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Slam! When You Catch a Co-worker Going Through Your Desk

You walk into the office to find a co-worker rummaging through your desk with determined intensity. This co-worker is looking for something, but what? Let's dish about the co-workers you catch going through your desk!

Maybe this co-worker is looking for a staple remover, a working pen, some Post-It notes, or a spare pencil? Maybe she just wants to see what you keep in there?

Maybe you walk in on this co-worker using your desktop computer. What is he looking for, exactly? You don't know, but your gut reaction goes something like this.


Welcome to a weird conundrum of the collaborative, open, 21st-Century workplace: What's yours is yours, and what's yours is also everyone else's, apparently. On the one hand, the modern workplace is team-based and shrieking, "Get away from my desk!" in a territorial tone is generally not a desirable quality in a teammate. It's sort of like grandpa yelling, "Get off my lawn."

On the other hand, you might find the whole experience vaguely unsettling as this co-worker reads the box of tampons in the back of the drawer. Go ahead and file this uncomfortable workplace situation under the letter "I", for "invasive". It simply isn't top drawer co-worker behavior in your book.

My Desk Is Your Desk
First, know that the law isn't on your side when it comes to work area privacy. As an employee, you have no reasonable expectation to privacy over your workplace desktop computer, workplace emails, or desk drawers. These items are generally considered to be property of the employer.

So what can you do about the co-worker who regularly dips into your desk, or logs on to your desktop computer? Here are seven tips for handling it:

1. Remove key valuables from your work area. Do not store your wallet, smartphone, car keys, company I.D., bills, medications, and other highly-personalized items if your desk is treated like Grand Central Station. Find a more secure storage space, or leave them at home.

2. Stop using your work computer for private communications. If your work computer mixes work-related emails and texts with personal emails and shopping accounts, then set up separate email and phone for personal business. It's best to keep work and personal communications separate, anyway, no matter where you work. Remember, any device owned by the company is the company's property.

3. Treat your desk like a communal work space. Work on the assumption that your co-workers could open any drawer within your work area at any time, and adjust accordingly. This way, you won't be surprised if you walk into the office and a co-worker is looking in the drawer where you keep an emergency pair of spare underwear.

4. Ask this co-worker what might help. Your co-worker might actually need an important document that isn't easily accessible in your work area. How could you re-organize your work area to help this colleague find what they need? Putting items in an inbox -- or in one specific drawer -- can help.

5. Find the boundaries. If you feel like a co-worker is nosing around your work area in a snooping, underhanded kind of way, then you might ask this co-worker what they were looking for, exactly. Frame it as "I'm just trying to help you" when it's actually a chance for this co-worker to explain. Listen carefully, and then practice Tips #1 through #4. Classic U2 songs help, too.

6. Talk to HR. I generally advise trying to work things out one-on-one with a co-worker instead of involving management, but if a co-worker's habit of going through your desk has become a problem you could mention it to management. HR might say you have no reasonable expectation of privacy, but at least management is aware of the problem.

7. Tread carefully with new hires. You went into a new hire's desk looking for staples, and now he considers you the office snoop! But everyone at the company liberally opens into each other's desk drawers. Apologize for the trespass, then refer to Tip #4 to find a compromise. It may take some new hires time to adjust if they've come from work environments where their desk was treated like their own private Idaho.

Of course, you might have a trendy standing desk, your company is into hot desking or all files are stored in a common, centralized location. These set-ups pretty much eliminate the problem all together. Feel free to share your advice, or to vent. If you need me, I'll be at my desk. At least, I think it's still my desk.


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