- Flickr/John Lambert Pearson
- Having a cluttered desk or inappropriate items in your workspace could be making a bad impression on your colleagues or employers.
- Here are 12 things on your work desk that are making you look unprofessional.
Others, like the people who actually work with and beside you, might find your mess less than endearing.
And beyond clutter, items that are varying degrees of inappropriate and downright disgusting are among the biggest workplace offenders, according to the human resources professionals we interviewed.
Here are a dozen desk “don’ts” that make you look less than professional.
1. An avalanche of dishes and food containers
Bringing your lunch to work is commendable. But leaving a week’s worth of crusted-over food containers and half of a mug collection in your workspace is atrocious.
“Keeping a lot of items you use for eating scattered all over your desk shows a lack of time management and a lack of respect for your coworkers and the shared office space,” said Jodi Barbarino, a director of HR and recruitment in Miami.
2. A swarm of sticky notes
In a 2017 survey conducted by the staffing firm OfficeTeam, more than half of the senior managers interviewed for it said that “having a messy or disorganized workspace” was the “most distracting or annoying” thing about employees’ work areas. And one of the easiest ways to create visual insanity is to accumulate so many sticky notes that you can barely see the surface of your desk anymore.
A better strategy: invest in a portable notebook and pen you love, so you’ll use them all the time to keep all your important reminders in one place.
3. Suggestive pictures or calendars
You wouldn’t need to decorate your cubicle with explicit images in order to be inappropriate in the eyes of your managers and colleagues. Barbarino said to second guess anything remotely sexy or suggestive.
“Even if they’re cartoon images, they can be very offensive, and if sexual in nature it could be treated as sexual harassment,” she said. Yes, that even includes pictures of yourself scantily clad, say, at the beach.
4. An open purse
This one is tricky. If your office doesn’t provide a closet or any other proper place for your purse, you might be inclined to leave it on your desk – after all, it’s better than the floor.
But Barbarino advises against keeping it there, and especially keeping it open. “It looks careless and invites fraudulent behavior,” she said. See if your company will allow you to hang a purse hook under your desk.
5. Anything to elevate your monitor that wasn’t built for the task
- Flickr / Lauri Rantala
Resting your monitor on a pile of books not only looks unprofessional, but it makes for a pretty unstable surface. Even worse are reams of printer paper or stacked boxes of business cards used as risers. “They’re an eye sore,” Barbarino said.
You’re better off just asking your office manager to place an order for a real monitor riser from Staples.
6. Political paraphernalia
- Alex Wong/Getty
In politically fraught times, you may be more passionate than ever about the people you want to vote in or out of office, and about the issues that matter to you.
But even if you don’t evangelize at work, simply keeping political pamphlets, posters, pins – basically anything promoting your affiliation – on your desk runs the risk of making you look inappropriate in the office.
“We had one associate who had his overhead bin filled with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys of various kinds,” said Tracy Tibbels, an HR manager at Werner Enterprises and disciplines panelist for the SHRM. “It was a little overwhelming for those who walked past his cube. Management’s perception of this was that he was not ready to move to the next level in his career which led to him being passed over for a promotion into a leadership role.” Tibbels said toys can make you seem immature and tarnish your professional image.
8. Scattered toiletries
- Business Insider/Jeff Dunn
Unless you’re in the business of product testing, items like deodorant, makeup, and toothbrushes have no place on your desk and can even be unsanitary, according to Barbarino.
“While your appearance is important, it shouldn’t be the main focus. Toiletries laying out give the impression you care more about your looks than your job,” she said. If you need to have this stuff on hand for after-work outings, keep a bag of grooming supplies in your desk drawer.
9. A pack of cigarettes
- Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Some of your colleagues might find the very act of taking a cigarette break to be unprofessional, so that pack of Camels on your desk isn’t doing you any favors. But the smell of cigarettes – even unlit ones – could also create an issue for your office mates.
10. Solo cups
Big, red plastic cups are for beer pong, not boardrooms. “Solo cups look immature, especially for recent graduates,” Barbarino said. “Since they’re associated with alcohol, employees will wonder if you’re drinking at your desk or if the cup was left over from an office party. Both make you look sloppy.”
11. Seasonal decor that remains up all year round
- Hollis Johnson
Okay, so you love Halloween. But gourds and ghouls are only appropriate in the fall, according to Nicole Belyna, a recruitment manager at Thompson Creek Window Company and talent acquisition panelist for the SHRM. Keeping decor up after it’s relevant will make you look overzealous at best and lazy or neglectful at worst. Be festive, not forgetful.
12. Outrageous oddities
- Wikimedia Commons
“The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen on anyone’s desk was a faux lion’s rug with a severed ear ornament sitting in the mouth,” said Mark Marsen, a director of HR at Allies for Health + Wellbeing and disciplines panelist for SHRM – and he admits that bizarre rug is in his own office. “Our definition of professional is unique,” he said.
The lesson? Every work environment is different. Know yours.