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A little background: I am very conflict averse. I go out of my way to be friendly and accommodating. Recently I was promoted at work, but I am in a different group. I used to be in a technical department (IT) and have moved to a more creative department (Marketing) which comes with a very different set of personalities. Typically I have a lot of success managing relationships with people different from myself. I should also mention I had an office before, but now sit in a more common area with my new department as they have an "open plan" which has been a difficult adjustment.

Last week, I was out of the office. I returned from leave to my colleague loudly blaring music at her desk. So loud I cannot talk to customers at my desk because they could hear, and I could not concentrate. I spoke to HR, who politely asked her to turn it down, and I think the person suspected it was me. They asked "Hey, does the music bother you? Everyone else said it was OK". So, before I could answer I was informed that basically I will be the one raining on the parade, so to speak.

For some reason, I am incredibly sensitive not only to incessant noise I cannot control but also do work that requires a lot of deep thought. "Tuning it out" is not something I am physically capable of doing. That may sound odd, but it is just how I am wired. Noise cancelling headphones help, and I have them, but I cant wear them on phone calls and the distraction all day is more than I can stand.

The Question:

What is the best way for me to express that I absolutely cannot work productively with music playing all day? Should I confront the person/people in the group - which terrifies me - or are there other things i can try?

To be honest I struggle with individuals who do not understand common courtesy, which this falls under in my opinion, so strategies or others who have experience dealing with that are welcome. It is a relatively small office so there isn't a good anonymous corporate structure.

EDIT: Just since everyone thinks going to HR was a social crime, the workplace environment here is not typical. We have one person in that department, she has worked here for 12 years, and she frequently handles people who do this kind of thing very diplomatically as if it were her idea to mention it. Because the music was blaring, she walked over and tried. Nobody got this added to their permanent record, no one will be formally reported, it's not like that. The person playing the music is frequently rather dramatic and hard to criticize, that is why I chose that path first. So, knowing my workplace culture this was OK to do here - I would not have made that choice any other place I've worked.

Additional Communication: I spoke with a couple of people in the area early this morning, and their agreement to the music was reluctant. So, I would not say that everyone is enthusiastic about this new addition to the environment, they just didn't have the energy to argue.I don't want to make this a big deal or gang up. Just hoping there is a creative way to solve this that doesn't involve me getting in a fight with her.

  • Your edits changed things potentially a lot. The music is currently off after HR's interference yes? Your original question was phrased as a way asking how to tell her that you were upset with her behaviour. It sounds to me now with the edits that you are anticipating her turning the music back on and and getting angry at the idea of turning it off. So instead your goal now seems to be to keep the music off without causing tension? This seems like the opposite of confronting her about her behaviour? What are you asking? – Jesse Mar 6 at 16:52
  • Not off, just a lower volume. But because of the open floorplan it is still clearly audible to everyone in this room. Adjacent rooms can no longer hear it, which was how loud it was to start with. So, it remains on. – JenInCode Mar 6 at 20:13
  • Have you asked her to wear headphones? If so, what was the reaction? – Kat Mar 7 at 21:41
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One conflict-avoidant option is to shift the focus away from yourself:

Yeah, my customers have mentioned it - they can hear it when I'm trying to talk to them on the phone, it makes conversations difficult.

This might get your co-worker to turn the music down, but it also risks an outcome where they only address the stated issues and not the ones that are really bugging you:

Okay, no problem! I'll just turn it down whenever you have a call [and keep on blasting it the rest of the time].

Harder, but probably better, is to find a nice way to say "doesn't matter if they're okay with it, I'm not". Possibly something like:

Yeah, I know not everybody notices it, but I've been finding it distracting, especially when I'm coding or talking on the phone [or whatever].

You will also want to be clear about whether it's loud music or any non-stop music that's an issue.

One complication here is that you went to HR first rather than raising it with your neighbour directly. I can sympathise, talking to people directly can be challenging, but depending on the workplace culture some will take exception to this - it can be seen as overkill or snitching. For some, this would be a worse violation of "common courtesy" than playing music loud without checking. That's the sort of thing that has the potential to turn into grudges.

It might be a good idea to acknowledge this if you can, e.g.:

I wasn't sure if I could just raise this with you directly.

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I agree completely with Geoffrey's answer, but I would just like to emphasise that most likely for your office, complaining to HR was a far worse violation of common curtesy than loud music playing. Quite ironic :)

I work in a very small office with no HR at all, but I have worked in other mid sized offices and it was the same there too. Basically, when you have a small team of people working in close proximity for a long period of time then they just naturally start to develop an environment. Everyone has nuances of behaviour, and occasionally things that aren't enforceable by HR will annoy someone much more than things that are. With a small group, it is much easier to just work together and communicate to create the best environment for everyone.

Now, you said that you were out of the office for a week BEFORE the music incident. And your colleague complained to you that everyone else was OK with the music. This clearly indicates to me that they had communicated with those present the desire to play music and if it was okay or not. Sure they could have asked you specifically, but they did not have to. It was already established as the agreed on working environment and just like everything else, if you don't like the work environment then then social protocol is that you should express that. Everyone is trying to get along together, and that includes you, so your colleagues will happily just turn off the music, or find some compromise that works for everyone.

Look at it this way, if I were in my office where everyone was working together and communicating respectfully with each other to create an enjoyable workspace and one member walked into our work environment, found it displeasing, made zero attempt to communicate with us, complained to HR and then still somehow saw me as a villain who doesn't understand common curtesy... I would not be happy about it to say in the least.

My suggestion is to follow Geoffreys answer and in the future try your best to communicate with your colleagues.

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  • Thanks for the input. Just to be clear, the problem is that "expressing that" is very hard for me. That is why i am looking for "how". They will not happily do anything, either, which is why I'm asking the question. If I thought this was a reasonable request that would be taken "happily" I'd just ask. – JenInCode Mar 6 at 14:14

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