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Julie Blais Comeau

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Sticky Situation: Constant Coughing Colleague

Posted: 01/15/2014 11:12 am

Sticky situation:

I have a coworker two cubicles away who, for years now, has chronically coughed and always clears his throat. How do I politely get him to stop and be more considerate?

Solution(s):

Until I read for "years now," I thought to myself, this is January in Canada and most employees are also coping with their colleague's coughing, sneezing, sniffling and nose blowing. The bodily noises brought on by viruses are all irritating, but temporary. Solutions are pretty straightforward as detailed in this previous blog for a flu-friendly office.

The effects of the flu have a direct impact on workplace productivity, according to VON, 7.5-million workdays are lost due to the flu in Canada.

The Canadian Comedian Rick Mercer, and many other Canadian companies, offer free in-office vaccination.

In his rant, the television personality says: "Don't be one, get it: the prick."

Given the chronic nature of your colleague's behaviours your situation is more challenging.

Since you have been coping with this ambient background for years now, I must start by acknowledging your patience and, I suspect, generally accommodating good nature. You probably are someone that is non-confrontational and capable of focusing on your work while tuning out diversions. You most likely have resorted to taking deep breaths and using headphones.

You are certainly empathetic to the cougher. You understand that he cannot control his hack. He may be a chronic smoker, have an obsession, or...whatever it is, you have tolerated this noise and now it is more than just a niggle.

Most employees deal with colleague annoyances at an earlier stage. When you know the person well and are on good terms, the most effective method is usually the direct approach, a one-on-one conversation, in a private environment.

For the benefit of other employees that are also being affected by a co-worker's annoying habit, allow me to expand with five recommendations, that can be used at the onset of any colleague annoyance:

  1. Go into the discussion in the spirit of empathy and kindness.
  2. Start with a few words of appreciation for your work relationship and your colleague's input into the team.
  3. Mention that this is a difficult conversation but that if it happened to you, you would appreciate the honesty instead of being part of the office gossip.
  4. Add something that recognizes the uncontrollable behaviour; how hard it is to stop.
  5. Relate that you are concerned and that there may be a medical reason worth investigating.
Excerpt from, Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility, p. 141.


When approached in a caring manner, the quicker one takes action, the quicker it gets resolved.

Now that time has now gone by, the only possible action seems to be moving: you or the cougher. The latter may be the best option. Especially since there is at least one other person; the one in-between the two of you, that is being affected.

Speak to your superior or to human resources. It is their responsibility to make sure that all employees can work in a productive environment.

Explain how this affects you professionally, and the direct impact it has on your productivity. Add the actions that you have taken to white out the noise. Speak with compassion and from your perspective. Don't point fingers at the cougher or make assumptions.

Ultimately the decision is your employer's.

Good luck and as far as I am concerned you deserve the "Colleague Congeniality" award.

Have a sticky situation at work or home? This is your forum. Write to Julie and she will reply promptly. Want more solutions to sticky situations? Check out Facebook, Twitter or order your autographed copy of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility. Planning a conference? Julie happily travels coast to coast and beyond, to present customized activities.

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