HR Headaches: An Employee Listens to Loud Music While They Work

Employees playing loud music can affect your workforce productivity and your company image. Here’s how to address it.

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Whether it’s death metal or Beethoven, loud music coming from a cubby or office is a HR Headache that spills all through the workplace. Some employees are adamant that they work better with the distraction — but many colleagues are demanding quiet, aspirin, and ice packs. Why do some employees play loud music? A new staffer may have assumed it’s acceptable, or a more seasoned staff member may have found a new way to stoke their creativity. Perhaps there’s a battle of the bands that’s occurring between staff members that’s escalated to Deaf-Con 5.

Whatever the cause, the effect can be hindering others, posing a risk, or promoting the wrong message about your business. It may be time to dial it down (literally) and create a policy that outlines exactly what’s allowed when it comes to tune-time at work.

Does it matter?

Unless you’re a nightclub owner or organize raves, loud music is probably not standard in your workplace. Your storefront may be cutting-edge, with the latest whatever-the-latest-is playing all day and night at max volume, but employees running payroll probably don’t appreciate the din. A single employee — or even a group of workers — who insist on blaring bluegrass can pose a risk and a disruption that needs to be addressed.

You’ve either walked past someone’s office and heard the din or received complaints about it. Often they’ll tone it down, and peace may reign for a short while, but then it goes back up to eleven. The person listening may not realize the music that helps them work harder or more enjoyably is driving everyone else crazy. Or they might not care. In either case, something may need to be done.

For workers in close quarters, or those whose offices haven’t been soundproofed well enough to withstand a sonic boom, the impact can be profound. When colleagues are distracted by loud music, they may be put at risk. When interaction is limited, team harmony is diminished. Noise affecting the ability of others to work means productivity is lowered. It needs to be addressed.

Before the battle of the bands

There may be legitimacy in an employee saying that loud music helps them work. The problem isn’t them, if they get their work done in record time: it’s how their music affects others. If you’re on board with them playing it loud and proud because you know it motivates them, a simple solution might be moving them further afield. If there’s no place far enough away from others that will make the problem go away, could headphones be a solution? Either of these could be an easy fix.

There are some employees that don’t work near other colleagues. Imagine a stationary engineer working alone in the boiler room deep in the bowels of the building, with other employees entering on the rare occasion. Or a shop foreman’s office, nestled among decibel-defying machinery. For these workers, what you consider loud may be at minimum white noise: at best a lifeline to sanity. You don’t want loud music throughout the workplace, with dueling banjos at each cubby. But should you make an exception for those out in the boondocks or surrounded by the din? Look at a few factors before you stop the music. Then create a policy that outlines who, where, and when it’s acceptable — and at what level.

What’s at issue?

When the decibel level makes it difficult for others to interact with them, they’re impeding productivity. If the noise is migrating past the back of the house and into the areas where customers frequent, the message sent may be unprofessional.

Does the employee’s music make it impossible for them to hear safety warnings from machinery or others? Do coworkers have to hurl projectiles in their path to get their attention? There can be no negotiation when it comes to safety — that’s your first priority.

When the decibel level makes it difficult for others to interact with them, they’re impeding productivity. If the noise is migrating past the back of the house and into the areas where customers frequent, the message sent may be unprofessional. Some music may be offensive: it may contain language that’s filtered out when heard over the airwaves, but is uncensored when streamed or downloaded.

If there’s an impact on coworkers or customers, your mandate is clear. Turn it down (way down) or turn it off completely.

What the law says

You might be surprised to know the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) has chimed in on this subject. Because noise can pose a safety risk, they set the “permissible exposure limit (PEL)” at 90 dBA for all workers for an 8 hour day. Their website instructs that if you have to raise your voice to speak to someone 3 feet away, you’re probably in excess of 85 decibels and it’s too loud.

Consistent exposure to loud noise can damage or kill nerve endings in the ear, leading to temporary or permanent hearing loss. If the music is as loud as a food blender at close quarters, the employee may be violating OSHA safety guidelines for their own safety and that of others.

That one person out of tune

Everyone loves nonstop rap music all day, except that one guy in the back who’s all about the banjo. Does the majority rule? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that employee shouldn’t be given some consideration. In the same way you consider offering headphones to the lone wolf who wants to headbang all day, you might offer noise cancelling headsets (that stay at the workplace) to those who just want a little peace and quiet.

Creating a policy

Employees who are listening to music at their workstation should keep it at a level that doesn’t migrate past their space. If you can hear it in the cubicle or office next door, it’s too loud.

You can initiate a policy or guidelines for listening to music while on the clock. Start with the basics as you notify employees the rave must come to an end: you have data on your side. While there are conflicting studies on whether music helps or hinders productivity and concentration, they all tend to agree the more benign and quieter, the better.

You may not want to ban music altogether, but you’ll want it to be played with consideration for others and for the safety of the organization. Employees who are listening to music at their workstation should keep it at a level that doesn’t migrate past their space. If you can hear it in the cubicle or office next door, it’s too loud.

For workers who wear headphones or earbuds to listen to their jams, the use should not infringe on their ability to hear others or hear what’s going on around them. When an  alarm rings, they will need to hear it and respond. If you permit individual headsets of any kind, again, they should be kept at a volume that doesn’t prohibit them from hearing others or their surroundings. Being able to hear it through their headsets means it’s too loud.

If there are work areas excluded from the guidance, make sure to list them specifically and let employees know these are the locations (like out in the shop), where they’re welcome to turn it up to eleven. For every other location, it’s best to keep it down.

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