Has an annoying employee taken it too far?

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Q: I have a colleague who is driving me batty.  We work in an open work environment and I have to now wear ear plugs.  Before the ear plugs, I had to listen to whistling, snorting and deep breathing.  He also is very dismissive, negative and loves gossip. Every time there is drama in the office, he seems to be involved.  When I first started in this role, I felt badly for him since it seemed he was always in the cross hairs.  Now, I think I see it more clearly.  He involves himself in any drama occurring in the office.  When someone in my office had a serious illness, he was trying to pry info from her close co-workers and then came to the conclusion that she had a “breakdown of epic proportions” (to use his exact words).  How does one handle a colleague like this?  I try to ignore him but it is getting tougher and tougher each day.

A: I admire your patience!  Open work environments certainly have their challenges.  It seems like you have developed a viable solution for combating the noises from your coworker.

Many companies are developing respectful workplace policies.  Respectful workplace policies provide guidelines for a wide range of behaviors.  Most of these policies try to limit behavior which is negative, aggressive, or inappropriate.  Although the behavior may not be illegal (like harassment), a company can discipline employees who violate this type of policy.  Some examples of behaviors often outlined in this type of policy include yelling, belittling, excessive monitoring of an employee’s work, gossiping or spreading rumors, arbitrary punishment without cause, making threats or intimidating others.  It sounds like your colleague’s behavior might fall into this “bucket” of examples.

Beyond a respectful workplace, your co-worker could be violating HIPAA laws.  HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires a high level of confidentiality when it comes to health information.  No one should be sharing information about another employee’s health condition unless the employee has explicitly given consent to sharing that information.

I would suggest that you raise these concerns with your supervisor.  Your supervisor may have observed some of these behaviors, especially if the employee is as loud as you have described.  It is difficult to hide in an open environment with some of the behaviors you have described.   It is not appropriate (ever) to assume someone has had a “breakdown” or something similar.  Not only is it in poor taste, it is likely illegal.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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