my boss told me to stop wearing headphones at work — but I wear them to drown out my coworker’s noise

A reader writes:

My coworker and office mate, Jane, is an older woman who enjoys listening to either audiobooks or the radio while she’s working — specifically listening to audiobooks with some questionable content (nothing overly explicit, but they have moments sometimes, along with a few instances of language) or talk radio that focuses on politics (on which she will frequently comment and I have no idea if she’s trying to initiate a conversation or just saying something out loud because she can — either seems inappropriate to me, as I think politics should not be discussed in the work place unless that’s your job).

All of this is done without headphones since, before I started, it was only ever her and one other person in the office.

Because the books and radio shows that she listens to make me uncomfortable but I did not feel comfortable trying to dictate to her what she could and could not listen to, I decided to simply listen to the things that I enjoy on earbuds. Plus, listening to my own stuff helps me concentrate. I only listen to my stuff loud enough to be able to hear it above her radio and the other noise of the office but not so loud that any other noise is drowned out, as I do know I need to be aware of things going on around me.

Up until recently, this did not seem to be a problem, apart from my having to remind Jane that I’ve got earbuds in so she needs to get my attention first rather than launching into asking me a question or telling me about something. Usually she’d acknowledge that I had them in and say what she needed to, and it’d be more or less fine even though I feel like she’d be annoyed by it on occasion.

A recent exchange seems to possibly have marked a change in attitude about my headphones, though. I had them up a bit louder than I usually do because it was noisier than usual. I heard her voice but didn’t catch what she was saying, and as she does talk to herself, I figured that if she needed to she would get my attention. She did. By standing directly next to me — pretty much touching me — which startled me into taking out my headphones, whereupon she smiled and said she was going to lunch. Great. Okay. Thanks for letting me know. Don’t touch me, please.

Now I don’t know for sure that this is what caused the next bit that I’m going to relate, but it seems like a possibility to me. Especially when coupled with Jane’s seeming inability to understand that I don’t want to always chat and that doesn’t mean that I hate her guts.

The next week, my manager comes into the office and says that she’s glad she caught me with my earbuds in, as she needs to pass on the information that I am no longer allowed to wear them. Apparently someone (she did not name names) saw me with them in and became concerned about it. She cited safety concerns about me possibly not being able to hear announcements or an alarm as the reason. When I asked if I’d simply be able to listen to my own stuff with one earbud in, she said she didn’t know. Upset and anxious about losing my ability to block out my coworker’s tastes in audio entertainment and the ability to use my music/audiobooks/podcasts to help me concentrate, I didn’t really want to argue about it right there and then. So I finished my day, went home, got online, found the employee handbook, and searched to see if this was a written rule. I found nothing.

I understand that managers often have to make rules or guidelines that are not covered in a handbook and that they have the right to. However, is there any possible way that I’ll be able to convince my manager to allow me to wear my earbuds because of the reasons I’ve outlined here?

I feel very anxious about the entire situation and don’t know what to do. The job that I hold is not customer-facing, nor does it require constant communication between me and Jane. It does require some, and I’m not saying that I don’t want to talk to her ever or only wish to talk about work-related things, but she can talk a lot and doesn’t choose the most appropriate topics for the workplace. I don’t want to be seen as trying to throw her under the bus for her choices in what she likes to listen to or like I’m trying to tell her what she can and can’t do, but I can’t see myself dealing well with not being able to tune out all the noise in our office space.

If you’re right that Jane bristles at your headphones and/or that she’s the one who complained, that’s absolutely ridiculous, considering that she is filling the air in your space with unwanted sound!

It’s not okay for someone sharing work space with another person to play anything out loud without the other person’s reasonably enthusiastic consent — audiobooks, radio, or music, and definitely 100{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} absolutely not political radio.

This problem started, I think, when you tried to be accommodating to Jane and, rather than ask her to use headphones to listen to her preferred stuff (which is a completely reasonable thing to request, and not something she should even need to be asked), you decided to try to block it out.

That’s not your fault — that was you being polite. But it was way more polite and yielding than you needed to be. Ideally from the start you would have just said to Jane, “I have a lot of trouble concentrating with audiobooks or talk radio on — would you mind using headphones if you want to listen to that while you work?”

It’s not too late to address it now though. You have a couple of options:

1. Talk with Jane directly and say, ““I have a lot of trouble concentrating with audiobooks or talk radio on, so I’ve been using headphones to help me concentrate. Lucinda told me she doesn’t want us using headphones anymore, so I need to ask you not to play those in our space — it really makes it difficult for me to focus on work.”

2. If you’re concerned about how Jane will react to that, a different option is to go back to your boss and explain the situation. Say, “I wanted to check back with you about our conversation about headphones last week. I’ve been using headphones because Jane listens to audiobooks and talk radio while she works, and it makes it really hard for me to focus. I listen to my own stuff to drown out those sounds. If headphones are now a no-go, I need to ask Jane to turn off the radio and the audiobooks, and I’m concerned about how that’s going to go over. Can I ask you to back me up on that if she pushes back?” You could also ask, “Alternately, if the concern is not being able to hear other things, would you be open to allowing one earbud rather than two? That way I could ask her to switch to an earbud for her things as well.”

If your boss doesn’t seem to get it, don’t be afraid to spell it out more explicitly: “I’m not committed to listening to my own things if that’s a problem, but it’s really hard to work around someone else’s audio choices, especially political talk radio. If earbuds are no longer an option, can we ask people not to play spoken word stuff in spaces where other people are trying to focus?”

It’s really ridiculous, though, that your boss appears to be fine with Jane flooding your workspace with noise, while objecting to you doing something far less obtrusive to block it out. (If indeed she realizes what Jane is doing, which she may not.)

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