Help! My co-worker won’t stop talking: Ask HR

A chatty co-worker can sometimes be a distraction to others in the workplace. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: There’s a social butterfly on my team who everyone likes, but it’s starting to seem like she spends more time distracting us than working. Something needs to change, but I don’t want to get her in trouble. What should I do? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: In the workplace, you’re bound to encounter people with different personalities, cultural backgrounds and ideas. And that’s a good thing!

The ideal workplace is diverse. It’s where differences come together to create a unique and enriching work environment. Of course, personalities don’t always blend seamlessly. Sometimes there’s dissonance when temperaments and communication styles collide.

You should start by making it clear to your co-worker that, although she is well-intentioned, she is nevertheless distracting others. Fortunately, you don’t need to say this out loud; you can signal it through action. Try refraining from asking her unnecessary questions and offer only short responses to her chatter. This can signify that you’re trying to be productive, sending her a social cue to get back to work.

Your co-worker could very well decode this message, correct her behavior and solve the problem.

However, take care that she doesn’t misinterpret this signal. By creating a perception that you’re unwilling to socialize, you run the risk of diminishing her morale and inadvertently affecting your team’s ability to collaborate.

Another approach is to verbally establish boundaries. When the situation warrants, communicate that you’re busy and don’t have time for small talk. You might say something like “Sorry, I’ve got a lot to do right now, but let’s catch up later.”  

Again, this message could be enough. And you can always follow up with a suggestion to get together after work. There, you can enjoy each other’s company and build camaraderie without cutting into your team’s productivity.

If both of these efforts fail, it will be time to take a more direct approach. It might be uncomfortable, but you should have a candid conversation with your co-worker about the problem you see.

Focus on your needs – not what she’s doing wrong. That way, she can see it as a request for a favor rather than a criticism of her. Remember: People love to help other people, but they hate feeling judged.

You could even acknowledge your discomfort in raising the subject, then say you’ve chosen to be transparent out of respect for her and, more importantly, because you genuinely value your relationship. Emphasize that it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of different styles, and this should be understood and accepted by you both.

As a last course of action, talk to your supervisor – and don’t worry about “getting her in trouble.” Your supervisor should resolve the problem in a way that makes your workplace work better for you, her and your team.

Leggings may be undeniably fashionable, but not always appropriate in the workplace. (Photo: Reviewed.com)

Q: Are leggings appropriate in the workplace? I think they are, but some of my co-workers disagree. – Anonymous

Taylor: Leggings are undeniably fashionable today, so the question of whether they are work-appropriate comes up a lot. And the answer really depends on the particular workplace culture.

In more conservative industries, like banking or law, employers may frown on leggings under all circumstances, especially if the position is client-facing. “Business-formal” dress codes generally don’t include leggings.

On the other hand, more informal workplaces, like you might find in the creative industries or in technology startups, are more likely to view leggings as appropriate attire.

The answer also depends on the employer’s brand, as well as the employee’s position. Some employers don’t allow external-facing employees, like a receptionist, to wear leggings, yet are more flexible with internal-facing employees, such as IT. Similarly, a five-star steakhouse may require waiters and waitresses to wear formal attire, while a neighborhood diner allows leggings.

The world of work is ever-changing. This includes how employees dress and the corresponding expectations of employers. Thanks to increased telework and the gig economy, the volume of work performed outside of the formal office environment is rising. That trend may be behind the move toward more casual dress in workplaces.

However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to your workplace. If you’re unsure of your organization’s dress code, the answer is probably in your employee handbook. It may contain a stringent dress code or general guidelines to follow.

If the advice is unclear, ask human resources staff about how leggings are perceived at your place of business. You may gain some valuable knowledge about the unwritten rules that guide your culture – at least when it comes to fashion.

Society for Human Resource Management CEO Johnny C. Taylor (Photo: Delane Rouse)

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