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Career Coach

How to silence the office oversharer

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Last summer, Peggy Klaus, an executive coach based in Berkeley, California, hired a temporary worker who turned out to be very loud and liked to pepper her phone conversations with choice expletives. None of this sat well with Klaus, who almost immediately took the temp aside and explained that despite her boisterous personality, she would need to moderate her voice, especially with the office’s open floor plan.

While open offices may be designed to encourage community and collaboration, they can also lead to neighbours wanting to throttle the worker who says “Love you, sweetie” or favoured curse words too many times during phone calls that can be heard by all.

So, what’s a worker to do with a colleague who constantly gets too personal on the phone? What’s appropriate — and what isn’t — when it comes to phone calls in an open office?

Showing respect

“It really comes down to professional etiquette,” said Klaus. “That might sound antiquated or priggish, but it’s about having respect for the people around you.”

Klaus is a big fan of behaviour prompts and specifically Post-It notes. She recommends placing one of the sticky notes next to your phone at work with the question “Is it their business?” written on it. (By “their,” she’s referring to the people sitting around you.) That way, you’ll be reminded each time you pick up the phone. “If it’s not their business, then don’t talk about it in the office,” said Klaus. “Go into a conference room or take it outside.”

Approaching the offender

How you deal with someone who overshares depends on your personality and your relationship, according to New York-based career adviser and author Vicky Oliver. “If you get along with her well, you can just pass by her cubicle one day when she’s on the phone gabbing, knock on the cubicle wall, and when you catch her eye, put your index finger up to your mouth to indicate that you can hear her.”

If this option feels too brazen, you may do better off mentioning it discreetly to your supervisor, suggested Oliver. Something along the lines of: “Do you think it would be ok if I mentioned to Cindy that I can often hear her personal conversations? If I can, chances are others can, too.” See what your supervisor suggests. “Tread lightly here and try to be constructive when you do talk to her,” Oliver advised.

Benefit of the doubt

Be sensitive. Lack of manners isn’t always the reason behind the volume. Sometimes, a loud voice can be a sign of a hearing issue, or in rarer instances, a deeper-rooted medical condition, such as Tourette’s syndrome, according to Klaus. “They may not be able to hear themselves and have never been told before that there is a problem,” she said. When you give feedback, “be specific about the behaviour that is bothering you.”

Even if there is a medical basis for the condition, a conversation that isn’t appropriate for the office needs to be taken outside or into a conference room, Klaus said. And, if the person is just loud and disruptive but talking about work-related issues, then the company needs to make the necessarily accommodations, such as supplying a phone with  amplification/clarification technology, she said.

Almost always an alternative

“Wooing and cooing” are not for the office, according to New York-based Ann Marie Sabath, founder of At Ease Inc, an international business etiquette training firm. “In fact, personal calls should not take place during work hours except perhaps for a quick question or safety reasons.”  A quick text or email is a great alternative, Sabath suggested.

And always ask yourself if it’s something you really want other people to know or hear. “If it feels uncomfortable, it probably is,” she said. 

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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