When you sit next to a colleague at work, you get a front-row seat into their idiosyncrasies and habits. And not all of us like what we hear, smell and see.
You can usually subtly distance yourself from an annoying colleague in general, but it’s much harder to tune out or ignore a rude desk neighbor. I personally will never forget a former co-worker who would leave crumbs from potato chips on our shared desk, for example.
“Rude office behavior is about insensitivity to other people. It ranges from the merely oblivious to the downright malicious,” said Monique Valcour, an executive coach. “Rude co-worker behavior can be especially annoying in open office spaces where it’s impossible to shield yourself from the smells and sounds generated by people in your vicinity.”
What’s rude to you or me can seem perfectly normal to a colleague. That’s why it helps to give concrete examples of what’s impolite and disrespectful. We asked a variety of career and etiquette experts to weigh in on the rudest things you can do to the co-worker stuck sitting nearby you. Here’s what they said:
1. Show Up To Work Sick
”[One of the rudest things is] arriving to work physically ill, coughing, and sneezing throughout the day and calling it ‘just allergies.’
“Whether a cough is innocent or is a sign of a deeper health issue, most people are extremely sensitive when it comes to getting sick and having to take downtime. Especially around the holiday season … when someone shows up to work physically sick, it’s a sign that they are not respectful of other people’s health and feelings …
“When someone is visibly coughing and sneezing and you can see the particles in the air through the sunlight, you can’t help but feel a little irritated and put off.” –– Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas
2. Leave Your Stuff On Other People’s Desks
“Moving and storing work items and materials in others’ dedicated workspaces is rude because there’s an attitude or assumption that all areas in the office are 100% accessible and available for one’s use, even though these areas are specifically dedicated for another’s use.
“…Even if a workspace is not enclosed within a physical wall or door or is in otherwise close quarters, moving and storing items on say, a shared desk, cubby, or cubicle, is the same as opening the door to someone’s closed office.” — Rashelle Isip, productivity consultant
3. Play Music Without Headphones
″No one wants to hear your music because it’s very distracting. Also, not everyone has your taste in music, so forcing them to listen to a musical genre they don’t like is torturous and rude.” –– Pattie Ehsaei, senior vice president of mergers and acquisitions lending for a major national bank and “Duchess of Decorum” on TikTok
4. Make Bodily Sounds Or Share Mean Gossip
“Unwanted sounds coming from co-workers is one of the most frequent complaints I hear from people working in offices. Whether it’s music, radio talk shows, telephone calls, conversations with other co-workers, or bodily sounds such as chewing or heavy breathing, unwanted sound in your work environment can make it difficult or impossible to concentrate on your work.
“Sometimes the content of what you’re hearing can be annoying, such as the co-worker who provides vivid descriptions of their gastric distress, or even deeply unsettling –– I’m reminded of a long-ago co-worker of mine who used to fight with his wife on the phone and threaten her using vile language. Noise-canceling headphones can be a godsend for blocking out unwanted sounds.
“Then there are the more malicious forms of rude coworker office behavior, like gossiping about or bullying people. A woman coaching client once told me about male colleagues who would have conversations denigrating her body within earshot. In offices where incivility reigns, it’s not uncommon for people to deliberately try to undermine others by gossiping about them.” –– Valcour
5. Tune Out People Trying To Have A Conversation With You
“Wearing headphones with the volume too loud [is also rude]. Work is an interactive place and there are times when your co-workers need to communicate with you.
“If the volume of your headphones are too loud, you are not able to hear your co-workers. There is nothing more annoying than speaking to a co-worker and having to constantly repeat yourself because they can’t hear you because of headphones. It makes everyone’s job more difficult and is very rude.” –– Ehsaei
6. Treat The Shared Office Space Like Your Kitchen
“The rudest thing a co-worker could do is treat a shared work space as their personal office/kitchen. I’m talking about hosting Zoom presentations at full volume, broadcasting personal calls on speaker phone, eating microwaved salmon over their keyboard and leaving a spread of used dishes and papers spilling over to their neighbor’s workspace.
“At best, it’s a rude distraction. At worst, it completely inhibits a co-worker’s ability to function. This ‘personal space’ mindset ignores neurodiversity and signals that their needs are the only ones that matter.” –– Anne Genduso, career coach
7. Barge Into A Private Conversation
“Just because someone sits next to you and can hear you does not invite them to add into your conversation when you did not invite them to.
“Giving opinions, unsolicited advice or correcting you after they overheard a conversation can come across condescending, frustrating and even embarrassing.” –– Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette
8. Use Too Much Cologne Or Perfume
“People can be very sensitive to scents, and your cologne or perfume may be offensive and thus distracting. I suggest no more than one spritz of cologne or perfume, if you must wear it at all.” –– Ehsaei
9. Be Unwilling To Take Responsibility For The Energy That You Bring To The Workplace
“Navigating life is hard enough without having to endure the potential day-to-day of negativity, deflating remarks and curmudgeon complaints from your work neighbor.
“While it shouldn’t be expected that everyone needs to have on rose-colored glasses every single day, to the contrary, having a neighbor that brings negativity each and everyday to the workplace through their comments and actions could be draining and make for an unpleasant work environment.” –– Jacqueline M. Baker, founder of Scarlet Communications, a global leadership consultancy