What does your work space say about you?

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Q: Can my boss make me clean up my work space?

A: Yes, he can. You don’t own the space, the furniture or the equipment. You are like a long-term guest in a hotel and need to live by the rules.

When I worked at Mercer HR Consulting in San Francisco we were allowed to do pretty much what we wanted to our offices and cubicles, but there were still some rules. Equipment meant for the group had to stay in the workroom; work papers needed to be organized so that a co-worker could find what was needed in case of your absence; and microwave popcorn and pungent foods were banned.

These were reasonable and easy rules to live with but we still had a few people who took things to extremes. When your workspace causes problems for the employee community, the boss needs to step in and fix it. Even though we had no real rules for workspace cleanliness or décor, there were times when the boss had to ask an employee to make some changes.

My co-worker Jill did fantastic work, but her office was stacked high with paper and mementos. No sunlight came in because her window was blocked, the chairs were buried under paper and books. It was pretty amazing. Several people saw Jill’s office as a safety hazard.

Mike was the other extreme. He kept his cubicle and work very tidy but his walls were covered with a changing display of photos that ranged from a two-headed calf to a snake eating a rabbit. And he had a small “display of the week” set up right inside his cubicle door.

Mike was nicknamed “Carnival Boy” for a reason; he did great work but some people objected to his unusual and very visible carnival freak show of a cubicle.

Management’s solutions for both situations respected the individual qualities of Jill and Mike and took into consideration the concerns and complaints of their co-workers.

Two organizers were hired for a week to get Jill’s office in shape. Some things were tossed, but most of it was boxed, labeled and stacked in her office.

Mike was allowed to continue his displays, but his cubicle was re-positioned to minimize the visual jolt that came with some of his more revolting displays.

In any workplace you need to accommodate different personalities, tastes and cleanliness standards. Some bosses make it simple and take a military approach that doesn’t allow any personality or variation in the workplace.

Others let creativity and freedom flow — but with freedom comes conflict.

As long as your boss applies the same standards and rules to everyone, you can’t complain. If your work space is attracting ants or critters, it needs to be cleaned and kept clean. If you have stacks of stuff ready to fall on someone, you need to fix that.

Photos are a matter of taste, but if you have photos up that could be considered offensive it is better to take them down than create a problem.

You can take a stand for a messy office, but a job and a happy boss would be my preference.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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