It’s a Cubicle, Not a Living Room: What to Bring to Your Workspace (and What to Leave at Home)

by Freedman, Elizabeth Friday, November 14, 2008
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If you’re reading this article at work right now, stop – at least, momentarily. Take a minute to stretch your legs, stroll around the office, and, oh-so-discreetly, check out what your coworkers have displayed in their respective work areas.

Notice anything interesting? As you glance from cubicle to cubicle, chances are that if you work in a typical office, you’ve just seen more than your fair share of knickknacks, trinkets and other signs of whimsy in the workplace. And if you’re like me, you don’t necessarily like what you see.

What’s the big deal, you ask? So what if we want to display our bobbleheads, needlepoint and irreverent posters on the job? After all, decorating a cubicle is a way to express our individuality and have a little fun – so what’s the harm?

Listen, I’m on your side, and the last thing I’d want for you (or me, for that matter) is less fun on the job. Still, even if you’re committed to hold on to the Jesus action figure resting gently beside your computer monitor until your last dying breath, hear me out, and consider the following Do’s and Don’ts to decorating your workspace professionally:
  • DO have a tastefully displayed photo or two of a significant other or your kids as a subtle reminder to your coworkers that you’re a person who does have a life outside the office. Photos of friends, fun vacation spots, or even pets are fine, too, within reason – but keep out the wacky party pics (like you winning the beer-drinking contest with your buddies last summer), and avoid plastering your cubicle with pictures of little Junior, especially if you’re a woman. Fair or not, overdoing the kid photos may put more emphasis on the ‘Mom’ in you to your coworkers than you’d like, rather than convey a more professional image.
  • DON’T assume that anyone thinks your ‘funny’ poster is funny but you. Even if you work in an enclosed office or other private space – and most of us don’t – remember that everything you display in your workspace is for public viewing. Many an employee has been undone by hanging a poster or sign that seems ‘innocent,’ only to be told by HR that their signage constitutes sexual harassment or is contributing to a hostile work environment. Fact: What seems funny to you may not be to someone you work with – and it’s not worth the time, effort, or risk to your career to deal with that headache.
  • DO let your workspace do the talking for you – within reason. Graduated from Harvard? Good for you – just leave the diploma off the wall, unless you want your coworkers secretly thinking you’re an egotistical blowhard – or at least someone who seems to need everyone else to know that he’s smart. On the other hand, if you’ve obtained a professional license or certification that’s required in order to practice (think doctor) then by all means, display away. In fact, the rest of us would be nervous if we didn’t see that license on your wall, so don’t be shy about hanging it up.
  • DON’T lose sight of the big picture. It’s called a cubicle, not a living room, and you’ve been hired to do a job, not play with the bobbleheads you brought in to decorate your workspace. This doesn’t meant that you can’t have the personal item or two, particularly if it’s going to impact your productivity or health (think small plant, Steven Covey book), but leave anything questionable out. If Britney Spears would wear it on a t-shirt, or if you’d consider buying it as a gift for your first-grade nephew, best leave it at home.
The bottom line? When it comes to decorating your workspace, tread carefully. Imagine that someone who doesn’t know you decides to pay you and your cubicle a visit – like the CEO. Unlikely, maybe, but what does your workspace really say about you? Does it say that you’re professional and ready to work – or something else? Don’t let your workspace do the talking for you, especially if it says, “I wish I lived at Toys ‘R Us!”

Sure, you might work for an organization where anything goes, and you’d be considered the odd man out if you didn’t have a disco ball hanging over your desk. On the other hand, you might work for an organization that tries hard to create a professional image inside the workplace, and may not look too kindly upon your impressive bumper sticker collection.

Ultimately, your workspace is another reflection of you on the job. How you choose to decorate it is another way to reinforce your professional reputation and brand– or detract from it. After working so hard to create a career you’ll be proud of, why let a few dumb toys get in the way?