Workplace Woes: He Hovers While You Work

A boss hovers over his worker.

How do you handle a hovering boss? Rainer Elstermann/zefa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Rainer Elstermann/zefa/Corbis
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Finding yourself in a sticky situation at the office, and don't know what to do about it? Morning Edition's workplace consultant, Ben Dattner, will answer selected questions on the air or at NPR.org.

Work is hard enough without having a boss who hovers over your shoulder all day. Listener Sarah Richards of Fairfield, Conn., has such a manager and submitted this question to Ben Dattner, Morning Edition's workplace consultant.

"We have a new manager in our department, who is originally from Yugoslavia. It may be a cultural difference, but he tends to hover behind us at our desks. How do we deal with these differences?"

According to a Yugoslavian colleague of Dattner's, in Yugoslavian culture, "people tend to be very close in terms of body space." Americans sometimes misinterpret this as "hovering or as being inappropriate intimacy, when in fact that's not what the person's trying to convey," says Dattner, who is an organizational psychologist.

Dattner suggests telling the manager: "I know you don't mean to hover, but sometimes it seems that you're a bit too close. It makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable."

Below, Dattner offers more suggestions for dealing with a hovering manager.

Understand your boss. If your boss is from another country or another culture, he or she may have a different notion of personal space and nonverbal communication than you do. What to you seems like hovering may not be hovering at all in the culture that your boss is coming from.

Why is she hovering? Perhaps he or she is concerned about your performance and that of your co-workers. In that case, communicating more proactively about what you are doing may set your boss at ease and make him or her less prone to walking by to check up on you.

Ask for some space. Mention to your boss, in a friendly and nonthreatening way, that he or she is making you feel uncomfortable by standing too close to you. Respectfully ask that he or she keep a little bit more physical distance. If you approach the conversation in a positive, nonaccusatory manner and present a solution, your feedback and request will be much easier for your boss to listen to.

Rearrange the work space. Some people protect their privacy in the workplace by configuring their office or cubicle in a way that minimizes the possibility that others can hover. Sometimes, people even put up mirrors in their offices or cubicles so they can see people standing behind them. Doing this may help in the short term but may also make the situation worse over the longer term if your boss perceives that you are trying to limit his or her access to you or to monitor his or her comings and goings.

Take your concern to a higher level. In today's litigious workplace, bosses are likely to be responsive to employee requests about things like physical space, especially when any kind of discomfort or harassment is potentially being experienced. If your boss is not responsive to repeated, clear requests, you may need to go to his or her bosses or to human resources to ask that they intervene.

A last resort. You can hum the song "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police whenever your boss stands too close to you. This is obviously more likely to be effective with a boss who knows the song, gets the reference and takes the hint. However, even a boss who doesn't know the song could potentially be conditioned to keep a bit more distance if your humming is a direct function of his or her proximity.


Chitchat and Other Distractions

Brian from New York state asks:

"I work in an office inside a distribution warehouse with five other people (two men, three women). Our office is partitioned off into cubicles, but we can hear other conversations. My dilemma is the constant gossip and idle chitchat from the women in our office about the previous night's TV show, the latest ailment of one's aunt, or personal phone conversations on company time.

"My coping mechanism for the past few years has been to a) bite my tongue and suffer in silence; b) take walks out in the warehouse; c) put NPR on my computer to drown out the noise. My boss is aware of the wasted time by these individuals but tends to avoid confronting it.

So, what should Brian do?

Workplace consultant Ben Dattner has this advice:

Be straightforward. Approach your co-workers, respectfully tell them that you are having a difficult time focusing on your work when there are background conversations, and respectfully ask that they limit their conversations during the work day. If you start on a friendly tone, they are much more likely to respond in a friendly manner.

Tell colleagues to take it someplace else. You might also politely suggest or request that your colleagues hold personal conversations at a time when they are elsewhere or you are elsewhere.

A more aggressive response. Comment on, or inquire about, the topics that your co-workers are discussing as a way of communicating that you can hear them. This runs the risk of creating a more adversarial tone to your interactions with them.

Tell the boss. If your co-workers do not honor your requests, you can approach your boss to ask if he or she can intervene. Let your boss know that the idle chitchat is adversely impacting your ability to focus.

Take it to HR. Depending on the size of your organization, it may also be possible and beneficial to approach human resources if the above suggestions do not work

A last resort. You may want to try moving your office, if possible, to a place out of earshot.

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