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Ask Sue
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 helps.

– 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 invaded.

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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