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When A Co-worker's Song Playlist Hits All the Wrong Notes

I was driving my kids around town the other day when an Adele song came on the radio. "Ugh, Mom music! Please change it," they asked.

It's funny, because I don't mind Adele (she's very talented even if her songs are a bit slow for my taste) but I'm not one of those Gen X Adelophiles who drags her kids to Adele concerts, either. We can pretty much read the teenagers' facial expressions in the Facebook check-in photos at the concert venue, can't we?

Really, Mom? No, you don't need to Facebook this concert, I don't want my friends to know I'm here! You're going to post it to Facebook or it didn't happen, aren't you? Ahhh! Say cheese whiz, kids. We got great seats!

But what happens when a work colleague cues up a playlist that leaves you thumping your head on a hotdesk to a funky, disco beat? How do you tell this colleague that their song list sucks?

Congratulations, you are now Matt Damon in The Martian, roving around Mars while you whine about your co-worker's '70s disco collection. Hey, don't diss the disco!


There are so many musical genres to choose from on any given day, and sometimes what we listen to depends on what we're in the mood for. Techno. Trance. Rap. Hip hop. Industrial. Alternative rock. Classic rock. Gospel. Blues. Jazz. Classical. Country. Top 40 pop. And yes, disco. (Let me know if I've left any out.) Amassing a set of playlists is easy; simply download, click, drag and organize into separate files.

In fact, personalized song playlists are now more popular than albums, and we want to shuffle our hand-picked playlists, too. Cue the randomized daily mix in the logistics department!

Music is also highly transportable via smartphone and tablet, making it increasingly hard to escape a co-worker's terrible song selections when the boss is out of the office. Perhaps a sneaky co-worker keeps quietly thumbing-up songs on Pandora when nobody else is looking, and now we're stuck with Chipmunks Christmas songs in September.

It can feel like we've hit a wrong chord with our colleagues, but research finds that music at work can have harmonic effects on employees. A recent Cornell study concluded that blasting "happy music" at work can have a positive impact on teamwork and cooperation. So let's start walking on sunshine with Katrina and the Waves already!

Or rolling in the deep angst we feel as we listen to our co-worker's seemingly endless, awful playlist. Who would ever pick these songs, we wonder. I mean, who listens to ABBA? (Hey, don't diss ABBA!)

The problem is, there's no middle ground when it comes to creating the Ultimate Playlist that will work for everyone in the office. Someone is not going to be a fan. In the worst-case scenario, we might to have break it to a co-worker that their playlist isn't working. But how do we do this without hitting all the wrong notes?

It's not easy, and it's a common problem in the modern workplace. Here are seven key questions concerning playlists at work:

1. Is it okay to ask, "What the hell are we listening to?" You might be able to get away with open disdain if you're on friendly, familiar terms with this co-worker. It's simple, and gets straight to the point. However, you run the risk of workplace disharmony and having a few co-workers wonder about you, or realize that you're...getting older. Hey grandpa, how do you not know this song and artist? Have you been living underneath a rock? No, you just prefer classic rock, but don't say it out loud.

2. Is it okay to skip to the next song? We don't like the song that's playing, so we press a button to skip to the next one. Beware: you could press your co-worker's buttons, too! Unless you know that your co-worker won't mind, then I would advise against this move in the name of workplace morale. It's like changing the song in the car when people in the back seat are singing along to it. Can you go to your happy place instead, or to the copier for a few minutes? The song will change by the time you get back. See if you can find a compromise. They get to pick the music list this morning, but you'll get your revenge turn in the afternoon.

3. What if the song lyrics are highly inappropriate to our work setting? Combine younger generations entering the workforce with the rawness of today's lyrics and this can become a real issue. Management might have to step in to define "appropriate music" during work hours. Younger workers might roll their eyes, but they also have to learn what's appropriate in a professional setting. Addressing this problem depends on where we work, since one workplace's "highly inappropriate" playlist is another workplace's "crank it up!" playlist. We have to scale our musical expectations to the beat of our particular work environment.

4. Is it rude to wear headphones to block out a co-worker's playlist? No, I don't think so. If they have a right to listen to their music out loud, then you have a right to block it out, if necessary. You're there to work, and if the headphones help you focus then go for it. You might look anti-social to some of your colleagues, so make sure you don't tune out your co-workers completely.

5. Is it okay to turn down a co-worker's "loud" music? The music selection might not be the biggest problem here. If you think the music is too loud, then it probably is! If your desk vibrates to the beat, if you can't hear your co-worker's question, or if you can't hear yourself think anymore, then you have every right to ask for better volume control. Can everyone in the work area agree on a set volume level for music played in the office? Sure, your co-worker's smartphone speaker goes up to 11, but 4 will have to do.

6. Is it okay to say "no" when a co-worker asks to listen to music on the job? "Is it all right if I crank my playlist of relaxing whale sounds while we work?" a co-worker asks politely. Hey, ask least they're asking for your buy-in before they blast their undersea play list, right? Most of us will say, "Um, I guess so?" to be polite in return. However, it's okay to say "no" to whale sounds if they would be distracting on the job. You can compromise by requesting the "music" be played at a very, very low volume. And absolutely no humming under any circumstances!

7. Can I tell a co-worker to wear ear buds? You do have a right to a work area that minimizes noise pollution in today's open office environments. You can ask a colleague to wear ear buds, but you can't make them do it. Can you find a workable middle ground here? Your co-worker's playlist goes free range at work this morning, and in return they'll put up with the re-heated fish platter you'll be eating at your desk in a few hours. Remember, the average workplace is full of compromises.

Another note: You can always re-write the lyrics to look at things another way. Your co-worker is expanding your musical horizons! You're listening to artists and songs you might not otherwise know. That's cool, right? Right.

If you've played musical chairs with a co-worker's no good, horrible playlist and nothing has worked to remedy the problem, then you might need to tell management if the music (the volume, the song selection, etc.) is becoming a productivity or morale issue. With any luck, management will find a beat everyone can dance to on the job.

Try to work it out with your colleague first though, because we can all appreciate the co-worker who gives us an opportunity to address a problem before bringing management into the chorus. As The Beatles sing: we can work it out. Good luck!

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