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The jerk at work

From 'please stop ! ' talkers to 'please start!' bathers, here's how to handle the office rank and foul

Imagine taking your Caesar salad wrap with fruit and yogurt to work, placing it in the refrigerator and going to fetch it later, only to find that it's gone, filched by a co - worker. Carol Roht worked with a fellow who did this regularly. He'd peer into the fridge in the teachers' lounge, and if your smoked turkey on rye looked better than his peanut butter on white, he'd take yours and leave his.

``Some of the lunches were really expensive," says Roht, a former reading teacher in Randolph. ``One guy's wife had made him a big corned beef sandwich, and he was really looking forward to it, and the other guy ate it." Whenever he was confronted, the lunch-leech would say, oops, I thought that was mine.

Everyone has a workplace horror story: the colleague who bores you numb with endless stories of her perfect children . The one who yaks nonstop while you're trying to work. The cellphone addict whose ``private" conversations are anything but. The co - worker who eavesdrops on your every word. The moocher who borrows money but never returns it, and grabs from the office candy bowl but never contributes. The vicious gossip. The guy sitting next to you who looks -- and smells -- like a load of dirty laundry. The one who hums ``99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" incessantly.

Like neighbors, we don't get to pick our co - workers. But we are forced to spend eight hours or more a day in close proximity with them, protected only by a flimsy cubicle wall, if at all.

Irritating co - workers can be amusing -- and they have been a staple of TV, from Ted Baxter on the ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Mimi Bobeck on ``The Drew Carey Show" to Dwight Schrute from ``The Off ice" and Chloe O'Brian from ``24" -- but they can also be problematic. A recent online survey (by www.truejobs.com , a job-search website) found that co-workers' annoying habits are the No. 1 source of stress in the workplace. Nearly 60 percent of the 2,200 respondents said that such habits have negatively affected their work relationships, and 40 percent said they have led them to seek a different job. The top complaint was talking too loudly on the phone, followed by constant whining about work.

Despite the irritation, 54 percent of the respondents said they have not considered confronting their co - workers.

Roht, who retired from teaching, did confront the lunch thief -- who also turned out to be a film thief.

``You used to have to order classroom films and they would take a year to come," says Roht. She was waiting for a film on the Galapagos Islands. Where was it? Then her students told her about a cool film they'd just seen in another class -- on the Galapagos Islands. Turns out the same co - worker had lifted the film from her mailbox.

``I told him I had ordered it and it was mine, not his. He was a good teacher, but he had these habits that were aggravating," she says. When challenged, the man said he thought the film (like the lunch) was his.

Philip Quinn, a psychologist who heads the Employee Assistance Program at Bayview Associates in Quincy, deals with mental- health issues in the workplace such as team building, communication , and conflict resolution. Over the years he has heard it all, with the most frequent complaint being that a co - worker isn't pulling his weight. A close second is distraction caused by someone who talks too loudly on the phone.

Still, Quinn says he is amazed that workplaces chug along as well as they do. ``The boundary issues at work are so important," he says . ``Most of the time, they work fabulously well. When you think about how well people get along at work, with different personalities, different genders, it's impressive."

Still, when a co - worker gets on your last nerve, it can create a physiological reaction, such as rising blood pressure, that increases stress and decreases concentration, he says. If you have a toxic reaction to a colleague, Quinn suggests analyzing your own behavior.

``The first step . . . is to think about why this is irritating them so much. Let's say you're assigned something you don't want to do, and then you have this person who talks a lot next to you. Are you irritated by the talking or the fact that you don't want to do the task in the first place? A lot of people don't like their jobs, and they find fault everywhere. Is it your issue that you're projecting on to someone else?"

Of course, there are legitimate complaints, too.

A nurse practitioner on the South Shore says one of the other three people who share her office constantly listens to phone conversations, even chiming in with her own comments. ``It got so bad that one of the nurses asked to be moved," she says. ``It was so intrusive." Another office mate is constantly ``thinking out loud," which interrupts the nurse's train of thought. Still, she has never confronted either woman. ``I don't want to hurt their feelings," she says. She asked not to be identified -- for obvious reasons.

Peggy Rose, a Boston publicist, used to work for a downtown public- relations firm. One of her fellow workers, she says, drove the rest of them crazy with her Malady of the Week, sometimes accompanied by time off. ``She'd fall, or she'd sprain her ankle, or she'd tell us about her sinus problems, her stomach issues. Once, she said her platelet level had dropped so low she needed to go to the hospital for blood transfusions." Her suspicious supervisor went to the hospital himself: no sign of his employee.

There were other tall tales, too: ``She killed off more family members . . . I think her grandfather died about four times. It really stressed me out because she got away with it, but then you had to feel sorry for her."

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What does a therapist do when he works with toxic people? Carleton Kendrick, a family counselor who lives in Millis (and co author of the book ``Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's") recalls the colleague who spread nasty rumors about him. He asked the man to lunch, then asked him about his behavior. The rumors stopped.

Quinn agrees that if bad office conduct interferes with your work, productivity , and health, it must be addressed. He recommends using civility, not aggression, and says the offended party should role-play his speech first. ``If you're too aggressive, the person is going to get defensive. Instead of saying, `I can't get my work done because you're talking too damn loud, ' say something like, `I'm on deadline, I really need to concentrate. I wonder if you can keep it down. ' "

If they don't get the message, sit down with them and be more explicit, he says. And if the behavior continues or escalates, take it to a supervisor. On the other hand, if the behavior is minor and occasional, let it go. ``We turn our stress into distress," he says.

Quinn sees a larger issue in the little disturbances of the office. He says companies are so busy nowadays that there is no longer much team spirit. It's incumbent on managers to create an environment where people feel good about their work and consider themselves a unit, he says.

Then there are those who want nothing to do with the team. Mark Breslin, an architect who lives in Milton, spent years in a firm until he finally went out on his own. He has never looked back. ``The lying, the deceit, the indecisiveness drove me crazy," he says. ``My boss was just a miserable human being, and every day he would torture people." Breslin decided to open his own business out of his house.

``I love working alone," he says. ``I'm very productive. And I'm a control freak, so it works out perfectly."

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