Life at Work

Sweating the Small Stuff, for Good Reason

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

We all have real things to worry about at work: job stability, a raise, making sure there are no mistakes on that big project.

But what is it that really gets us stressed out and fired up? When someone walks away with our pen. A colleague who talks too loudly on the phone. The pod-mate's cellphone that rings the "Mexican Hat Dance."

Workplace pet peeves -- they're just too silly to complain to anyone about. But after a while, those little peeves permeate our day and grate on us to the point where we want to pull our ears over our heads and hide with the dust bunnies under our desks. They may seem like little problems that we blow up into big issues, but those pet peeves can actually make us feel that we are about as important to our co-workers and bosses as those dust bunnies. Just respect my pens, will ya? If you really cared what I thought, you wouldn't be checking your BlackBerry while I spoke to you.

In the case of Hilary, a legislative assistant with a lobbying firm in the District, she can't stand the daily knock-and-pop-in from a co-worker, who then plops onto a chair and says she just had to take a break. Great, Hilary thinks, but I have work to do. Hilary admits she's a wimp and won't say anything. She tries to obviously hint that she needs her private time and space. As this co-worker chatters on, Hilary types, nods and mm-hmmms a lot. "If I say something about this one pet peeve, I'm going to look petty," Hilary explains.

Even if she isn't too busy and her day is going well, this unwelcome visitor puts her in a funk for the day. "It goes one step beyond annoying. It makes me think about all these other things I should be doing."

And she feels as if her co-worker just doesn't respect her time or space.

Jackie feels the same way. She works in academic affairs at a D.C. university. Everyone in her department wants a minute of her time, whether she's busy or not. And Jackie is the perfect example of how most of us "confront" a situation to fix a pet peeve: When she needs privacy, Jackie shoves a garbage can against her door so people can't get in. They still will try to shove the door open and peek through the crack. "I just kind of feel like it's a lack of respect, or whatever is happening to the other person is more important than what I'm doing," she said.

Kathi Elster, co-author of the book "Working With You Is Killing Me," said pet peeves have a bigger impact than we would think. She said most peeves are "boundary busters," where someone removes something from your desk. Or a person whose cough is loud and annoying.

But, as she herself learned, it's important to deal with these pet peeves, first by figuring out what is your own issue that you might be able to fix and what is theirs. Elster hates it, for instance, when people use her phone. The pet peeve goes back to her early days at work when she read that the phone is a huge germ conductor. Now, when people come into her office and pick up the phone, she focuses on herself. "It's a busy office. They should be able to pick up my phone. I know it's my thing," she said.

So she says as much. She lets them know it's "just my craziness . . . . They laugh and then don't touch my phone."

Most human resource staff spend about 15 to 20 percent of their time dealing with people's pet peeves, estimated Kathy Albarado, president of Helios HR LLC in Reston. "It sounds so petty and so funny, but they ultimately do impact people's work and need to be addressed."

Such as the time a previous boss was fed up with the smells coming from the microwave oven in the company's kitchen. He demanded that Albarado remove the ovens. She told him he was crazy, and instead set up a list of guidelines for microwave use. "A lot of these items make managers uncomfortable," she explained.

One of the biggest pet peeves among workers, according to a survey of more than 2,300 adults conducted last month, is "loud talkers" (32 percent), which was cited even more often than cellphones ringing (30 percent). Others on the list include use of speakerphones in public areas (22 percent) and using PDAs during meetings (9 percent).

The overriding theme of pet peeves is they all go back to the peeved people feeling that they just aren't being considered.

If Lorna Gilkey's co-workers had just listened to her, she might have had a slice of her own birthday cake at work. Gilkey, an administrative assistant with an engineering firm in Alexandria, is not a fan of "forced socialism" at birthday and farewell parties to begin with.

Last year's birthday, however, took the cake.

A co-worker asked her what type of cake she wanted. If there had to be one, she said, she does not like chocolate. She does not like cake with fruit on it. She does not like white cake, either. Lemon is about it for her.

You guessed it: Her birthday cake was a white cake topped with "a bunch of slimy fruit and chocolate shavings." Things between her and the cake purchaser have really not been the same since she refused to eat it while everyone else chowed down.

"It makes me feel like I'm not valuable at all. No one cares, but I'm supposed to pretend they do," she said. "It makes you feel like you don't exist."

Heather Haynes is an executive assistant at a small association in Northern Virginia. Her pet peeve is when she's slammed as soon as she walks in the door: They're out of stir sticks for the coffee. Something's wrong with the copier. The office is too hot. The office is too cold.

All this before she can even take off her coat. "It just ruins my morning," she said. With barely a pause, she continued: "I know people don't have an investment in me as a person or as a friend."

Well, then. When you put it that way, so much for a workplace pet peeve being just a minor annoyance.

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