In her decades as a workplace-behavior expert, Fran Sepler has come across her share of galling behavior, from toenail clipping during meetings to an employee who persisted in addressing a post-maternity-leave peer as "Mommy."
The bad news for Sepler and other human resources folks: It's getting worse. Or more precisely, new problems are arising, and the old ones haven't gone away.
"We still deal with all the things we did before," said Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates, "but I'm amazed at how often I get called to deal with new things."
For example, even in an area that might have seemed fully mined -- odoriferous problems -- old standbys (too much perfume, B.O.) have been joined by the scent of unusual dishes, often ethnic, as workplaces have diversified and by spoiled food in office fridges as the down economy prompts more workers to bring in their lunches.
Technology has exacerbated exasperation, as well: jarringly loud talking on cellphones (and unattended phones' ringtones), cheap earbuds bleeding sound into nearby cubicles, or Facebook "friend" requests from casual co-worker acquaintances. Oversharing, either via social media or office chit-chat, is rampant.
And as more companies lump together vacation and sick days, anywhere from 40 to 55 percent of us sometimes come to work with a contagious disease, according to a 2010 study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Sepler cited many factors contributing to the avalanche of irksome actions:
• More "in your space" physical proximity with open seating setups.
• "All sorts of technology that creates noise and habits."
• Greater workplace diversity; "people whose norms and habits" might vary a great deal.
• Increased expectations of having some control of what goes on around us.
What are workers, and their HR departments, to do?
Local employment lawyer Ellen Sampson recommends "teamwork training" and rational policies. "A company might have a 'respectful workplace policy,'" she said, referring to a policy that reaches out "not in workplace terms, but collegiality terms. You can't cover everything, but you can set a tone."
Sampson also called it important for HR offices to have an open door. "It's routine for people to come in and say, 'I know this is not a legal issue. I just want you to listen,'" she said. "I call those people good advance planners."
What they often are planning is a conversation with a co-worker whose behavior is disruptive to them. While HR departments can handle some problems -- see sidebar for Sepler's take on addressing some of the newer issues -- the best first step usually is trying to deal with it on a more personal level.
That seems to be happening regularly at Toro, said human resources director Lee Ann Hartert. "We really try to foster and encourage communication, and for people to air concerns if they have them," she said. "I think a lot of things get discussed at the supervisor level."
The only certainty: Inaction will lead to more irritation.
"Conflict is a real struggle for people," Sepler said, "so in a spirit of tolerance, people will allow annoying behavior to continue. They think tolerating it is easier than addressing. That calculation is wrong: Nothing annoying ever goes away on its own."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643