If a co-worker unknowingly disturbs you doing something where concentration is important, what is the best way to tell them? When I'm programming, disturbances are particularly disruptive. Should I tell them directly or send an email to the manager?

Is there an easy way without affecting too much the relation with that person?

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    pass them this article: DON'T WAKE UP THE PROGRAMMER! "...It is just for you it looks like you only asked a simple question. Just asked what the time is... just that. How about I ask you what time it is sometime around three in a morning?..." – gnat Oct 22 '12 at 11:57
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    If you can't politely ask the person to keep the noise down, what kind of relation are you worried about negatively affecting? – user8365 Oct 22 '12 at 14:29
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First thing to do is find out if you can do anything yourself to help with the situation (say loud noises - consider using noise cancelling earphones or a white noise generator, for example).

Consider whether this is something that happens consistently or not - if it is a one-off, just let it go.

If this is persistent, you should start with discussing the issue with your colleague - no need to escalate to management quite yet.

Talk to them and explain, politely that their behaviour is distracting you from your work and ask if they can stop. If this is a reasonable thing to ask and they can see that their behaviour is disruptive, there shouldn't be much of an impact on your relationship. Of course, this depends on the person and situation - not everyone is reasonable and not all requests are reasonable. You will need to exercise your judgement.

Only if several such requests are ignored, go to management - you need to be able and explain exactly why the behaviour is impacting your work and then both offer and ask for suggestions on how to fix things.

  • To expand on the "suggestions for fixing," if you have the space, see about making/designating one or more offices as transient ones, where people can go temporarily when they need thinking space. A number of places, particularly those like GitHub, 37 Signals, Valve, etc., who have all their developers in one room for cultural purposes, use this design to great effect. – Shauna Oct 25 '12 at 14:06

I have to agree with Oded, but with a caveat...

You may want to talk to the person, study them a little while talking, it may be a nervous twitch they don't realize they are doing, or it may be a disability, or something all together different.

  • I meant noise in workplace. – Neocortex Oct 22 '12 at 12:22
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    @Balaji - Disabled people can work, too. For example, people on the high-functioning end of the Autism spectrum can work just fine, but may have issues with the cultural/social aspect of work (things like volume control, taking hints that someone isn't available, etc), and so may do things that disrupt others, without realizing it. – Shauna Oct 25 '12 at 13:59

Certainly do not escalate an issue to management that you haven't tried to resolve yourself. An escalation is likely to get a notation in the person's Personnnel record and may hurt their performance evaluations or even contribute to them losing their job. All for a problem they apparently don't yet know they have created.

Think about it from the other person's perspective, would you rather a co-worker mention that he needs the noise cut down or be called into a private meeting with the boss to be told that he has a black mark against his performance?

Now I don't know what type of noise it is, but there is a certain amount of normal noise in the workplace that you have to get used to and deal with. It may not be his problem at all, but yours. If you sit next to the sales guy and his phone conversations bother you, then you need to get used to them because that is a necessary task to performing his job. Nor is it fair to tell someone they type too loudly.

Now, I agree there are some co-workers who make ridiculous amounts of noise. Then yes, go to them and politely ask them to cut it out and if they don't, then please feel free to ask managment to discuss the issue. But make sure it actually is an abnormal amount of noise. You cannot expect the workplace to be totally quiet just for you.

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    Nicely put! And I see we are doing a little dance of reputation. :) I'd add one thought to this one - that if YOU are being inhibited from doing YOUR job because of the intrustions of non-work related noise, then you are fair in being less polite and blunter the more inhibiting the behavior is. I have broken in, quite rudely, when social banter was so loud I could not hear or be heard on a conference call - for example. A much different tact than just "I'm trying to think and that call to your wife was rather loud". – bethlakshmi Oct 23 '12 at 15:19
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    @bethlakshmi, Well I will admit I have had to resort to being rude myself to get someone to shut up once. After months of daily complaints about a person talking loudly on his cell phone all day along (He sat in the same cubicle as I did and the complaints came from everyone in a warehouse-sized building), I did reach out and hang up his phone once when I couldn't hear a tech support call due to his discussion of his sex life with his wife. Most people will accept a polite "please tone it down" comment, but there are some who won't. I would only try it when the first polite request failed. – HLGEM Oct 23 '12 at 15:29

This is a crucial confrontation and requires you to be 100% honest and 100% respectful. Most people will interpret you are trying to tell them what to do and how to behave which will increase tension. You have to do this in a way where you keep the current work relationship or even improve the work relationship.

First "unknowingly disturbs you doing something" needs to be a more concrete example but I will try to create a sample conversation...

"I want us to continue to working together. I think we really do a good job. I'd just like to keep the interruptions at a minimum between hours X and Y while working because I need the long stretches to complete my work." Depending on the type of interruptions you can explain what the interruption was...

If you send an email and they read it as an attempt to change their behavior even though your goal is to have quiet time... many things can happen.

Good luck and good for you for asking before doing.

  • 1
    If this is indeed "a crucial confrontation", i.e. if people are so thin skinned then we've come a long way in reducing our specie, or culture at least, to emotional weakness. You're approach is way overengineered and I don't wanna think of my surrounding as something requiring that level of high maintenance when dealing with a SIMPLE issue like this. He should just pull him to a private conversation and explain POLITELY how his behavior is affecting him and that it is not a personal matter. – amphibient Oct 22 '12 at 14:12

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