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The question

My office is located next to the office of someone who coughs incessantly, to the point of gagging, throughout the day. It is distracting and rather gross. At my request, my employer had an additional sound barrier put into the wall between the offices, but it has had no effect because of how the wall is constructed. My boss asked me, at one point, how I could stand it. Other employees who sit nearby have also commented how awful it is. We have some empty offices and I have asked to be moved to one of them, but have been told any move must wait until April at the earliest. Is there anything I can do to force them to move me or the coughing employee to a different office? I am a very long-term employee and this situation is quite distressing.

The answer

You must feel very frustrated by the distraction and very let down by your boss's lack of support.

My first thought when I read your letter was – is the coughing employee aware that he is disturbing so many people? Many times a person is oblivious that their actions are impacting others. Just the fact that they are working in their own office can lead them to believe that others are sheltered from their actions. I've seen many situations where a person who is in their own office believes that if they talk to someone on a speaker phone, no one else can hear the conversation. The walls of an office are generally paper-thin. Even with additional sound proofing, sounds and noises will flow out the door and throughout the open areas beyond.

If you have a human resources department, take this situation to them. They are well versed in having these types of sensitive conversations with staff members. If you're in a smaller organization with no one responsible for personnel issues, I would suggest that you approach the coughing employee yourself. Tell them that you hear their coughing spasms and wanted to make sure they were alright. Relate your concern and caring for their health and well being as well as the health and well being of the other members of the workplace. I'm sure they will appreciate your concern.

Mention that you couldn't help but hear them cough and gag – letting them know that sound does travel far and wide in an office environment even though they are in their own office space. Just bringing this awareness into the open may lead to them to take actions to muffle the noise. Provide them with any suggestions you may have that could bring them relief – e.g. humidifier, lozenges or hot beverages. If your boss isn't generous enough to foot the bill for these types of remedies, then consider asking the office staff to chip in and create a fund to help cover the costs.

I find the lack of active participation in this situation by your boss very distressing. I have no doubt that the level of productivity and engagement of yourself and many employees has been impacted greatly. For that reason alone your boss should be dealing with this situation quickly and effectively. Instead, his actions feel feeble and his concern seems distant. He should be showing his staff that he cares about their welfare.

Too often, sensitive conversations are avoided in the workplace. The repercussions are huge, not just to the business, but to the self-esteem of the employees involved. Your boss may be the type that steers clear of the "human aspects" of his managerial role. This is wrong. I highly recommend that you have a conversation with your boss to understand what the delay in moving offices relates to and to share with him the impact the coughing is having on your work and level of engagement. He should understand how difficult it is for you to concentrate on your work, how upsetting it is for you to hear the other person cough and gag and how hurt you are that he doesn't seem to be bothered by how this is affecting you.

Ask for his suggestions on how you are to maintain a high level of concentration and productivity. Offer any suggestions you may have, like having the coughing employee work from home for a while. Your letter didn't mention how long the coughing has been going on or if there is a chance that it could be contagious. I'm sure your boss wouldn't want anyone else to get sick. This could have a significant impact on overall productivity and the general health of the work force. It's time your boss takes charge of the situation. To make an even stronger case, round up the other employees in your area who are also being impacted by the coughing and confront your boss together. There is definitely power in numbers.

Cindy Gordon is the president of Culture Shock Coaching in Toronto.

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