how to deal with a supply-stealing, boundary-violating coworker

A reader writes:

I currently work at a nonprofit and have been in my department for a year now. While I love my job, I am struggling with a coworker who does not know boundaries.

Quick background: I’m in my late 20s and look young, and my coworker, who helped train me but has the same position and title as I do, is much older, in her 50s, and has worked at our organization for over seven years. While she is a very nice person, she’s done some things that make me feel uncomfortable. It first started when I noticed certain things missing off of my desk, like my personal office supplies, and found that she had used them and taken them to her desk (this would be fine if she’d ask and bring them back, but she didn’t ). Another time, while I was working, she came over and, without asking, took a production schedule I had pinned to my cube wall off and walked off with it. The few times I’ve asked her if she could ask first before taking stuff off of my desk space, her response is usually a dismissive, “No, it’s okay.”

I also rarely take personal phone calls at my desk, but once in a while need to take a call with access to my computer screen (doctor appointments, financial planning, etc.) and try to do it at lunch time and as fast as possible. After some calls, my coworker has turned around to ask far too personal questions about them, like why I was going to the doctor and for what. I’ve tried to take as many calls as possible away from my desk, but it is sometimes difficult to get around that, and I know she’s always listening and ready to ask questions.

I’ve thought about bringing this up to our manager about her lack of boundaries, but he seems to put up with her and lets things slide—sometimes if he stops by my desk to ask me a question, she’ll butt in loudly to ask what we are talking about, and he normally laughs it off. I don’t know if I’m the one being uptight over all of this, but it’s made me increasingly uncomfortable, especially since her boundary breaking makes me feel like she’s treating me like a child. Any suggestions?

I would not bring this up to your manager. It’s really an interpersonal issue that isn’t impacting your work — it’s just annoying you. In the scheme of things, it’s not significant enough that you should take it to your manager, irksome as it is. You want to look like someone who handles your own stuff and doesn’t involve your manager in interpersonal things unless it’s really warranted.

Instead, you need to be more direct with your coworker if you want it to stop.

That means that the next time she takes something from your desk, you should say, “Please don’t take things from my desk without asking or bringing them back afterwards. I’m often counting on them being there.” If she brushes you off and tells you it’s no big deal, say, “Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal, I’d appreciate you humoring me on this. It really bothers me when things disappear from my desk.”

And the next time she asks you questions about a personal phone call, refuse to play along: “That was a personal call. I’d rather not discuss it.”

Keep in mind that while her taking things from your desk is something you can’t stop without her cooperation, whether or not you answer personal questions about your calls is 100% within your control, even if she keeps asking forever.

If you’re worried that telling her to cut this stuff out will cast a chill over your relationship with her, you can counter that by making a point of being warm and friendly to her the rest of the time, as long as she’s acting appropriately … but if you want this stuff to stop, you’ll have to tell her.

In fact, that’s the rule for most coworker annoyances: If you want them to stop, you have to say so.

If you try this and she continues anyway … well, you have an annoying coworker. She won’t be the last.

But in the scheme of things, this isn’t vastly out of the normal range of coworker annoyances, so it’s also worth just trying to get a thicker skin about it if it continues after you say something. Not because you should have to, but because from a purely practical standpoint, it will make your life at work happier.

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. Ann O'Nemity*

    Ooh, this would drive me crazy. I really hate it when people take my things without asking.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Me too. At OldJob, people seemed to think the receptionist desk was also the office supply store. I would point at the supply closet and say, “We have tons of sticky notes in there, all sizes!” or the like, when people would borrow.

      Coworker’s dismissive attitude is the worst, and the manager laughing off her butting in shows that he isn’t a very good manager. I would not tolerate that.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    My first thought on reading this post: OP, you’re ahead of the game — at least you know who it is! (Everyone I’ve ever known who sits near a conference room has his/her stuff stolen on a regular basis — markers in the conference room out of ink? Just grab Jane’s! — and the owner of the stuff doesn’t even know whom they should ask to stop!)

    The next time she tells you “it’s okay” when she grabs your stuff, I’d respond as AAM indicates, and perhaps going so far as to say “No, actually, it’s NOT okay with ME.” Couple this, if you can, with a locking desk drawer for the items you most care about, so she physically can’t get at them when you’re not around. (Something tells me a person who says “it’s okay” when called out about taking stuff isn’t going to get a clue even if told flat out it’s not okay.)

    1. OP*

      OP here, I do have locking desk drawers, and these responses really helped remind me to put stuff I don’t want touched in there! We had a slow Friday, so that’s what I spent my lunch hour doing.
      In a perfect world, I suppose everyone knows boundaries, but hopefully these suggestions will work!

  3. Esra*

    The few times I’ve asked her if she could ask first before taking stuff off of my desk space, her response is usually a dismissive, “No, it’s okay.”

    I’ll be honest, my response here would’ve been: “No, it’s really not. /icy stare”

    Not everyone is comfortable with that though. Do you have a lockable drawer on your desk? That or a little lockbox could help with the things you feel really strongly about not having other people touch/take.

    1. Jamie*

      I’m with Esra – who says no in any context when being asked to stop taking stuff?

      OP said personal supplies and people tend to be more particular about those…so I wouldn’t keep anything there that wouldn’t fit in your locking drawer if it were me. It’s irksome when people take post-its off your desk, but it’s worse when they are HK post-its your kids put in your Christmas stocking.

      But yeah, as far as petty annoyances go this is pretty par for the course.

