Crimes of the Cubicle: 15 Desk Don'ts

by Staff - Original publish date: February 13, 2013

It’s your cubicle. You even have a nameplate. So it’s your personal space, right? Not really. It’s more like a seat at the dinner table than a room in the house.

In other words, any sense of privacy is an illusion. Treat your office space with respect if you want to be taken seriously in the workplace. 

You want to keep your job? Avoid doing any of these 15 inexcusable activities at your desk.

Personal grooming

As annoying as that little snag in your fingernail or chip in your polish may be, resist the temptation for an on-the-spot fix. Oh sure, it will just take a moment. But before you know it, you've filed the rest of your nails and touched up your toes, much to the dismay of anyone within range of the grating sounds and noxious fumes.

Also, consider that every snip of the nail clipper will generate a clipping that may descend gently into your trashcan -- or alternately fly into office space with your DNA affixed to it.

Shaving? Tweezing? Dental floss? Eww. If you wouldn't do it in front of your boss, don't do it at your desk

Assembling sandwiches

Unless you actually work on an assembly line, there's no excuse for assembling sandwiches or other meals at your desk.

You make your kids pack their school lunches the night before, right? There's a reason. No one needs to watch (or smell) you smear mustard on naked bread and then pile on the deli meat just so.

Worse yet, they might ask you if you have any extra, and do you really want to share your extra lean turkey pastrami with Bob from accounting?

Excessive decorating

Yes, you practically live at your desk. But in reality, you don’t.

So skip the over-the-top seasonal decorations like the bobble head pumpkin man with glowing eyes and a menacing cackle, the musical snow globe that plays "The 12 Days of Christmas" any time someone walks by, your motivational "Valentine's Day Suck" poster... They'll work better as home décor -- or on the bargain table of your next garage sale.

Framed college diploma or professional awards? Yes. Stuffed tiger mascot that roars when you squeeze its big toe? Not so much.

Undressing the part

If the shoes look good but pinch your toes, too bad. You put them on today. And they're staying there until you get back home ... or at least to your car.

Same with the itchy wool jacket. Yes, you can toss it back on in time for your afternoon meeting. But what if your boss peeks in to introduce a new hire and you're sitting there in a cloud of foot odor and perspiration? Highly unprofessional.

If you've planned ahead and dressed with office-appropriate layering, go ahead and hang up the jacket until the meeting. But the shoes? Don't even think about it.

Hitting the marketplace

Buying or selling in the office place is bad form. That means no checking on how your old baseball cards are faring on eBay and no hunting down the best deal on snow tires from your office chair.

If you're a good employee, you're meticulous about details and any "quick check" would certainly turn into a comprehensive search on company time. Or worse, you'd be time crunched to make a hasty regrettable decision (how's that Toothpick of the Month Club working out for ya?).

Better to save the online shopping and eBaying for the middle of the night, where it belongs.

Checking your winks

Yes, the blonde snowboarding enthusiast on that online dating site is just your type. Did she respond to that email you sent? Did she notice the dashing new profile photo you posted of you standing next to that random sports car?

Three words: Love is patient. She can wait. You can wait. If there's going to be magic, it will still be waiting on your home computer tonight after work.

Besides, she might want to talk on the phone, and then you'd have to resort to yet another faux pas…Talking in Code.

Talking too loud, too soft or in code

The only thing more annoying than hearing co-workers' loud telephone conversations is hearing their whispered conversations. And the only thing worse than the dramatic whisper is Code Talk. You know, those careful conversations that begin with, "I really can't talk about it right now, but..." Stop it. Stop right there. Before the "but."

There will be no word substitution or pointed innuendo. No saying "the situation we talked about" which means "my coworker who wears that really nasty cologne." Do not attempt to describe last night's date without actually using the word "date." Save the play-by-play for later when you can use complete sentences.

Moping around

OK, Snowboard Girl was The One. You knew it. Your friends knew it. But she somehow missed out on that whole love vibe. So now your life is basically over, and you have no one with whom to deflect Aunt Margaret's sympathy at the family Christmas dinner.

