How Far Can You Go in Decorating Your Cubicle?

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Your office or cubicle speaks volumes about you. So before decking out your desk in daring decor, consider if it might be making a massive misstatement.

Some employers have written guidelines about personalizing workspaces, while many others do not. What's appropriate is sometimes difficult to define.

But a survey of marketing and advertising executives uncovered objects that would strike someone as surprising in most office settings—a live pig, punching bag, mermaid sculpture, a pair of men's underwear, a rock collection, hair dryer, and a drawer full of clothes.

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"It's best to avoid off-color calendars, political posters, racy photos, and other items that can raise eyebrows," says Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based recruiting firm, which conducted the survey and released its results this spring. "Along the same lines, it's best to limit how many items you display. Filling your area with too many tchotchkes can be distracting." By doing so, "you may get passed over for important projects or promotions."

In one situation, a young intern did not exercise common sense, and it cost him dearly. He "displayed a semi-nude picture of his girlfriend on his computer screen and refused to take it down when asked," says Pat Imbimbo, director of the Starr Career Development Center at Baruch College in Manhattan. "The picture made other employees and clients uncomfortable and demonstrated poor judgment on his part. He was not hired."

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New employees should err on the conservative side. Observe how colleagues are decorating their work spaces before customizing your own. The company's culture or management tends to dictate the norm. "What is great at Google is not so great at a bank," Imbimbo says.

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Some decorations may be appropriate for an administrative employee but not for a managing director. For instance, an administrative assistant probably could get by with a larger collection of family photographs, plants or gadgets than a manager or a therapist. "Psychologists are not likely to display family photos," she notes, "in order to provide a more neutral environment for patients, who might be disturbed by these photos."

Aside from meaningful photos of family and friends, acceptable forms of decor include diplomas and award plaques, company-branded items such as mugs and T-shirts and stress-reducing finger fidgets, says Amy Polefrone, president of HR Strategy Group in Ellicott City, Maryland.

She advises against "naked baby" pictures because they "could cause perceptions of child pornography." And how many photographs would constitute too many? "This is a question of balance," Polefrone says. "Personally, I would not recommend more than three or four. It still is a workplace. But I have seen office doors and desks plastered with photos. Unless the pictures are offensive, an employer will generally not regulate this."

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Polefrone suggests steering clear of overly religious items, which could be viewed as "proselytizing" in the workplace, as well as postings with potentially racial, sexual or discriminatory undertones. If you have a side business selling cosmetics or other products, be sure to obtain management's approval before displaying these items, she says. The same applies to your child's school fundraiser.

In workplaces where employees share cubicles, the person on the first shift often gets "perceived seniority" in dominating the area with personal belongings. This isn't fair to workers on the second and third shifts. "Shared workspace needs to be dealt with carefully and equitably," Polefrone says.

A happy medium is your safest bet. "Extremes are not usually a good idea in most areas of work," Imbimbo adds. "Too much desk decoration might look like clutter and inefficiency, while none at all might make an office or cubicle look cold."

--Written by Susan Kreimer for MainStreet

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