In an office, every employee, no matter how lowly, is entitled to his own workspace. As a file clerk, I had a pretty little cubicle to call my own. The paralegals were the proud owners of the slightly larger cubicles with fancy trappings, like legroom. The attorneys had smaller offices with the luxury of fully functioning doors, while the partners enjoyed the crème de la crème of office space: the coveted corner office.
When Human Resources escorts a new employee to his desk on his first day of work, there’s immediately a sense of ownership. But in reality, this space isn’t his at all, and neither is anything inside: not the swivel chair, not the Swingline, not the Post-it notes or the ballpoint pens. Just because this space feels like “yours” doesn’t mean you have free rein to do whatever you want with it.
Based on the behavior of my co-workers, this belief is not widely shared.
Some desk etiquette offenses are frowned upon, but not wholly sinful. For example, one secretary chose to display 8×10-inch framed photos of herself on her desk — solo portrait-style pictures that gave a whole new meaning to the word vain.
Another secretary, in lieu of glamour shots, decided to print off pictures from the Internet and then tape them around her cubicle. The most prominent of these was a photo of American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert gripping a microphone with his black fingernails. Being a 48-year-old woman who is obsessed with an American Idol contestant is somewhat pathetic, but to be a 48-year-old woman who is not embarrassed to be obsessed with an American Idol contestant is truly off-putting.
One of my other colleagues was a male paralegal who, in spite of his gender, could easily be the sixth member of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. He would listen to music on his computer while he worked, snapping in a “Z” formation all the while. Though listening to music during work hours is not exactly encouraged, it’s not reprimanded either, provided that the volume is kept at an appropriate level. But just as you hide every sign of your obsession with Jeff Fatt from the Wiggles, you should also do everything in your power to prevent your coworkers from finding out you’re a 35-year-old man who listens to Madonna.
All of these offenses can be classified as mild embarrassments and abuses of the workspace. With the exception of one secretary who vomited at her desk after consuming too much Airborne, I took the cake when it came to improper desk etiquette.
I had been engaging in some minor text flirtation with one of the summer associates, a Rutgers University law student, for several weeks. It wasn’t long before I developed what can only be described as a full-fledged crush.
One afternoon, I decided to call his office voicemail so I could hear the sound of his voice (one straightjacket, coming right up). He worked upstairs, so I went up and lurked around a corner to confirm that he and his law school buddies were still on their lunch break.
When I saw that they weren’t at their desks, I darted back to my cubicle and, less than 90 seconds later, dialed his extension.
When I was just one ring away from hearing that voicemail message, he picked up.
Completely caught off-guard, I slammed down the phone and went back to work, forgetting that the office phones are programmed with a caller-ID feature.
Five minutes later, I received that text message I wanted so badly.
“Did you just call?”
“No, must have been the other Kelsey.”
There were no other Kelseys.
Needless to say, I didn’t hear from him again for a long time after that. Lesson learned: Only use the company phone for business purposes. Creeping on a crush does not, in any way, qualify as a “business purpose.”
But the lesson extends far beyond that. It’s easy to forget that the desk, the phone, the hole-punch and the computer don’t really belong to you. The employer has every right to dictate what you can and cannot do within the confines of what you always believed to be your workspace.
Sure, the rules of desk etiquette can be a little constricting, but in the end, it seems like the Human Resources department really does know what’s best when it comes to preventing shame and preserving dignity.
In the case of office appropriate vs. awfully inappropriate, it is the judgment of this column that you should serve a life sentence as the laughingstock of the law firm should you treat your workspace like your home.
Kelsey Borresen is a junior majoring in print journalism. Her column, “Laugh-Idavit,” runs Mondays.