ASK DR. DISH: Nosy coworkers

February 17th, 2010

Question: At work we sit in cubicles that don't have doors, so you can hear everything people are saying, even private conversations on the phone. There's this one coworker of mine who's always listening in to what other people are talking about and it's so annoying. Besides smacking her with a stapler, what can I do?

Answer: While whacking her with office supplies may seem like the most effective method of dealing with this nosy coworker, it's likely going to get you in more trouble than you'd like.

That said, you can do either of two things: 1) Confront your coworker and tell her that you don't appreciate her unnecessary — and rude — eavesdropping, or 2) stop discussing your personal life within earshot of everyone in your office.

The first is difficult. I'm not a big fan of confrontation — ask my boyfriend — so I wouldn't know how to tell someone to butt out in a nice way. I don't think I could even send her an e-mail. But it gets the job done, though it might be awkward for awhile.

The second approach, to me, seems like the best solution. I rarely chat on my cell phone at work and I hardly ever make personal calls from my office phone. If I need to talk to my mom or boyfriend, I'll step outside. It's courtesy for the people around me who probably don't want to hear me talk about the color of my phlegm or what I'm making for dinner tonight.

I'm not saying what your coworker is doing is OK. Not by any means. But we can't control what other people will do. We can only control what we do — and that might be the only way to get a handle on this situation. Thanks for the question!

Anyone else got a thought or suggestion?


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32 Responses to “ASK DR. DISH: Nosy coworkers”

  1. oldshoes:

    Get a fart simulator machine. (armpit will work too) that'll scare her away.

  2. oldshoes:

    Hi Cat.just curious,how does the one co-worker know the other one is eavesdropping on her? Is she being that obvious,or is paranoia sweeping that workplace? A good policy to follow is that of Teddy Roosevelt "talk softly,but carry a big stick." (just what color is your phlegm that makes it conversation worthy?)

  3. oldshoes:

    Hi Cat.just curious,how does the one co-worker know the other one is eavesdropping on her? Is she being that obvious,or is paranoia sweeping that workplace? A good policy to follow is that of Teddy Roosevelt "talk softly,but carry a big stick." (just what color is your phlegm that makes it conversation worthy?)

  4. Max:

    @oldshoes --> Or just fart fo' real. (haha)

    Option #2 is probably the best. It is "work" afterall.

  5. maxcat:

    Agree, Option 2 is the best.

  6. Scott:

    When you know she's listening, have a phone conversation that goes something like this:

    "my therapist thinks I'm at my breaking point. He calls it the Red Zone. At this point in my life anything can set me off and trigger those violent outbursts that led to my 3 year prison term. I just pray to God that I don't flip out at work. I care for my co-workers and I would hate for their children to be raised without parents."

    Yep, that'll work.

  7. Ynaku:

    You could always pretend your talking on the phone and complain about nosy eavedroppers :P

    We don't have any partitions in our office so what we talk about on the phone is heard by all, so we are careful what we say.

  8. Ynaku:

    Bah Scott beat me to the punch line. Took too long typing. But great minds think alike :lol:

  9. che:

    #2 is your better option. Where I work we were told not to make too many long personal phone calls. Someone in the office complained that it was too distracting. If the personal call is going to be short it's okay but if it was going to be long (for me a long call is like 5 minutes) then we need call the person back on our cell phone and take it outside. I can talk on the phone and still work on the PC but if I'm outside then I'm not working on anything. the downside is less productivity.

  10. matt:

    To add to Scott, you could talk about paranoia and how you always feel like there's someone watching you and listening in on your conversations.

  11. M:

    Good morning Cat!

    #2 is the way to go. Confrontation is not a good idea.

    Like you said you can't control the actions of others but to can control your own actions.

  12. Matt the Cat:

    Work is for work. Handle your personal things somewhere else. I sat in a cubicle for 7 years next to a guy who was always on his phone doing personal business. Blood tests, bank accounts, new tires, social security numbers, credit card numbers, doctor visits, you name it, we heard it.

  13. WildeOscar:

    Scott, a SWAT team has just surrounded the building. Faking a discussion of lab test results of a personal or intimate nature might do the trick, but anytyhing hinting at a safety issue may go the wrong way, and require anyone hearing it to make some sort of report.

    oldshoes raises a valid point. Loud co-worker or eavesdropping neighbor are two sides of the same coin. In a cube environment, it is impossible not to hear a speaking person separated by only a cubicle partition and two feet of air. The idea of making or returning a personal call elsewhere is the way to go. It is tough sometimes, especially for an incoming call, but it is do-able.

    A loosely related issue involves peoples with offices, and therefore doors, in a cubicle environment who have their doors closed most of the time for no apparent work reason. When I have a door in an otherwise cubicle environment, I try to keep it open almost all the time. How about cubicle neighbors who do conference calls lasting hours on a speakerphone? Any cubicle environment needs some number of small conference rooms for this purpose. One mostly-cubicle-environment employer of mine had plenty of what they called "quiet rooms" where one or two people could do a conference call or make a personal call. It sure cut down on the personal chit chat in the cubes, fo the better. It is purely an office design and planning issue.

