually will try to stop whatever it is I’m doing (or not doing). What do you do about employees you try to teach etiquette to, but who don’t have that innate sensitivity that tells them, intuitively, they’re becoming an annoyance?

Encouraging managers to point out directly, rather than subtly, when an employee has annoyed them with breaches in etiquette is necessary for employees who rarely get annoyed with others, and, so, also rarely notice when they are an annoyance. In some cases, a subtle statement does the trick, and is the better approach to take, especially when the employee is sensitive and might feel deeply embarrassed and upset about being called out directly. For the more sensitive employees who breach etiquette by running late, the manager leading the meeting might say: “Now that Janet is here, we can begin. Glad you’re here, Janet—we have so much to go over today, and your work is such a big part of what we’re discussing, that I thought we were going to have to postpone the meeting.” For the less sensitive, a word after the meeting, in private: “Tom, please try your best not to run late again to our meetings, or any business meeting. We all have a lot of work to do, and when you’re significantly late, it sets us all behind, and sometimes even leads to the need to postpone meetings, which makes it harder for us to meet our deadlines.”

Do you recommend the direct approach at all times in correcting breaches of etiquette, or do you think the gentler approach is better for more sensitive employees?

A big part of etiquette training is being able to accurately read employee personalities and understand if the employee is just a rude, insensitive person in his or her life as a whole, or whether the employee is mostly a sensitive, considerate person whose chronic etiquette breach is the symptom of larger problem. For instance, he or she may have a daily workload and commitments that are so overwhelming that almost anyone in his or her position would be struggling to make it on time.

What is the impact of uncorrected business etiquette breaches, and what is the best way to correct them—and prevent them from occurring in the first place?


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