Newspaper & Magazine

By Samantha Marshall, Staff Reporter | Crains New York
Published: March 14, 2005

Damon Gonzalez is suffering from olfactory overload. One female co-worker sprays on enough perfume to make him sneeze. There are so many fragrances available for sampling at the major fashion publication where he works that there's no escaping the smells of tuberose and orange blossom.

"It's so overpowering, I feel like I've been taken hostage by someone else's scent," says Mr. Gonzalez, an ad manager at the Manhattan-based magazine, which he prefers not to name.

Perfume, body odor and smelly lunches are just a few aggravations in a long list of annoyances that plague workers in today's cubicle culture. Finger-drumming desk mates and Chatty Cathies who interrupt colleagues with stories about their personal lives are bad enough. Throw in raucous barroom laughs, persistent snorting and nosy neighbors, and there's a toxic mix of small irritations that add up to one big erosion in the quality of life at work in a world without offices.

"We're so used to being around each other every day that corporate etiquette has gotten lost along the way," says Suzy Khalaf, an office manager at a jewelry design firm in Chelsea. She says the open physical environment of her workplace has created a family atmosphere that's both a blessing and a curse.

Rudeness cubed

Ms. Khalaf was recently cursed by the blare of a radio that a colleague kept at her desk. The noise became so distracting that a cubicle mate changed the radio batteries to duds. When the unwitting morning-show addict replaced the batteries, another co-worker took the woman's radio and hid it in a distant filing cabinet.

"Eventually, she got the hint," says Ms. Khalaf.

Some workers aren't easily bothered by teeth-sucking or the smell of a neighbor's takeout curry. They may not be aware that anything that can distract from work or invade a person's space could be a source of complaints.

"Some people feel so comfortable at work that they don't even realize that they're starting to dress down their thinking and behavior," says Judith Glaser, a workplace consultant and the author of Creating We, a book about company culture.

The consultant, who has worked with Manhattan-based employers like Pfizer, Hallmark Entertainment and Donna Karan, was amazed by the breadth of the complaints she received in anonymous notes.

One worker at Donna Karan expressed revulsion at a tooth flosser in the women's room who would leave flecks of food and saliva on the mirror. An employee at another company complained that his chief executive would casually and audibly pass gas during meetings.

While workplaces with doors and a more formal environment were the norm 15 years ago, the boundaries of a buttoned-down corporate world were erased in the late '90s when the dot-com boom ushered in open-plan offices. The subsequent economic bust and its mass layoffs have meant that frazzled employees are together in these fishbowls for longer hours in tense conditions. The result is cubicle fatigue.

"Once you take away barriers and enable people to step into each other's spaces, there is a potential territorial backlash," says Ms. Glaser.

As petty as many annoyances might seem in isolation, they add to the already growing stress among office workers, workplace experts say. The existence of too many such irritants can also indicate problems with a company's leadership.

"This behavior is a symptom of poor management oversight and a lack of a sense of mission," says Steve Carney, author of The Teamwork Chronicles.

Bosses need to step in, because long-suffering employees often stay silent in order to avoid confrontations with offending co-workers.

Anne Silverman, an executive at publishing firm Reed Elsevier Business never got up the nerve to tell a colleague at her previous job that his feet stank. He would get comfortable first thing in the morning by taking off his boots

"He was a single man, so who knows how often he did laundry," Ms. Silverman says.

Corrine Swineford, a public relations consultant, estimates that she loses at least 15 minutes of work time whenever her neighbor tries to insert himself into her conversations or insists on showing her pictures on his computer. Ms. Swineford says she'd rather endure the chattiness than risk hurting his feelings.

Some of the culprits would rather hear about their colleagues' discomfort directly from those who are suffering. Beth Nussbaum, an executive at Hallmark Entertainment who admits to talking loudly on the phone and shouting across the hall to the photo department, wishes people would say to her face that they have a problem.

"It's hard to hear, but it bothers me less when it comes from colleagues instead of the HR department," she says. Co-workers are less shy when Ms. Nussbaum eats sardines in the office. "They let me know about it," she says.

Keep up-to-date with The CreatingWE Institute and Conversational Intelligence® via our email newsletter