  14. Michael:

    Get one of those air horns in a can and blast that person when you think they are eaves dropping. Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah in your ears.
    Warn the others so they can put in their ear plugs. Jokingly I don't. Serious and angry I would.

    Get a dog whistle and blow, if it irritates that person, keep blowing. I just would laugh out loud if it did. Dog whistles only dogs can hear. If this person screams, I would laugh more. Have fun thinking of ways to cause irritating moments.

    Get one of those big rubber ears and wear to work. Maybe that person will catch the hint and stop eaves dropping.

  15. theDman:

    That happens to me too. What can you do? Go out in to the hallway to make personal phone calls. That's what everybody here does.

  16. Alex:

    I think option #2 would be the best choice. Confrontation at the workplace is never good and could lead to a tense and undesirable environment for everybody. If you need to hold a private conversation take it outside or in an area where no one can hear you.

  17. Cat:

    oldshoes: I don't know how the one coworker knows the other is eavesdropping... Good question...

    But there IS something to be said for LOUD coworkers, too. I remember sitting next to someone who divulge her entire life — and mostly her husband's medical records — over the phone at work and everyone could hear her. You can't HELP but eavesdrop.

  18. Manoa Mist:

    Exactly Miss Kitty.
    Some offices you don't even have to be loud and everyone can hear you everything you say on the phone. I usually use the routine from the commercial where the baby is on the computer and gets a phone call.
    " I hit you back?"

  19. NEO:

    I guess I'm real lucky, as I have a relatively private office, and additionally, when I'm doing personal stuff I go away from the office and will divulge things privately. (although I do post to the blogs at work ;) ) also, my co-workers aren't very nosy anyway, and we're such good friends here, that they probably WANT to know about the color of my phlegm and what I'm having for dinner... hahah :)


  20. Rosette:

    your yap too much at work! .... so you do the same to get your glass and stick that on the walk beside her desk then tell her HEY is that your mommy calling you again..GET BACK TO WORK!

  21. Rosette:

    I don't think you are suppose to have conversation with your mommy while you work! They pay you to yap to mommy?

  22. Rosette:

    maybe she is writing a book about your conversation!

  23. LRob:

    If you don't want her listening to what you're saying then stop talking.

    I work in a cubicle and I can hear what my neighbors are saying even when I don't want to. These are not private offices, so in my opinion whatever you say out loud is gonna be heard by someone. Accept it and move on.

  24. Rosette:

    if she listen give her the phone and let her talk to your mommy!

  25. Rosette:

    watch out she is spying and telling on you ..YOU TALK TOO MUCH wasting office time...funny!

  26. Rosette:

    make sure you pay 25 cents everytime you use office phone!

  27. Chicken Grease:

    Ah, these are how these cubicles are made anyways. It's deliberate. It's like a mini-canyon so that the BOSS[ES] can hear what you are saying. I mean consider the concept (or take a look around you if you're IN ya'll cubicle right now) . . . ANYONE, boss or whoever, can sneak up on ya', check out what you're looking at or talking about. Cubicles are no accident; they're niele magnets, no? I think from day 1 of employment that finds you in a cubicle, you must needs realize that you can be eavesdropped upon by your credit-, mortgage-, and wife and kids-challenged smelly coworkers in casual sense easier than 007 can do with his fancy gadgets.

    In this day and age of smart phones, I see more people just leave their desk and go talk in the hallway. Isn't the whole point of all our cellphones portability?

    The comment in the last one, Manoa Mist, oh, yeah, hahhaha, hai, hai, you are correct a-mundo: The Grease should not be exploiting or suggesting chicken products, that's right, hhaha . . . but, THAT's how GOOD that Pioneer chicken was [!] so much so that The Grease would advocate. Anyways, I'm just The Grease, not the egg or the chicken.

  28. Rosette:

    ask the boss if they listen.....yes tap the phone line

  29. ted:

    Always use 'her' stapler. Never use your own, you just might damage your stapler from her smacking her.

  30. zzzzzz:

    It helps for everyone in your area to have clear expectations.

    Where I work, we can easily overhear everyone's phone conversations, and we don't have any expectation of privacy. If I need privacy, I use my personal cell phone and go somewhere away from my desk (e.g., my car).

    We actually take advantage of the lack of privacy, and expect our everyone to listen in on everyone else's calls. If we have information that'll help, we'll just shout it out.

  31. James:

    Talk on the phone like someone listening. That way you are mindful of what you are saying. Work is work. Stick to work issues. It is so boring for the next person he is not going to waste his time listening. If you have privacy issues, go somewhere where no one around to hear what you saying.

  32. Michael:

    I see a pot calling the kettle black.