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Lynne Curry: Co-worker offers too much information

Lynne Curry

Q: From her first day at our company the woman who works at the next desk acted like my new best friend. Even though it grossed me out, I pretended to listen while she shared graphic information about the men she dated, her ex-husband's psychological issues and her trials with her son.

Then, one day, I apparently didn't give her enough attention. She complained to Human Resources that I was rude, unfriendly and gossiped about her personal life.

HR interviewed me and I told the truth. After that, things went downhill. Although she and I sat adjacent to each other in a 10-foot-wide work area, she stopped speaking to me. Initially I didn't care because I was glad not to have to listen to her.

I did what I could to mend fences but her cold war continued. Because "Ms. Mouth" considered me on the enemy list, she apparently looked for others to tell about her Craigslist pick-ups and the sex toys she favored. One of them complained and HR called me in.

My questions -- What motives people to share their sexual lives? And why didn't management take action and fire this woman instead of dragging the rest of us into HR interviews?

A: "Too much information" employees repel co-workers with personal stories. Some simply crave attention or importance. Others meet personal needs by using inappropriate openness to "shock and awe" co-workers. Still others are true exhibitionists or narcissists who enjoy making fellow employees sit in the front row watching their personal dramas. Your co-worker may even suffer from a psychological issue.

From your standpoint, the answer appears easy: Get rid of her. If, however, you worked for a trigger-happy management, you might be gone, after management heard her initial complaints about you.

While the wheels of workplace justice grind slowly, in this case your management acted. They asked HR to investigate the situation so that they could make a right, rather than a rash, decision.

Depending on what they find, HR may recommend your coworker be terminated. She not only disrupts the workplace but those who regularly divulge sexually graphic information sexually harass others.

While your co-worker appears to be the problem, consider how you can handle this situation differently if it arises again. Management can't regulate every co-worker's behavior. You pretended to listen. Could you have cut the TMI off earlier by saying her stories made you uncomfortable? By handling problems when they first arise, we avoid the resentment created by pulling the rug out from coworkers to whom we've given the false illusion we're OK with their behavior.

Q: Our file clerk hands my co-workers and me papers all day long. She also brings muffins to work and hands them around. This makes me physically ill. Because we occasionally use the restroom at the same time, I know she doesn't wash her hands after she's been to the bathroom.

What do I do? If I warn everyone, she'll never forgive me and I'll create a big problem. I've got a jar of hand sanitizer at my desk and use it every time I handle any papers she hands me.

A: You owe it to yourself and others to speak directly to the file clerk. Then you won't have to talk about her.

If you can't bring yourself to do this or if you tell her she needs to wash her hands and she doesn't change, talk to HR. Your co-worker puts you and others at risk for catching illness -- which can be a big problem.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE