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In an open plan office there is a person who works several bays away who spends their day laughing. Loudly. Repeatedly. The closest term to the behaviour of this person is that they are an office hyena. The sound they make is highly irritating.

Given that this person spends a large portion of their day manically laughing their head off, that everyone within 100m can hear this, and nothing has been done by the several managers in the area for several months, what is the best way to solve this problem?

Further information:

  • The person may fall into the category of 'not mentally normal'
  • It is possible that this person is unable to understand how annoying they are
  • The sound made by this person does upset people in the area with people flinching at particularly piercing sounds
  • This is just one person exhibiting this behaviour
  • While this behaviour is quite disturbing no one in the area can or will do anything about it with several people happily moving to another team to get away from the problem
  • The person is of a similar level in a different team with a shared manager 3 levels up

To get an idea of what this situation is like play this mp3 loudly in 10 to 20 second bursts randomly every 5 to 15 minutes. This sound can cut straight through headphones and earplugs. Working in this office requires being able to interact with others so completely blocking out all sound is not an option.

I have not spoken to this person about this. I have not spoken to this person at all. Going near this person results in them turning away, looking down and leaving quickly. The team leader is an affable person for whom I have spoken to as you would to someone who works in the same office/area/section however the team leader avoids talking about the team. Other team leaders in the area avoid talking about that team. Due to this I am treading carefully before doing anything further as I suspect there is something here I can't see.

What I am thinking is that there must be a proper way to approach this type of situation. So far, talking directly to the person and talking to their team leader has been ruled out as options. My manager is green; this topic is avoided or dodged. The management above my manager is not an option to raise any issue with. HR is only engaged when serious CYA is required in this place and best avoided unless absolutely required.

  • How many other people in your immediate area dislike this laughing? Is anyone else complaining and can you bring them along with you to complain? – Dan Jul 28 '16 at 14:36
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    Run for the hills? Maybe its time to follow the herd and change to other team. – Mindwin Jul 28 '16 at 15:00
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    Is there any evidence or justification for he falling into the category of 'not mentally normal' other than his laughing? – Arturo Montaño Jul 28 '16 at 15:34
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    If you are the one who is bothered, it's easier to fix yourself than someone else. Are headphones acceptable in your office? That's the usual cure for distracting noises in an open-plan area. – keshlam Jul 28 '16 at 16:09
  • @arturo Since this is a side issue I'll add an answer here: Yes, there is. The person doesn't act normally in a social context. Avoids personal contact. Won't speak to anyone outside their team. It is not possible to discuss a person's mental state at work. Not even to query someone acting oddly, unless it may be an immediate serious issue. – Underverse Jul 31 '16 at 9:40
13

Some of this is culturally specific - both corporate and geographic culture.

Frankness is an option

If you are comfortable being frank - it's really OK to go to the person, ask to speak privately and tell him that:

  • he's laughing frequently and loudly all day - give details if you have them (for example if there was a time that you were trying to talk to someone for 30 minutes and you got interrupted 3 times...)
  • you have a job that requires some degree of focus and/or the ability to speak to others in an uninterrupted way
  • the laughter is quite disruptive to you getting your work done
  • you've tried other mitigations - like earplugs/head phones - and the laughter is loud enough to negate them

Keep the focus on the action (laughter) and the impact (your ability to work). And then ask if he has any thoughts for ways to keep this action from causing this harmful impact.

If he seems to get it - great. It's often best to let the person come up with their own ideas for mitigation, as they will be more deeply invested in the solution.

If he's defensive or in denial, say you respectfully disagree and close the conversation.

This should feel about as awkward and awful as telling someone they have toilet paper on their shoe, or their fly is open.

OR...

If your gut says that the reaction will be very negative and/or you try it and the reaction is denial/defensiveness/no willingness to compromise - take it to your immediate supervisor and/or HR. It's a work environment that causes problems to getting things done.

You may not be the first.

This is a gut call, and I can't tell you which option will work better. In some offices, it's totally OK to say "dude you are LOUD!" In others, everyone will leave it to a supervisor. You could arguably say that it's a supervisor's problem, in that they chose an open office environment for you, and it's hampering productivity. However, having worked in office spaces with walls, I have to say - with certain laughs, only a soundproof room would keep them from bugging people.

if the conversation seems positive, but unproductive...

If the guy seems to be honestly willing to change when you talk to him, but the laughing doesn't stop - make it a point once and a while to give immediate feedback when the laugh arises. It can be a small thing - just walking by him, catching his eye and saying 'that's what I mean' or making a gesture.

Often laughing is a nervous tick that people don't even notice that they are making. To fix a bad habit, the person will need to break the habit cycle, figure out the triggers and find a different reaction. It's not easy to fix a problem like this when it arises from the subconscious and having awareness when the problem occurs can be a big help. ... so long as the person agrees they need help!

A story

This actually reminds me of a story from a feedback class I took - the instructor had ended up managing a guy who smelled bad. Really bad. He was the most hated guy in the office kind of bad. She felt extremely awkward, but she sat him down, told him the problem, and the results and then went through basic grooming habits with him.

A year later he found her and thanked her hugely. He'd taken the concern to heart, and better grooming had gotten him a promotion, a serious girlfriend, and closer ties to many people in the office and in his friend circle. He'd always been kind of a loner, and he had worked at home for most of his career. His parents hadn't stressed the importance of cleanliness and he really didn't know how much it mattered to people. And he wasn't aware of how bad he smelled.

You'd think he'd have hated her and been embarrassed, but when he saw the big difference it made, he was so thankful someone pointed it out.

  • In this situation then "if something can't be addressed by an employee then a manager needs to deal with it" is spot on. Also "In an open plan office managers need to be on the ball to identify and fix issues". Many people are wearing earphones or earplugs due to this irritant to mitigate the sound and several managers are ignoring or are already aware of the problem. From previous experience I have learned that if multiple managers are studiously ignoring a problem then getting involved can be bad for your career; hence the query for options. The answer here is: Make it management's problem. – Underverse Jul 31 '16 at 14:05
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Give the person more work to do.

The problem originally described in this question has been solved. The team this person works in now spends more time working than socializing. It is unknown who made this change or how it was done. The person no longer spends their day laughing their head off.

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    I'm glad it worked out for you but isn't just that masking the issue rather than dealing with it? What are you going to do when that individual goes back to his/her old ways while being busy? – Isaiah3015 Sep 22 '17 at 20:10
  • My situation was resolved by moving desk far away from the problem. Months later I found out how the management for that team solved this problem within their team. – Underverse Oct 11 '17 at 6:54
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I have an identical situation and this laughing person does absolutely NO work. Several managers have tried and failed to bring this behavior to a halt. In fact when they have given extra work to this individual the person fails badly. The person in question has two master's degrees so I see it as an attitudinal problem, more than a problem of lacking intelligence or know how.

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    this sounds more like a "me too" complaint / rant, see How to Answer – gnat Oct 24 '18 at 21:48

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