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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Personal Space

Dear Sue: I am a receptionist at a front desk in a very upscale corporate office. My work area is large enough that no one needs to invade the area in order to facilitate anything, but I constantly have people at my desk. Coworkers will pick up paper work from my desk and read it, and I have caught people reading the screen of my computer. When people help themselves to things by going through my drawers, I am exposed to ‘morning mouth’, after-lunch garlic breath and late afternoon coffee fumes. It is disgusting. I need to know what kind of personal space I am entitled to so that I can erect a sign that states, ‘no admittance beyond this point.’

– Invaded

Sue Says: The front desk you work at sounds like a universal gathering place for everyone in your office. Perhaps you have unknowingly created a very friendly and open atmosphere, which is good – to a point. While posting a sign informing people to keep out isn’t a bad idea, it probably won’t go over very well since you are in the reception area. To outsiders it may send the wrong message and be perceived negatively. You could, however, have a smaller sign on your computer or desk requesting respect for your time and privacy.

Your coworkers probably assume that whatever you are doing is work related and something they are entitled to see. If you make too big a deal about it, it may appear as though you are trying to hide something, so the burden is on you to say something and establish boundaries with those who have none of their own.

To help you deal with everything from the morning breath to the garlic breath, consider investing in a candy dish and mints. If mints are offered, you will probably have takers and solve some of the unpleasant smells you encounter. If you don’t want to supply all employees and visitors with mints, you may want to see if your company will provide you with them or keep a few in your drawer and offer them on an as -needed basis.

Dear Sue: Sue, I was hired at the end of January to work part time with the understanding that I eventually go full-time, but I decided not to and have maintained part-time status. This is a family run business, and I have never been treated as one of the team. The family is from another country, and no one makes any attempt to carry on a conversation with me. I have worked in the business world for 30 years and have never felt rejection like this. I never hear a “hello”, “good-bye”, “please” or “thank you”. I choose to work to stay busy; however, I do want to feel included. Do I look elsewhere, request a raise, ask for more hours (I am available to work all day) or bite the bullet as I have been doing? Help! - Lorraine

Sue Says: I am a bit mystified as to why, under the poor circumstances in which you work, you are reconsidering your decision about working full time. If you are unhappy there now, imagine how miserable you will be if you are there all day every day.

Is it possible that the family was disappointed when you decided you didn’t want to go part time and have been cool toward you as a result? There are many possible reasons you are treated as you are; perhaps it is due to cultural differences or a lack of communication and understanding. I am not convinced that you are being rejected. If the family is close-knit and you are one of the few outsiders, you may never feel included. After all, these people see each other frequently and spend much more time with each other than with you, making it difficult to break into their tight circle.

Only you can decide whether or not you want to stay. If nothing changes and you go full-time, chances are that the things that irritate you now will become intensified. If you like the job, don’t leave before you have made an effort to improve your working conditions. Although it may be difficult, if not impossible to become closer to the family, you don’t have to wait for someone to initiate a conversation with you. Reach out to others and see how receptive they are to you.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

Send Sue your questions by clicking here: Ask Sue
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