Thursday, March 13, 2014

In which I have an altercation with a co-worker about the office radio

I moved to a new job within my company. New job, same company, different division. There has been drama since before Day 1, but I don't want to get into any of that while I am still working there. If, however, I get a new new job at a completely new company, I will tell all. Let's just say that I keep learning questions I should ask before I accept a job, like, "Is this group financially stable or are you way behind in revenues and will there be mass panic and thoughts of layoffs in the near future?" and "Will you be changing the job description dramatically once I start and be wanting me to make cold calls?" and "This promised trip to the company headquarters in Buenos Aires in January - will this actually happen?"

Unfortunately, like the generals, I keep fighting the last war, so who knows what new drama I might encounter at a new new job?

On my first day of work, my boss showed me to my space: a desk in the middle of the office. A desk as part of a pod of desks. No walls. OK, a short wall between me and the other three desks that were clustered together, but no other walls.

I thought it was bad being in a cubicle. I didn't know it could get worse - that I would be demoted from an office (pretty much every job I've had) to a cubicle to - a desk.

My boss said, "We can build you a cubicle if you want, but you might like this."

I looked around me at all the space. At the way the desk was completely open to everything. Then I looked at him and wanted to say, "You have a window office in the corner. Do you think you would prefer to have this space?" Instead, I said just, "I expect I will prefer a cubicle so I can have some kind of walls."

"Well, we can't get maintenance to do anything for a few weeks," he said.

Note that I had accepted the job a month before I started. The long notice period was because of Drama that I will not divulge now, but there was Drama and there were Red Flags and it was too late to do anything about them because my former boss already knew I wanted to go and it's hard to stay working for someone who knows you want to not be working for him.

I was going to have to suck it up.

I sat down at my new desk. There was no nameplate. There was no computer. My phone had not been connected. I'm not sure what I was supposed to do without any tools to do the job.

They had known for a month.

But then - then I realized at least there was a distraction.

There was a radio playing not ten feet away from me. I was in the desk closest to the radio.

Some people may thrive in a noisy, crowded atmosphere.

I am not one of those people. Indeed, I do not know any one of those people. I will bet if you ask everyone you know, almost all of them would prefer an office to a cubicle and definitely to an open desk in a cluster.

Not only was I in an exposed area, I was in an exposed area next to the radio.

The women behind me in the old job used to chat all day - which actually didn't bug me - but also would eat noisy things, like carrot sticks and dry Cap'n Crunch, all day? Crunch, crunch, crunch, all day long.

Although to their credit, when I asked them to tone it down, they did, but only after apologizing for disturbing me.

See, the thing is, professional people, adults, who work in shared spaces get that we all have to make little sacrifices to make up for the cheapness of our employers, who refuse to provide people with the proper space and privacy to do a good job.

I do not want to listen to the radio at work. I want to work. I need to be able to concentrate. I need to be able to put together contracts and analyze pricing and speak to customers in Spanish and think about strategy and do things that require concentration. I can't do these things with a radio playing.

But it was my first day at work. I was not going to say a word.

Instead, after lunch, when my computer finally arrived and had been set up, I took it into the conference room so I could read all the training materials in peace.

After an hour, my boss, Mark, came in the conference room. "What are you doing in here?" he asked.

"The radio is distracting," I said. "I came in here for the quiet."

"Why don't you just turn the radio off?" he asked.

I sighed. "I am not going to be the person who comes into a place on her first day of work and tries to change everything. It would make everyone hate me."

Mark rolled his eyes, walked out of the conference room, and turned off the radio. Then he stuck his head back in the room and told me that the radio was off.

I took my computer back out to my desk and started working again.

One of my new co-workers, Jan, came over to me. "You don't like Christmas music?" she asked.

"What?" I answered.

"The radio. Mark said you didn't like the music."

"He did what?"

"When Mark turned off the radio, he said it was because you didn't like it."

Oh great. I shook my head. "It's not that I don't like Christmas music. It's that I have a hard time concentrating if there is music playing."

"Well," she said carefully. "We all like the music." (There are seven other women in the open work space, although most of them were gone for the holidays.) "It keeps us from going insane."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what to tell you. I will try to work with it and we can see what happens once they build me a cubicle. Maybe the walls will baffle some of the sound and it won't be an issue."

She smiled. "We really like the radio."

I brought in a headset and listened to the sound of rain falling and the sound of waves crashing and the sound of a jet engine all day long. It still didn't drown out the radio. So then I put in earplugs underneath the headphones. Still didn't drown it out, but made it easier for me to tune it out. Still, I could hear Elton John and Billy Joel and Meatloaf and the Beatles all day long and if I didn't hate their greatest hits before the new job, I sure hated them now.

They built me a cubicle that was half the size of the cubicle I'd had in the old job. I looked longingly at the office occupied by a woman who was below me on the org chart. But I said nothing to Mark other than, "I will say this only once. I want a door. I want a door and walls. I cannot concentrate with all that noise out there."

