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I work in an open cubicle environment, and as is common elsewhere, people use headphones to deal with the noise. I have an across-the-wall coworker who frequently listens to music so loud that I can practically sing along.

The music isn't offensive, but I'm genuinely concerned for my co-worker's hearing, because of the volume, and how often he wears his ear-buds. While some of my co-workers have hearing loss from work in industrial environments, I'm fairly positive that's not the case for this co-worker.

  1. Should I share my concerns with my co-worker?
  2. If so, how should I -- politely and professionally -- let my co-worker know that his listening habits may be damage his hearing?

This: What can I do about a very loud coworker? could marginally be seen as a related question. My question is different because my co-worker's music isn't all that distracting. I'm significantly more concerned about damage to his hearing as opposed to any disruption to me.

And unlike the other answers on the possible duplicate, I haven't approached my co-worker about the music volume, and not even certain that I should. And this certainly isn't something to escalate to management. That's just not an appropriate option in this case from my point of view.

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Singing along (and maybe dancing, so you'll get his attention even if he can't hear you) sounds like an excellent idea. ;-) (Or not, depending on your workplace...) –  Ilmari Karonen Mar 14 '14 at 22:27
Unless it's distracting you from your own work, then it's absolutely none of your business. This world has far too many so called 'do-gooders' as it is. What would your reaction be to someone approaching you with the same 'concern'? –  user17354 Mar 16 '14 at 18:35

8 Answers 8

up vote 28 down vote accepted

But I'm genuinely concerned for my co-workers hearing because of how loud he plays his music and how often he has his ear-buds in. Should I share my concerns with my co-worker?

If it's not bothering you, it's not really your responsibility to "fix" the "problem."

However, generally we do care about those we're around who may unknowingly be destroying their hearing (or lives for that matter). This is true whether in the workplace or personal life and can often make us feel compelled to say something.

If so, how should I politely and professionally let my co-worker know that how they are listening to their music may be damaging their hearing?

Most people will react well to something like:

  • "Hey, I can't help but notice you listen to music really loudly. It really doesn't bother me since I'm normally listening myself but your's is pretty loud even where I'm at - I figured I would let you know. It's pretty easy to cause hearing loss with listening to music so loud and want to make sure you are aware of this, I'd hate for you to be hurting your hearing and not realize it. Like I said, it really doesn't bother me but I just want to give you a heads up."

Focusing it like this:

  • Twice reiterates it's NOT about you (since you start/close with saying it doesn't bother you)
  • Makes clear it definitely is an "FYI" not "I'm judging you"
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My only concern with an approach like this is that the coworker may think you are demeaning him. I'm fairly certain that it's common knowledge that loud noises over extended periods can cause hearing loss. You are implying that this very common knowledge (which the coworker probably knows) is not known to him - marking him at best ignorant and at worst an idiot. If it doesn't bother you I'd strongly suggest just letting it be. –  Doc Mar 15 '14 at 20:18
Yeah, I would "react well" to that in that I wouldn't make a scene, but I'd definitely judge you for butting in. –  Paul Mar 16 '14 at 17:38
-1 for the same reason you wouldn't tell a coworker smoking causes lung cancer. –  user1084 Oct 12 '14 at 10:28

We had this exact problem a while back with the addition that the co-worker would start (unknowingly, we later found out) hum along to the music!!

After a while spent all looking at each other and rolling our eyes, we had a team meeting and in the 'any other business' portion mentioned that the music was probably slightly louder than it should be. There was no singling out of anyone (others often wore headphones just not as frequently as this person) and to our surprise, they spoke up and said "oh, that will probably be me. I'll make sure I turn it down"

People often do not realise how loud they are until it is pointed out. If done in a non-confrontational, finger pointing, blame, ganging up way, it usually gets results

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To be honest I don't think it's your place to bring up health concerns about a coworker. If the volume doesn't disturb you then I don't see a reason why you should worry.

If you do want to bring it up though, I would suggest to do it in a lighthearted manner that doesn't corner him.

I've spent some time thinking about a good approach that doesn't sound accusing but this is really the best I could come up with (which might be why I would not address it myself):

I noticed your music is usually pretty loud. Does it not bother you?

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Tactical remark: Saying "does it not bother you" is challenging his judgement. Some people react fine to that and will take the whole thing in the spirit it is intended. Some will be defensive or less likely to internally accept what you're saying simply because it sounds like you're disagreeing with them from the outset. –  Steve Jessop Mar 15 '14 at 3:36

You can make a personal judgement about him, whether you think he would feel you're interfering or otherwise take it badly. If not, then yes I think you should raise it with him. It sounds like you want to and it won't do any harm as long as you aren't aggressive or annoying about it.

If you do approach him, I would advise doing so fairly seriously. Humour can easily come across as either insincere or mocking, neither of which you want.

Don't actually tell him his headphones are too loud. That's not your judgement to make. Perhaps say something like, "I'm not telling you what to do, but considering how loudly I can hear your music from here, I'm concerned it might harm your hearing. It's very easy to lose track of how loud your music is, when you keep turning it up all day to drown out the office".

