Ask Laskas: “How do I get my coworker to stop humming while he works?”

Advise this distracted employee on how to get some peace and quiet at the office.

My coworker, who sits in the cubicle right next to mine, hums all day long! It is a constant, off-key droning that drives me insane. How do I 
ask him to stop without hurting his feelings? —Distracted Employee


What’s your take? Give your best advice in the comments below, and your answer might appear in the magazine.

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  • Your Comments

    • Diane Burden Changala

      Your co-worker’s humming, although driving you crazy, may be the only thing saving his sanity. It sounds like he suffers from tinnitus and is humming to drown out the constant buzzing noise in his ears. Let him know the humming bothers you, but be sympathetic about the tinnitus and recommend some alternate strategies such as listening to soft instrumental music while working.

    • ExcelNerd8000

      As someone who gets annoyed with sounds very easily, I can understand your frustration. The problem, however, is not that this is just noise, but most likely your coworker’s unintentional self-soothing…he’s probably not even aware that he’s doing it most of the time. Even if you bring up your frustrations with his humming, he may not be able to stop. To help yourself, try purchasing a white noise machine to drown out noises made outside your cubicle. This will not only help you to focus on your work, but also helps keep office politics reasonable by recognizing that your coworker’s humming is not an intentional attack on your “sound space”.

    • The Hummer

      This could be me. I am usually UNAWARE of my humming. Ask him if he is aware of this practice. Tell him nicely that it bothers you. My friends simply say “You’re humming.” That is enough to get me to stop. This might work with him. But, be nice – we hummers are sensitive people.

    • acolema21

      This seems like a no brainer-just tell him it makes it hard for you to focus-if he has a qualm then he is being rude and it wouldn’t be rude to point this out to him!

    • Lillian McDonald

      tape one of your coworkers humming sessions and play it back, either to him or just as you are working. it could end up being very funny and a way to prove how annoying it is!

    • Shirley Millican

      Have you tried humming back, perhaps even more loudly? The coworker might not even realize they’re humming: if you do it, they may ask, “What are you doing?” and you can (teasingly) say something like, “I’m copying you!” That could lead to a stoppage, and probably wouldn’t hurt their feelings.

    • cdrdi

      Own the problem. 2 options. Ask the person to join with you to to get a radio or music player and work together to select the music. Or politely let the person know while you appreciate his music, you have trouble concentrating and would appreciate it if he would stop so you can keep on track with your work. I had to explain to a cubicle mate that I had a severe allergic reaction to her perfume (her favorite, expensive one) and while she had no requirement to, I would appreciate it if she’d stop wearing it. Thank goodness she did. Remember, it’s your problem, not his.

    • sunbeams

      Simple: Go to the individual when he/she is not deluged with work. Say you’d like to talk for a few minutes and get the person’s consent to take time to talk. Then explain that the humming is extraordinarily distracting, that your workday is being negatively impacted; and that it’s not reasonable or fair to the employer to have co-workers subjected to conditions that reduce productivity. Explain that it’s the polite, reasonable, thoughtful, kind, and considerate thing to do – stop the noisy distraction. Thank you, I appreciate that so much. Let’s go out to lunch together sometime, out for a drink, whatever, to smooth over the humiliation and engender a spirit of community.

    • Alphacat

      Your co-worker is probably unaware that he is humming. Politely bring it to his attention and ask if you could say the word “humming” whenever he starts so that he will become aware that he is disturbing the peace. Eventually this may bring his subconscious habit under control.

    • turtledove

      The best way to get a serious point across without causing offense is to do it indirectly through humor. For example: “Wow, you’re really getting into the music, aren’t you [name of coworker]?” This will probably cause your coworker to become flustered and stop humming. Where subtlety fails, however, it’s better to offer up a positive followed by a negative: “Hey [coworker's name], I’m loving your musical performance, but it’s a little distracting…” This statement is more direct but still not offensive.