A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem
Follow Up to "Personal Space"
Dear Sue: I am writing in response to your advice to the front
desk receptionist who felt invaded by her coworkers who hung around her
desk. They poked their noses into her work, looked her computer screen,
took things from her desk, and offended her with the smell of coffee and
food. I worked as a receptionist for awhile and, I am sorry to say, you
missed the point in your reply.
The problem isn’t the smell of the coffee as much as it is the lack of
respect for her personal space, and people who think that her work space
is a public one. People who look at others papers and computer screens
have a need to know what is going on and are nosy. While offering mints
may cover up the offensive smell, it is not going to resolve the problem.
People tend to help themselves to office supplies that are in a common
area. The receptionist should put a small container with notes, paper
clips, pens and pencils in an area that is easy to access, but that is at
some distance from her working area. She should also put larger items like
phone books, a stapler and a puncher there along with large notes asking
the user to please return items when done.
Whenever someone approaches her desk, she should cover up her work and
minimize the screen on her computer and ask the coworker how she can help
him or her – eventually people will get the message.
I never leave personal items on a computer or in my drawer. At the end
of the day I will take home what I have worked on, transfer them to a
floppy disk/zip drive and delete them from the computer. I hope this
– Hanna Hill
Sue Says: Thank you for taking the time to write. You’ve offered
some great ideas that will help anyone to declare more privacy and
personal space. Everyone has an unconscious but powerful inner sense of
personal boundaries. When in conversation with someone, an arm’s distance
is most comfortable for most of us, although comfort levels will vary from
person to person and culture to culture. Each culture observes varying
degrees of touch, and in our business culture, touching anyone outside of
a handshake is not recommended.
An office or cubicle is indeed, an area of personal space in the
workplace. You make it “yours” by the way you organize it along with the
photos, art, and sayings you display. Unless your desk is a total mess,
you can probably tell if someone has been at your desk or gone through
your belongings. If someone has, you will likely be offended.
With so many people working very closely to others, most of us long for
whatever privacy we can get. Therefore, you shouldn’t enter a coworker’s
cubicle or office without permission or borrow something without asking.
Don’t use the phone or remove anything without permission. Always stand at
the entrance of someone’s cubicle or office while he or she is engaged in
a conversation with another person or on the phone, and never look through
papers or snoop in any manner! Don’t move furniture or rearrange anything
in someone else’s office.
You are right – it is about respect, and it is up to each of us to
declare the space that is “ours”. You don’t have to allow “space invaders”
in to your space or tolerate those who lack respect for your office or
cubicle.. Speak up when someone is crossing a boundary, because unless you
do, no one will know what your boundaries are or if you are feeling
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her web site at
Send Sue your questions by clicking here:
For more Ask Sue articles, click here.