How to Handle a Coworker Who Uses Your Desk or Computer


In modern open office designs the workspace is a common area rather than the clearly defined borders of a cubicle farm. Humans are creatures of habit and we like to follow familiar patterns. People sit in the same seats at regular meetings, we follow the same path between locations, and we think of office equipment as ‘ours’ even when it is in a shared space. When we come back to our workstation and find our stuff moved, the keyboard feet flipped or our chair adjusted we feel our privacy was violated.

You need to set clear boundaries for the irritating coworker that uses your desk or work computer while you are away. The simple rule for inconsiderate coworker behavior is to be direct: tell them what actions you find annoying and unprofessional and ask them to stop.

Each workplace has their own culture for what is normal and expected. Conventional organizations typically have clearly defined boundaries while many startups are adopting a fully communal workspace with no assigned locations. If you are uncertain how resources are viewed within your team you should ask an experienced coworker or your manager.

Why Coworkers Are Using Your Desk or Computer

We have all gone to someone’s desk only to find out the person we were looking for is not around. Everyone would agree that borrowing a pen or a sticky note to leave a message is totally normal and acceptable if the items are visible on the desktop. But what about opening the pencil drawer to look for office supplies? Is it OK to open a drawer looking for a stapler? Everyone has different personal boundaries even when it comes to ‘their stuff’ even when the items are available to everyone in the supply cabinet.

The situation is a little more complex when a coworker decides to occupy your assigned space. We take pride in having our name on our workspace and think of our workstation as ‘ours’. Its natural to feel uncomfortable when you discover someone has used your workspace and it is not how you left it, even when you have nothing but business items present.

Always follow good security practices, including locking your account when you step away from your computer, don’t bring valuables to work, and secure any personal items.

Maybe your company works more than one shift and noise from the cleaning crew makes their normal work area unbearable at times, or more commonly there is a general shortage of office space for the current staff and employees are looking for any available space to work quietly. Crowed break rooms and cafeterias also drive people to look elsewhere for a space to relax.

The era of desktop workstations is fading, many employers are going to company issued laptops with a docking station to use with larger displays. Most employees spend more time using computers at work every day than they spend at home with their families, so your computer becomes very personal. You have your menus and shortcuts configured the way you want them and even the thought of someone touching your keyboard and mouse can cross personal boundaries or seem like an invasion of privacy.

Find Out Who Is Using Your Workstation

Your workspace belongs to your employer and your company can determine how they want to utilize their resources. As an employee you can make your opinion known but ultimately the ‘acceptable use’ of a workstation comes down to direction from leadership. Most companies have a mix of shared terminals (for example computer stations on the production floor) and private computers in assigned offices or cubicles.

For recurring events your first challenge is to find out who is using your desk without making it into an inquisition. Keep an open mind and be friendly as you ask around – until you know otherwise you should assume there is a reasonable and benign explanation.

Discuss The Annoying Behavior With The Person Using Your Work Area

Once you find out which person or group is using your work area make an effort to have a face to face conversation. It is very difficult to convey tone in an email and signs can be received as passive-aggressive. Most problems are simple misunderstandings – have the conversation with your coworker that is using your stuff and see if you can find common ground. They may have circumstances that are driving their actions that you don’t know about and they certainly don’t know how it is affected you until you tell them.

Try to be understanding and come to an agreement with your colleague, be sure to set clear expectations that align with your company culture and your team environment. You want to be an employee that handles their own issues without running to management with every minor grievance.

How to Get Coworkers to Respect Your Work Area

You need your coworker’ cooperation to stop the annoying actions that bother you, so the direct conversation is the most effective approach for items that are already happening. Approach the problem as an interpersonal issue between colleagues and handle it with professional courtesy. But there are many items under your control to minimize the number of people drawn into your workspace.

Make Your Workspace Less Appealing: Start by removing visible items like office supplies. Put them in a drawer or cabinet and only take themout when you need them. Especially get rid of any candy or snacks. Nothing draws people at work like the possibility of free food.

Claim Your Personal Space: Turn your seat to face away from the entrance and put an item of clothing over the back of your chair. People are much less likely to intrude on your personal space when it looks occupied. This setup also helps avoid unintentional eye contact with people passing by when you are there so you can work with less distractions.

Clean Up After Yourself: If you do choose to eat snacks or lunch at your desk, dispose of the waste in the breakroom or elsewhere but not in your desk trash. When people see these items present it makes it more acceptable for them to do the same.

Secure Your Computer and Personal Items: Take precautions to lock your computer whenever you leave your desk and either take personal items like headphones home with you everyday or put them in a secure location, like in a locked cabinet or drawer.

When To Report Problems To Your Manager and HR

Workplace privacy is one area where employee expectations frequently do not match up with legal realities. Courts have consistently ruled that employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace on company property. Your employer can monitor your emails and internet usage (including keystroke monitoring, screen recorders) as well as reading any and all files on their company equipment or transmitted on company networks. Employers also have wide latitude to conduct physical searches of work areas, lockers, and even personal belongings in the workplace. The legal criteria and protections vary by state and for private vs public employers so it is important to understand your specific local regulations.

In general, annoying behavior that doesn’t interfere significantly with your work productivity should be handled between coworkers, but there are situations where involving your manager and/or human resources is warranted.

My Coworker Read My Email or Went Thru My Desk: Now it is one thing to login to someone else’s computer using your own credentials and a completely different different situation to access another person’s account, either thru an unlocked terminal or otherwise. Even though it is probably not illegal, a coworker accessing your email or going thru your desk is unprofessional and may directly violate company policy. Report occurrences to your manager if you are certain but be careful about making unfounded accusations.

Theft of Personal Items: The general rule is you shouldn’t bring anything to work that don’t mind losing. I’m still amazed by people that are comfortable leaving their wallet just sitting on their desk. Cell phone chargers, personal fans, and even earbud headphones sometimes go missing. It may not be a significant loss for you but you should still report the occurrence because it may be part of a larger pattern.

Damage to Company or Personal Property: If you were not able to reach an understanding with the coworkers using your area, they may be offended and feel the need to lash out with pranks that can sometimes have destructive consequences. Don’t retaliate with your own unprofessional behavior, de-escalate the situation and report it to your manager.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of ExpertEmployee.com. Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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