He dismissed me. "We were supposed to do an office renovation this year, but now there is no money for it."

I moved into the cubicle. It was still noisy.

Finally, I went back to Jan. "I am really sorry," I said, "but I can't stand that radio. Is there any way you could have it closer to your desk?"

I had already checked into and Both were blocked. I had asked IT to make an exception, but they said the request had to come from Mark. I was not going to get my boss involved in this. I had carefully asked a few of my other new co-workers what they thought about the radio. Two of them took out their earbuds and said, "What?"

Jan said she would try. "The problem is that it's hard to get good reception in here," she explained.

"I have tried," I said. "I wear my headset and earplugs and I listen to white noise, but the headset bothers my ears after a few hours."

She moved the radio. She couldn't get a signal.

"Our work is so boring that we really need the music," she said. "I can't believe they don't have you in an office."

I just shrugged and smiled slightly. I was not going to get into the office issue with anyone.

OK. I lie. I did say, "Yes, it would be nice to have an office."

So I sucked it up. And I started looking for a new job.

But one day, after I had tried to have a conversation with a customer in Mexico over the phone and had to press one hand against my free ear so I could concentrate on what he was saying - it's hard to understand a foreign language over the phone because you don't see the person's face and body language, I went over to the radio and turned it off.

Tanya popped up from her desk.

Tanya had not been there when Mark turned off the radio. She is about 20. This is her first job.

She marched over to the radio, turned it back on, turned to me, and said, "You don't get to come in here and do whatever you want."

"Excuse me?" I said.

"This is how we do things here. We listen to the radio. You don't just get to come in and change things."

I sighed. "Look. It is really hard for me to concentrate with the radio on. I need to be able to work."

She pushed her hand out in the Hand of Stop Talking move. "Don't be talking to me like that!"

"Like what?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.

"All mad and moving your hands!"

I hadn't realized I was moving my hands and I didn't think I had raised my voice, but I took a deep breath and said, "Look. I'm sorry. But we need to be able to work something out. I cannot work with the radio playing."

She folded her arms, shook her head, and said, "You need to talk to your manager about this."

This left me dumbfounded. I have never in my entire life gone to my boss about an interpersonal problem. Never. Speechless, I walked slowly back to my desk.

I sat there, fuming. Then thought, No! I need to deal with this!

I returned to the radio, where Tanya still stood.

"Look," I said. "We are both adults. We should be able to resolve this ourselves without going to out bosses." What I did not mention to her, although I was sorely tempted to, was that if I went to my boss, he would take the radio and throw it through the window.

She just shook her head. "You need to talk to your manager."

I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and walked away, shaking my head.

Next: I talk to Tanya's boss about the radio, someone complains to Kyle about how I talk on the phone, and the CEO kicks Bridget out of her office


  1. I work as an office clerk, not particularly exciting work but it pays well. Today I had to burst the perforations on over 600 card stock dental plan cards . . . I did turn the music on, but I play it only loud enough to be heard at my desk.
    What is so difficult about that concept? I have iTunes at work, so there is no radio to be moved about. I listen on the crappy speaker that is built into my Mac.
    And really, would I expect the Vice-President of the union to groove along with my selection of Disney music . . . NO.
    I don't think majority wins on this kind of thing, the work atmosphere has to appropriate for everyone and if the music was interfering with your ability to properly do your job - out it goes.
    I probably would have ended up throwing the radio under a car, thankfully you have more restraint than I do.
    With only 5 people in my office, we all have to get along and I am glad we do. I hope you find a marvelous new job where you can work in peace and quiet.

    1. This makes me think of the girl in the Lemony Snicket books who had to fold staples!

  2. I am flabbergasted about this. I agree with Gaylin: this is not a majority-rules situation. The idea that they continue to use the radio when one person can't hear on the phone or concentrate and at least two others would, at the very least, rather be listening to something else just boggles my mind. This is what iPods and earbuds are for.

  3. Artsy in BoulderFriday, March 14, 2014

    The "Hand of Stop Talking" move is exceeded only by the "Talk to the Hand" move in terms of disrespect and rudeness. The former would cause steam to come out of my ears; the latter would leave me incandescent. I'm impressed indeed with your self-control and am 100% on your side here. While you're waiting for your fabulous new job offer, may I recommend Mack's silicon earplugs underneath some Bose earphones?

    1. I googled both phrases and the pictures that came back all showed the same thing - a person extending their arm with the palm held vertically to the person talking. What's the difference between "the hand of stop talking" and "talk to the hand"?

    2. I thought I made up The Hand of Stop Talking. Looks like I am just part of the zeitgeist.

  4. I hope your next post concludes with Tanya's supervisor sending her to an etiquette class AND an English grammar class.

    1. Ha! I would LOVE to give grammar classes at work!