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My colleagues and I work in an environment where we use laptops but when in the office, we usually have additional monitors, USB keyboard and mouse etc. I'm a senior software developer with one lead developer above me in the hierarchy, and a few junior developers below. We all work at desks next to each other and so far as I know, none of us on the team are messy or unhygienic. I also have no reason to suspect my other team members are failing to perform their tasks.

I have always noticed that if our lead is demonstrating something or needed to enter an admin password on my computer (prior to my promotion), she would deliberately drag my laptop closer to her to use its keyboard, rather than the much easier to reach USB keyboard in front of her. I never gave this much thought at the time.

The junior developers often ask me for advice, which does not usually interfere with my own work. I once suggested that they can ask our lead developer (let's call her Jane) for help as well. They said they were hesitant to do this as Jane seemed 'disgusted' by them. Sure enough, I have seen her wearing expressions of disgust when being offered a colleague's mouse or typing on a laptop's keyboard, refuse to use their stationary if offered, nor will she even sit on someone else's chair. These offers are usually rejected with a firm 'No' or something similar, but no explanations are given. She does not refuse to help, but is always looks visibly disturbed while doing it.

I suspect Jane is either germophobic, or it could be something else. The other developers have only been with us for a short time. I have assured them that Jane's actions are nothing personal, but it continues to be mentioned in passing as an area of concern. My questions are:

  • Should I explain to my (and Jane's) manager that Jane's actions, unintentionally I'm sure, are causing a rift in the team? My concern is our manager may already know of it, and flagging it up may cause her and the team further distress.
  • In a UK workplace (or anywhere for that matter) would using the word 'germophobe' or similar be considered offensive? I am aware there could be other psychological conditions that would cause someone to behave like I have described.

How can I effectively reduce the conflict this issue is causing?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Lot of discussion and opinions being shared that aren't really useful outside the "Answer" box to the OP. – enderland May 2 '17 at 13:48
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    Close voters: What's unclear about How can I effectively reduce the conflict...? Your request for clarification requires clarification. ;-) – Caleb May 3 '17 at 14:59
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    @Caleb I edited the implied but unwritten question in after it was closed – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 3 '17 at 18:38
  • I see no indication in your question that these things are causing a rift in the team (big words). Why would you and your colleagues make an issue out of this? Can't you just live with her quircks? Note that IThinkAndIKnowThing's great answer turns the things around: helping her instead of complaining is the way out. – Jan Doggen May 4 '17 at 9:54
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In this, and most any situation involving another person, I like to try to ask myself, "How would I like someone to deal with this situation if it were me?"

For me the answer here is to have a conversation with your lead. Explain you have noticed that she is reluctant to use other peoples keyboard and mouse and that it appears to cause her some significant discomfort when she is forced to. "What can we do to make the situation more comfortable in this case?"

Do not ask why she has the issue or assume that she has some irrational fear or condition. First it is none of your business, and second nothing she says is going to make this issue better for the team. Just accept that it is an issue and do what you can to make her more comfortable. This issue should be easily addressed with minor alterations of behavior. None of this is a personal slight against your team, just cautious behavior on her part. Do not try to "Fix" her feelings, just address them in a way that improves the interpersonal issues within the team. Just try to be courteous and considerate of her as you would want her to be considerate of you.

There are some potential solutions to consider:

  • Remote Desktop
  • Having an extra keyboard and mouse that your lead can bring to other desks to use. (it takes less than 15 seconds to swap out a USB keyboard and mouse.)
  • Get some Lysol wipes and have everyone use them regularly on the keyboards,mice and other common surfaces.
  • +1 for remote desktop idea. ( I should have added that to my answer dang it!! ) – Mister Positive May 1 '17 at 16:11
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    I completely agree it's not our place to know "why" in this case. The remote desktop idea seemed to be the best approach; I mentioned in one situation that since we all sit in the same cluster of desks, well within earshot, we can screen-share without crowding around one desk. It seems to be helping everyone involved. – user34587 May 2 '17 at 7:59
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    As a person with a potentially conflict-causing condition, this is the best answer. Just talk to me, and I'll let you know if I feel you need to. Otherwise, I'll work on figuring out a way to make it less impactful. Great answer, Drinky. – SliderBlackrose May 2 '17 at 20:46
  • I've noticed a few people like this, they tend to ware gloves all the time. – Snowlockk May 3 '17 at 15:44
  • I'm definitely a germaphobe, and know full-well how often people do not wash their hands or take care of their hygiene. If I can avoid touching someone else mouse/keyboard I will, and if I have to I sanitize my hands after. I usually avoid sitting in other peoples chars after many incidents over the years where I walk away smelling literally like feces, as that individual does not wipe well and it has slowly seeped into their pants/chair. To me, avoiding what others touch a lot seems reasonable. IDrink's approach would work best for me. – Douglas Gaskell May 3 '17 at 18:30
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If she is otherwise productive and pleasant there has to be fix here.

Get her to admit she does not like touching keyboards. Tell her she can have her own keyboard and mouse. Offer everyone a personal key and mouse. The team may think it is a little strange but it is easy enough to accommodate.

  • Why put the lead in the position of having to admit anything? – Caleb May 1 '17 at 17:28
  • @Caleb So you can offer a solution. – paparazzo May 1 '17 at 17:30
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    Offering a solution without first requiring a confession seems the preferable route. "I've been trying out this screen sharing software and it seems like a good way for the team to collaborate more. What do you think?" Or just: "I'd like your opinion on this method I wrote -- I'm happy to drive if you like." – Caleb May 1 '17 at 17:34
  • If you want to depict that as require a confession then fine. Not going to argue syntax with you. What to fix needs to come from her. If you don't agree then fine. That is my opinion. – paparazzo May 1 '17 at 17:38
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    Just to be clear, my argument is with the phrase "get her to admit...". Specifically, it sounds like you think that she should explain or acknowledge that there's something wrong or different about her, and to me that seems needlessly invasive. If you think the solution should come from here, that's fine, just do it without the admission. For example, "I'd like to share my recent work with you -- what works best for you?" – Caleb May 1 '17 at 17:48

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