Elizabeth had a coworker who loved essential oils. She used them for treating pain, elevating moods, and preventing illness. But poor Elizabeth was allergic to some of the scents, so she never knew if she’d spend her day sneezing or be able to breathe at all. What Elizabeth’s coworker failed to recognize was a basic tenet of cubicle life: even though three short walls surround you, you’re not alone.
“Common courtesy and respect will go a long way in ensuring a peaceful co-existence with your fellow residents of cubicle-land,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the Graduate Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston.
When you work in a cubicle and can’t easily see the rest of your office, it’s easy to forget that what you do in your semiprivate 75 square feet doesn’t stay in your cubicle. So do your coworkers a favor and take some time to learn these four simple rules of cubicle etiquette.
Keep your smells to yourself.
Just like Elizabeth’s co-worker, you may have a scent you love and want to wear. But remember that you’re not working alone, and scents may hurt your officemates. If you work near others, it’s a good rule of thumb to leave the perfume, cologne, essential oils, smelly lotions, and other scents at home. You never know who’s allergic—others might not even know they’re allergic until your smell hits them. Be courteous to your officemates, and keep your cubicle unscented.
Perfumes and other scented products aren’t the only ways you can impact your coworkers’ olfactory nerve. Not everyone shares your taste in food or food smells. Avoid eating highly scented foods—like tuna and garlic—at your cubicle. Be kind to your coworkers and keep your strong-smelling food at home.
Remember, voices (and other sounds) carry.
Do you want your colleagues to know about your potentially embarrassing or personal medical problems? Do your officemates love your music choices? And do you think your cubicle will contain the sound of your nail clippers? Your cubicle walls aren’t soundproof, and you should never treat your cube space as a private area. Because you probably don’t want your coworkers to know about your medical history, and you never know if everyone shares your taste in classic country western music. And let’s be real—no one likes to hear the click, click, click sound of you cutting your fingernails—or (cringe) your toenails. Keep your cubicle a quiet and professional space unless you want everyone to know your business or want to irritate your coworkers.
Ask before you take.
You can’t find your stapler anywhere. Or you’ve got a hot lunch date but realize you’ve got dog breath. You know one of your co-workers will have what you need—so it’s OK to rummage around their personal space without asking, right?
Answer: No. Just because the space is shared doesn’t make everything community property. Unless officemates have already told you it’s okay to rummage around their desks, you need to keep out. Even though you all work for the same company and share office space, riffling through someone else’s things is still an invasion of privacy.
Knock, and don’t prairie dog.
Though your cloth-covered walls aren’t floor to ceiling and there’s no door, a cubicle is still a personal space that you shouldn’t invade without first announcing yourself. A good rule of thumb is to pretend every cubicle has a door. That means no barging in. And no prairie dogging—i.e., popping your head over a cubicle wall—or throwing things over walls to get a coworker’s attention. If you need to speak to a colleague, announce yourself with a knock and ask if the person is available to talk.
When you work in a cubicle, you’ve kind of got your private space. But you need to remember that you’re not alone. So maintain a good relationship with your coworkers and keep your cubicle unscented, bear in mind that sounds carry, ask before you take anything from colleagues’ desks, and don’t barge in on your office mates. We’ve all got to work together to make the workplace a place we want to come back to every day.