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Build Your Career Office Life

12 Cubicle Etiquette Do's and Don'ts

12 Cubicle Etiquette Do's and Don'ts
Working side by side in cubicles can be stressful. Here's how to be on your best behavior. / Credit: Cubicle image via Shutterstock

Working in a cubicle can be a tough endeavor. From a lack of privacy to noisy neighbors, getting your work accomplished in such cramped confines can sometimes be a difficult chore.

Workplace expert and president of the human resources training and consultant firm Sutton Enterprises Diane Floyd Sutton said working in a cubicle presents employees with challenges on a daily basis.

"One of the challenges is how co-workers with different personalities, working styles and preferences and from different cultures can work successfully in a cubicle environment," Sutton said.

Lynne Sarikas, director of Northeastern University's MBA Career Center, said in order to make the working environment productive for everyone involved, it is critical that employees be respectful of those around them.

"Bottom line, common courtesy and respect will go a long way in ensuring a peaceful coexistence with your fellow residents of cubicle land," Sarikas told Business News Daily.

To help cubicle workers be as productive as possible, Sutton, Sarikas and several other etiquette experts offer 12 tips on how to act when working in such an open environment.

Minimize hallway conversations

While it can be convenient and productive to have a quick work conversation in the hallway with a colleague, Sarikas said they can be very distracting to employees working inside their cubicles.

"This has implications for confidentiality, but can also be disruptive to those trying to get some work done," Sarikas said. "Be mindful of the potential for disruption and step to a convenient conference room or to a general corridor away from the cubicles."

No eavesdropping

Cubicle workers should avoid listening in on their peer's conversations or checking out what's on a co-worker's computer while that person is gone, Sutton said.

"Never read someone’s computer screen or comment on conversations you've overheard," she said. "Resist answering a question you overheard asked in the cube next to you."

No pop-ins

Rather than just stepping inside a co-worker's cubicle, employees should act like there's an invisible door stopping them, according to Ann Marie Sabath, founder of At Ease Inc. and author of Business Etiquette: 101 Ways to Conduct Business With Charm and Savvy (Career Press, 2010)

"If you are passing by another's cubicle and would like to stop in for a moment, it is appropriate to do so either when the person makes eye contact with you, isn't on the phone, talking with another or doesn't look as though he or she is deep in thought," Sabath said. [Having Friends at Work Leads to Longer Life]

Keep quiet

Since employees can hear what's going on in the cubicles around them, Rachel Wagner, president and founder of Rachel Wagner Etiquette and Protocol, advises workers to keep the sounds coming from their cubicle to a minimum. She said that means using earbuds when listening to music, picking up the phone after one or two rings, tuning the ring volume on their phone to the lowest setting and avoiding screensaver sound effects.

"When away from your cubicle, set your phone to take voice messages," Wagner said. "If leaving your cellphone behind while you go down the hall for coffee, place it on off or vibrate."

No confidential meetings

Sabath said employees should avoid discussing personal and confidential matters in their cubicles.

"Confidential matters are just that — confidential," she said. "Whether you are discussing a salary increase with an employee or are discussing late payment with a customer, be sure to keep these matters between the two of you."

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No speakerphone

One of the biggest distractions for employees working in cubicles can be when a co-worker nearby uses their speakerphone to make or answer a call, Wagner said. If the speakerphone is necessary, she advises employees to find somewhere more private to use it.

"Avoid putting conference calls, or any call, on speakerphone," she said. "Most conference rooms are set up with a phone in which conference calls can be placed."

Pleasant fragrances

Just as noise easily travels between cubicles, so do fragrances and odors, Sarikas said. She advises cubicle workers to not wear a strong fragrance to work, as they can be very irritating to colleagues with allergies. 

"Also avoid unpleasant odors in your lunch choices or save the stinky fish for the lunchroom, not your desk," Sarikas said. "Whatever is in your cubicle doesn't stay there — others will smell your choices and could be bothered by them."

No personal grooming

Wagner said to avoid grossing out those nearby, employees should find some place more appropriate than their cubicle to tend to their grooming needs.

"Use the restroom — not your cubicle — for personal grooming, such as clipping nails, fixing the chip in your manicure, or flossing your teeth," she said.

Don't assume a co-worker has time to talk

When visiting a peer's cubicle, Sabath said it's important to tell the person in one or two sentences what you would like to talk about.

"Then ask the person if he or she has the amount of time you need to discuss it," Sabath said. "For example, you could ask, 'I have a few questions about XYZ project. Do you have 10 minutes to discuss it?'"

Inside voices

Since even the best cubicles are not completely soundproof, Sarikas said cubicle workers must be conscious of the volume of their voices, whether they are speaking to someone in their cubicle or on the phone.

"You do not want to share your conversation with the entire row of cubicles and you don't want to disrupt their work," she said. "You also don't want to be distracted by their conversations and calls." 

Hands to yourself

Sutton said employees need to respect their peers by not taking things from cubicles without asking first.

"Keep your hands off a cube dweller's desk," she said. "Just because there's no door doesn't mean you can help yourself to their paper clips or stapler."

Be professional

When working in a cubicle, employees must recognize that they are expected to be professional at all times, Sabath said.

"That includes having incoming and outgoing personal telephone calls be the exception rather than the rule," she said. "That also includes having too many personal knickknacks that look more like clutter than symbols of the professional you aspire to be.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.