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What to Do When the Guy Who Sits Next to You Is a Chain Smoker

And other questions you’d rather not ask your own HR

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

We’re having an epic standoff over office temperature. Our place gets super hot, which necessitates cranking the air conditioning. But the people who sit closest to the vents are freezing — and miserable and pissed at the rest of us. Is there any equitable way to solve this problem?

Sometimes the obvious answer is the right answer: Has anyone spoken to the person in charge of facilities and complained? Either way, you need to convince the facilities team that this isn’t whining — people are miserable and want to work from home because they’re uncomfortable when at the office. Hell, you might even have an OSHA complaint for excessive heat or cold.

Unfortunately, your complaints might go unheeded, especially if it’s an older building with structural defects that would cost the landlord (or company) a ton of money to repair or replace. Sometimes there are quick, low-cost fixes such as redirecting the vents’ airflow. But don’t be surprised if these don’t work and are a cosmetic measure used to show that your company is being responsive.

So what options are you left with? The easiest solution, if feasible, is to reconfigure the workspace so that the area by the vents is open space. Better yet, put a large table there and let everyone know that this is the meeting space. You kill two birds with that one fix — meetings tend to be shorter because everyone is freezing their ass off, and no one individual desk is bombarded with frigid air. A few other solutions:

  • Rotate desk-duty by the vents. Some variants on this theme include desk lotteries for a fixed time (six months, summer months) and/or bribes ($100 gift cards for each month near the vent, more work-from-home days than others get, etc.).
  • Communal shrugs and sweaters. Go out and buy hideous or beautiful cover-ups (depending on your office vibe) that remain at the office for the sole use of the unfortunate few located next to the vents.
  • Laptops instead of desktops (yes, people still have these) so that work and workspace are portable.

When all else fails, have the team collectively move themselves to another department or to the local coffee shop. Someone is bound to notice that you’re all MIA and you can use that as your springboard for a real discussion about getting the office temperature under control.

I sit next to a chain smoker. Every half hour he leaves his desk, goes outside for a smoke break and comes back in reeking of smoke — on his clothes, on his breath and in his hair. The fan on my desk doesn’t seem to do a thing. And yes, it also pisses everyone off that he seems to smoke more than he works. Should I confront this guy, or would that cause too many other issues?

The politically correct response of “everyone is entitled to their personal space” doesn’t apply here, either for him or you. You’ve got two issues that need to be addressed promptly because they’re interfering with your ability (and others’) to get your job done.

The first issue is how much time the excessive smoke breaks wastes. That’s actually not your issue; it’s your boss’s. Your main responsibility is to bring it to your boss’s attention and request that it be handled promptly because it’s a challenge to get work done. Be as specific as possible — e.g., “He disappears so we can’t get answers to questions or start meetings.” In the end, remember it’s a business matter and your manager needs facts to stand their ground.

As for the hygiene side of the equation, my experience tells me that he’s probably oblivious to his odor. Again, your manager is the person who needs to address the issue. You should, however, be prepared for the employee to confront you about whether or not you ratted him out. Don’t lie. Let him know that you spoke to management about significant work disruptions. You should make it clear that you’re not being judgmental about his smoking, only about the consequences of his excessive breaks and inability to focus on work because of smoke fumes that make it hard to breathe and concentrate.

Also be mindful of some other topics related to smoking at work. Currently, smoking is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but a determined few are trying to argue that “nicotine addiction” should be covered. And numerous state laws protect both smokers and nonsmokers, which is why disruptive situations like yours are best handled by management and not direct confrontation by a colleague. If for some reason your boss is unwilling or uneasy to address this problem, go to HR. We love this kind of shit!

This one’s for Labor Day. I love working on days when everyone else is out of the office — even on major national holidays. Does this make me a workaholic? Or is that a bullshit designation like sex addiction?

Well, “workaholic” is a real designation — at least that’s what psychologists tell us. The most recent study on workaholism suggests that it’s clinically linked with ADHD, OCD, anxiety and depression. True workaholics have similar attributes or behaviors to addicts such as compulsiveness, adrenaline rushes, not knowing limits or boundaries and physically destructive outcomes.

That said, coming into work when everyone else is gone doesn’t necessarily make you a workaholic; it may be a reasonable, deeply satisfying way to preserve your sanity. Like many people, you may find that you’re more productive, focused and energetic when no one else is around. Without constant distractions, you can turn up the volume, get inspired by your playlist and soar with creativity. No one’s around telling you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, how not to do it and whether you’re the right person to do it in the first place. When you think about it, it’s surprising more people don’t work on holidays and weekends.

If you’re really concerned you’re a workaholic, check out the Workaholics Anonymous website for self-assessment, interventions and support groups. Otherwise, consider your alone time a guilty pleasure, and make the most of it by not only being productive but by also watching a collection of Workaholics who will most certainly make you feel better about yourself.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.