Judge the strength of your initial disclaimer according to your relationship with this person. Also judge whether he really needs to hear the second sentence at all and whether you can deliver it without seeming patronising. Then whatever he says in response, leave it there.

You should perhaps also check your company handbook (or whatever serves as one) and perhaps privately ask a non-specific question to whoever in the company who has responsibility for health and safety. If you're worried your colleague might react badly to your personal approach, then do this first, not afterwards (because of, "whatever he says in response, leave it there").

Obviously just the phrase "health and safety" will throw some people into a rage, but I'm guessing that since you care about your colleague's hearing, you're not one of them :-)

Depending on jurisdiction and company policy, it's possible that (a) this is a workplace health issue even though they're his headphones and he's chosen to use them for an ostensibly non-work purpose (listening to music); (b) employees have a responsibility around such issues that they notice affecting their colleagues. Basically, in some jurisdictions if you see a gigantic spike-filled hole in the floor at work you are required to report it, regardless of whether or not your colleagues are perfectly happy to dance around it blindfold.

I'm not saying that applies in this case, I don't know. But the instinct "this is none of my business" could be factually incorrect in this or similar cases.

(a) may seem weird, but if there's something about his work environment that induces him to make the decision (the most obvious being that he's blocking unwanted noise in order to concentrate) then it's at least potentially a work-related issue even though nobody at work has actually instructed him to use them.

My personal preference would be that employers who provide noisy office environments should also provide noise-cancelling headphones (which can be listened to at much lower volumes). And quieter offices. But I recognise that health and safety hasn't gone that mad yet.

If you follow this up the chain, and there is an issue, and your chain is reasonable, then the most likely outcome is some kind of company-wide memo advising people to check the volume they're listening at. Of course there's a risk that you'll end up embarrassed as some kind of busy-body. Again you have to make your own judgement, this one about whether you trust your company's occupational health procedures to treat you kindly rather than as some sort of dangerous whistle-blower!

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I think the 'health and safety' implications go way beyond the individual wearing head phones. Imagine if an evacuation order was delivered over the PA. You get outside to discover your entire section is accounted for, except the one wearing head phones. Do you send someone back in to find them, potentially risking that 2nd person's life? +1 for mentioning W H & S in any sense. –  Andrew Thompson Mar 16 '14 at 4:13

Please could you turn down your music? It's really loud.

This is not rocket science. This is how I would approach the colleague, whether I was bothered by the music or worried about his health. By phrasing it in this simple way, the music likely gets turned down and everyone's a winner. It need not be any more complicated than that.

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Why was this downvoted? It solves the problem and doesnt come across as interfering. –  bharal May 28 at 23:12

The advice in the linked question I think would apply here as well.:

You say that asking him to stop talking to himself worked, even if you had to ask multiple times, why not just do that again? Politely explain that his behaviour is distracting you and try to find a solution to the problem with him. You mention that moving to a different office / space is not an option for you, but perhaps it's an option for him?

In this case, it is less about it being a problem for you, and more about your concern that it might be a problem for him, but the situation still applies.

Simply put: Talk to him. If you feel he might damage his hearing with the volume that loud, say something to him out of concern. Make your intentions clear, don't be forceful (you can't, after all, force him to be as concerened as you), but be open about what you feel. As long as you are courteous to him while talking, there is no danger in talking to him about it.

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Second? Most highly voted? Do you expect those to stay the same forever? Link to the specific answers you're talking about. Better: quote extracts from them, and summarize the relevant points. –  TRiG Mar 15 '14 at 1:59

How should I politely and professionally let my co-worker know that how they are listening to their music may be damaging their hearing?

The real answer depends on the culture of your work environment, your co-workers' disposition, and your relationship with them.

Often though, humor be used to convey your concern in a lighthearted way, while still getting the message across.

Get a small stick or ruler, attach a sign that reads something like "SINCE I CAN HEAR YOUR MUSIC RIGHT NOW, it might be loud enough to damage your hearing".

Hold up the sign whenever you hear the music. And make sure you smile when you do so.

If he doesn't turn down the volume after the first two or three times, or doesn't seem to appreciate the humor, then stop. No need to nag. You've done what you can to help him at that point.

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This strikes me as incredibly passive aggressive, even with a smile. Maybe the beauty is in proper execution? As-is, I can't imagine recommending it. –  jmac Mar 17 '14 at 0:35

Should I share my concerns with my co-worker?

If you want to then do so. I suspect you want to, otherwise you wouldn't have made this question. Which is more likely, someone would be thankful or someone would be angry at you for looking out for them?

If so, how should I politely and professionally let my co-worker know that how they are listening to their music may be damaging their hearing?

Don't over think it. This isn't a big deal and doesn't need to be treated as one. When he's listening to his music loudly walk over to him and say "are you sure you're not hurting your ears with that music? I can hear it all the way from we're I'm sitting." and if he says sorry say "that's ok it wasn't bothering me I just wanted to let you know". You could practice this on strangers on the bus, I've done it before. You could even think of it as a conversation starter. Good luck!

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protected by jmort253 Mar 16 '14 at 23:14

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