Psssst. That’s personal. You’re at work. If you feel emotional, it’s better to sniffle in Stall #3 than at your desk. And if you focus on today’s tasks instead of moping over The One, you’re not only modeling professionalism, you will actually heal faster.

Sending self portraits

You would never make a personal call at your desk where everyone can overhear you. (Good for you!) But what about sending a quick photo of yourself at the new job with your cell phone camera?

Of course you need to get a decent picture first. No, not that one. It makes your nose look big. If you hold your arm out a little further .... Maybe put the phone on the edge of your desk, angle your face toward the computer and snap the shot with your right foot...

The only ones who take a good cell phone photo on the first shot are the ones who do it way too much. This isn't office appropriate. Send a quick text message instead.

Pretending you aren't sick

If you're going through enough tissues to dent a small rainforest, go home.

Yesterday when you worked past five with those occasional sniffles, you were dedicated and tough. Today you're just gross. You know that cringing feeling you get when someone is sneezing uncontrollably, hacking like a barking seal or blowing their nose a little too often and a lot too loudly?

Sandy in the next cubicle has moved past cringing and is applying hand sanitizer to her face. And guess who she's going to blame if she gets sick?

Saving it for later

Yum! Half of a big crusty bakery muffin and the remains of that Paprika Maple Latte that you might want to finish later (if you decide you really do like it after all).

Define "later." If later will occur within the next hour, by all means keep the muffin (which can't be that good or you would have scarfed it down already) and your red flecked drink to the side on your desk. But put the muffin back in the bag and keep a lid on the latte. And they had better be from this morning, not last week.

Leftovers are bad enough in the fridge, left on your desk they will colonize. And mold is bad for business.

Engaging your imaginary friend

We all talk to ourselves occasionally. "You are parking the car in Row G," "Paper towels, bananas, peanut butter..." It keeps us in the moment and helps us remember song lyrics.

The trick is to keep the conversation private. Between you and you. If you say it out loud, it's between you, Sandy (who's still ticked off about all the sneezing) and whoever happens to walk by.

Sleeping on the job

Unless Human Resources handed you a pillow along with your ID badge, you should assume that sleeping is not a part of your job. 

While midday siestas are acceptable in many European and Asian countries and have even proven to increase productivity, they are still newsworthy in the U.S., meaning that workplace napping is not the norm. 

Yes, if you angle your chair just so, chances are no one will notice the occasional head bob when you jerk awake from a quick snooze. But better that you master your TV recorder and watch late night shows when it fits with your natural biological rhythms.

Sneaking one little kiss/hug/squeeze

He picked you up for lunch at the office. This is serious. He's met your boss. Could your friends and parents be next? It's not like you'd ever actually make out in your cubicle. You've read the articles at and know better. But you're in love! Just one little kiss? Risky. Pick the wrong moment (or the wrong guy) and your private moment will go viral.

There will be a strange and sudden hush when you walk into the break room. People will snicker. Just keep in mind that your sofa is in your living room and that your cubicle is on company property and you'll be fine.

Cursing up a storm

From the back of the bus in middle school, a well-timed swear word may have given you an aura of maturity (as long as the bus driver didn't overhear and reassign you the seat directly behind him), but at work or in any professional setting, cursing is viewed as unpolished behavior.

If you can't control your own language, how does your boss know you're capable of steering that marketing project to the next level? Come up with alternate word choices and practice saying them instead. Eventually, they'll become new word habits that will work in your favor, not against you.

Listen to your conscience

Not sure if something's a desk do or a desk don't? Use common sense and enlist your conscience.  The little voice that said "don't" to uploading your Lady Gaga dance moves to Facebook is your friend.  It wants you to win at work and in life.  Listen to it. 

And Be Prepared...

So a coworker or boss criticized your messy work space. The silver lining is simple: at least you have a job. But if you're going for a performance review soon and asking for a raise, you'll need to be thoroughly prepared. And can help.

The first thing you should do is research, so you're able to come to the table armed with the knowledge of what your job is worth. Use our free Salary Wizard below to find out what's a fair salary for your position. You can enter your location, education level, years of experience and more to find out an appropriate salary range before you negotiate.

Good luck.