By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post
— The inbox has coughed up several letters on the same topic.
Reader 1: A co-worker sounds like she has hairballs. She coughs and then sounds like she's throwing up at the end, and never even says "excuse me." She said she went to the doctor and is taking medicine, but I wish she would stay home!!! How are the rights of a sick employee balanced against the rights of those who wish to remain well?
Reader 2: The employee in the office next to mine has a horrible smoker's cough that ends in gagging. People on the phone and clients can hear it, and she reeks of smoke. It is hard not to be judgmental, because my father died young of lung cancer from smoking.
Reader 3: For months, my cube neighbor has had a dry hacking cough, eight hours a day. I leave work stressed out and angry, and dread arriving in the morning. I told the office manager about my frustration and the adverse effect it has on my ability to work. She said she has sent him home many times, and he has no more sick leave. He has also been sent to HR. He says that he suffers from asthma and allergies, but that this cough (in his opinion) is not related. To my knowledge, he hasn't seen a doctor.
A: Flu season, dry air, pollutants, nervous tics, barnyard upbringing . . . whatever the cause, a barking co-worker can drive you barking mad.
Infectious or not, constant coughers should do what they can to curtail the consternation they cause colleagues — including lozenges, soothing drinks, medical care and telecommuting.
Managers should be willing to entertain reasonable temporary solutions: the aforementioned telecommuting, or desk swaps, or setting up quiet space for client calls. And they should avoid trying to diagnose a worker's condition — besides triggering the protections afforded by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it's presumptuous — and focus on the work environment. Similarly, complaining co-workers should focus on disrupted productivity, not opinions about the cougher's health or habits.
If management is deaf to both coughing and complaints, you'll have to resort to other measures: earphones, white noise, reassignment to Tibet.
Or you might try to muster some sympathy. Offering throat-calming treats may bring you both relief — and make a colleague more receptive when you note: "You've had that cough a while. Have you had it checked out to make sure it's not something serious?" You'll catch more flies (and fewer other bugs) with honey sticks than sour looks.
Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.