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How to Handle the Overly Chatty Co-Worker

When too much conversation hinders productivity

A group of women in a restaurant with their hands on their ears.

​She drops by unannounced and monopolizes your time with banter that has nothing to do with work. Even if he's not talking with you, his social conversations with nearby co-workers can be exceptionally noisy and distracting.

The overly chatty employee is among the leading culprits for lack of workplace productivity, according to a national survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder.

"While many managers feel their teams perform at a desirable level, they also warn that little distractions can add up to … gaps in productivity," said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, an employment website. "It's important to … minimize interruptions and save personal communications for lunch hours or breaks. It can help put more time and momentum back into the workday."

Certainly, many of us have heard or said something like the reader who wrote this to a U.S. News & World Report career advice columnist: "I have a really hard time focusing when there are people talking, and all this talking, especially when it seems pointless to me, really gets on my nerves." A friend, the writer noted, complained that "people who socialize, no matter how little work they do, get ahead regardless because they talk to everyone and network."

"Some socializing and networking is generally helpful, because having trusted, professional relationships at work can improve job satisfaction and employee productivity," the columnist, Alison Green, wrote in response. "Part of being productive and successful at work is building relationships."

But she also noted that employees should balance their socializing with the needs of others in the workplace who might be distracted by too much conversation, or who find it unnecessary and irritating.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Managing Introverts and Extroverts ]

Open Work Spaces May Exacerbate the Problem

Mark Gorkin of Columbia, Md., is a self-described "stress doc"—a stress resilience expert and consultant. He said that excessive or compulsive talking may be a cry for attention or approval. Or, he said, it can be a way for some people to deal with stress or anxiety. Finally, he added, it can be a way for someone to angle for higher status in a group. 

The recent increase in open work environments—those with fewer offices and barriers between workers—may not help, he added. While such open environments may be a way for employers to encourage collaboration and the free flow of ideas, he said, the downside can be that they rub more introverted employees the wrong way and make it difficult for them to get their work done.

"Too many leaders ignore or overlook" these communication differences among workers, he said. "This undermines the morale of a team and the credibility of the leader … and will have negative consequences." 

Gorkin has these suggestions for managers:

  • Point out to the chatty person, privately, how their conversations may be disrupting others. "Don't be judgmental, harsh, selfish or impose blame," Gorkin advised. Many office chatterboxes don't realize the negative effect they may have on the work environment because they have difficulty reading social cues.  Said Joseph Grenny, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill, 2002): "Those who do best at navigating [these] conversations start by assuring their co-worker of their positive intentions and respect for them. After creating a safe environment, [they] share the facts of the issue in a non-accusatory manner … share their concerns, and invite dialogue on the co-worker's part."
  • In addition to talking to the chatty employee, don't be afraid to have an open discussion with those affected. By doing so, a manager may discover other concerns about the talkative co-worker. Perhaps the co-worker is prone to destructive gossip that lowers morale. This may be the time for HR or an outside, neutral facilitator to be involved. Co-workers who are disturbed by the overly talkative colleague should be shown how to "be comfortable saying no [to conversation] and how to appropriately define their time and space when they need it," Gorkin said. They should be coached on how to "develop appropriate assertive skills, invite dialogue and not be afraid to stand up for" themselves.
  • Consider setting guidelines or rules of conduct surrounding sociable conversations at work.  When all team members participate in developing these standards, there will likely be more buy-in.
  • Try to get to the root cause of the chatty co-worker's behavior. Stress, anxiety and even boredom can cause people to be more social or to talk excessively.

Other experts interviewed for this article suggested that companies:

  • Block off a space, such as a conference room, that employees can use to work on projects to avoid distractions.
  • Allow employees who need to focus and find themselves interrupted to telecommute on certain days.
  • Give workers noise-isolating headphones.
  • Provide private phone booths for employees who need to make calls free of distractions.

Lisa Frye is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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