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posted: 3/22/2020 6:00 AM

My co-worker burps loudly and engages in self-talk

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  • When a loud co-worker is disrupting your ability to do your job, it's time to talk to your manager.

    When a loud co-worker is disrupting your ability to do your job, it's time to talk to your manager.
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A couple of pre-coronavirus queries to remind us what office life was like in the not-too-distant past.

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Q: My younger co-worker, "Richard," is extremely difficult to work near. My office and his share a wall, and his behaviors are audible and disturbing.

Richard often talks loudly to himself using various voices. Abrupt shrieking or Joker-style laughter erupts from his office. He has some kind of stomach issue and often belches loudly. There's more, but you get the idea. Our manager constantly talks to him about keeping the noise down. It only lasts a couple of hours.

Recently, most of our team moved upstairs for a temporary project. Richard and I remained. With the manager upstairs, Richard is noisier than ever.

I've asked if I can move, but our managers don't want Richard left alone.

I know he can't help some of this; colleagues with knowledge about autism think he's on the spectrum. But I've been stuck with the worst of it for more than two years, because I'm the oldest on the team by about 20 years and presumably more patient and mature (this has been verbalized to me). Any advice?

A: If Richard's outbursts are because of neurodiverse wiring, it's great that your managers are supportive. But making him your problem is not the answer, especially if they're basing that decision on assumptions about you as an older worker. Imagine fobbing him off on a female colleague because "women are naturally more tolerant and nurturing."

But you don't need a diagnosis to know that he's disrupting your ability to do your job. If you haven't yet, you need to make that exact point to your managers. If he can't be left alone, press for specifics on what your presence is supposed to accomplish. Are you supposed to monitor him? Do you have the authority to talk to him as your manager does?

Are they concerned his behavior will escalate, and they need you there to intervene if it does? That might seem overblown, but raising these questions might drive home just how much of an imposition they're laying on you. And if riding herd on Richard is now part of your job, that change needs to be formalized.

If they agree you shouldn't be his keeper, remind them you still need a buffer against his behavior: relocating, telecommuting or sound-canceling headphones. You might as well go ahead and get the headphones now, while anyone who might object is sitting upstairs.

Q: I work in a small office (fewer than 20 people). Another professional in the office is constantly making noise. He sniffs, he snorts, he burps, he groans. Sometimes he says, "Excuse me," but I'm not sure he is even aware of how noisy he is. Group meetings are a trial. I try to sit as far as possible from him, but I find all his sound effects nauseating. If I say anything to our boss, am I just going to look petty?

A: Even if you complain to the boss, it's not certain that the office Jabberwocky will or can self-regulate his whiffling and burbling, whether because of respiratory or gastric conditions, neurological tics or simply an upbringing among warthogs.

But unlike the first situation, you needn't even identify the disruptive person to justify creating a distraction-free zone for yourself with, for example, noise-canceling headphones. If your boss asks, you could say: "I really need these to help me focus on work."

Being exposed to his cacophony in meetings, I'm sorry to say, is probably unavoidable under ordinary conditions. But to tie this back to the present situation: Once the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed, weeks of social distancing may leave managers with less appetite for in-person meetings than they once had - and less tolerance for disruptive people.