      1. Paula*

        Get your stuff back! Seriously, grab a box and give her a list of things she has taken that you want back. Stand over her while she collects them.

        klepto – oh I dont have time, …
        you: Ill wait


        you: i’m just grabbing back some of the things you’ve taken off my desk lately (grab an extra stapler for me)

        start taking some of her stuff off her desk, and see how she likes it. She’ll suddenly be offended at you, and then you can say “no, its ok”

      2. fposte*

        I sort of admire it, as a response–“It’s okay” is so wonderfully deflecting.

        I’d rather keep the responses to her incursions friendly, both because it’s easier if you have a cordial relationship and because it’s turning her own weapons back on her and thus rather satisfying.

        1. Henning Makholm*

          And it’s so brilliantly versatile. Caught speeding? “No, it’s okay”. On the train with no ticket? “No, it’s okay”. Bank doesn’t think you’re credit-worthy? “No, it’s okay”. Stopped at customs with your bag full of heroin? “No, it’s okay”.

          1. RJ*

            Heehee. We had a situation here at work where someone claimed that they held a particular certification because they were “grandfathered in” to it. Well, there was a grandfathering process when the certification first became available, but it still required that you follow the process, pay the fees, submit documentation, and earn continuing education. This person had done none of those things. So I decided to respond with “I was grandfathered in” to any request like the ones you mentioned, Henning.

            1. Cube Ninja*

              What scares me about this right here is that I am completely convinced that it would probably work here and there with no-one so much as questioning it. :)

  4. Gobbledigook*

    Just today my co-worker took something off of my desk when I wasn’t there that I had not had time to enter into a spreadsheet since yesterday afternoon. It does not impact her work at all, but she felt the need to have this data entered. I didn’t know she’d taken it until she turned around with a judgmental look on her face and said: “What is this name, I can’t read it” ugh, I know where you’re coming from OP, trust me. I mentioned to her that if she’d like me to enter the things in, just ask me and that my writing tends to be neater when I know other people are looking at it besides me. She replied with silence to both these things but whatever. That’s the reaction I expect after two years of working with her.

    I agree with Alison, nip it in the bud and be direct. make sure you don’t say it in too lighthearted of a tone because then she probably will not take you seriously.

  5. RJ*

    I used to have the cubicle closest to a conference room and I worked an afternoon shift. At least once a week, I’d arrive to find my chair missing. I finally put a dog leash around the chair base and hooked it to my desk. :)

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      GENIUS. I need to share this with my coworker who sits nearest the conference room and who HATES having his chair constantly stolen.

      1. RJ*

        It was quite entertaining indeed, Elizabeth. I wasn’t around to see the conference room stealers, but sometimes during the day, somone would attempt to scoot my chair over to another cubicle to talk to the trainer who sat nearby. I’d laugh and laugh when they came up short.

    2. Christine*

      LOVE that idea!! If a chair is at a particular desk, that means it BELONGS there and not up for grabs!

    3. Cath@VWXYNot?*

      This is excellent!

      My former boss would walk away with any pen I gave him to sign something with – including one very nice one I’d bought myself (I did eventually get that one back). I ended up buying one of those bank pen-on-a-chain gizmos and sticking it to the top of the filing cabinet right by my desk / his office door. Next time I asked him to sign something, he was astonished to be presented with this pen – apparently he was completely unaware that he was doing this!

  6. iseeshiny*

    You have my sympathy. I have a couple of coworkers like this and I have taken to hiding the things I really don’t want taken in my desk drawer and keeping a caddy of decoy supplies on my desk. Although

    As for the nosy questions, I’ve gotten in the habit of answering a question with a question. “Why do you ask?/What was what about?” It buys me enough time to think about my deflection, and even whether I really feel like deflecting (I will tell someone who asks that I’m not comfortable talking about my finances but I have no problem telling someone who asks that yeah, my pap smear came back normal and they told me to make an appointment in a year. Also I have no problem with giving misleading or bare bones answers to impertinent personal questions.)

    I would be careful about how direct you are, just because being “mean” to these kind of corner piddlers (and she is asserting her dominance over you with this behavior) can backfire, especially if she’s more senior than you. So sometimes it’s easier just to pick your battles.

  7. A Teacher*

    I’m really obnoxious with labeling because I teach school and kids and other teachers like to “borrow” stuff permanently. My staplers, whole punch, scissors, glue bottle, etc…all have labels (as in old address labels I got for free) on them. All personal stuff is labeled–and you know what, nothing goes missing that way (or very rarely in any case). Label your stuff and then you can say, oh hey there’s my stapler, I wondered what happened to it. She sounds passive aggressive, much like some of the teens I teach. Don’t allow that behavior and hopefully it will change.

    1. class factotum*

      I label anything I put in the fridge after my half-empty diet Dr Pepper disappeared one day.

      I hope is was just a mistake, but I also hope when that person saw the sticky note with the words, “I have ebola” on it on the next bottle I left in there that she got a little worried.

      1. Oxford Comma*

        If you want to make it sound a little more likely but just as scary, how about ” I have multi-drug resistant tuberculosis?”

      2. Kelly O*

        I believe it’s ThinkGeek that has the sandwich bags with a design to look like mold printed on them.

        You could also get a book with a title like “Communicable Disease and You: How to Cope” and then put sticky notes all in it. For bonus points, highlight things and dog-ear a ton of pages. Leave it in the middle of your desk.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Me too–I put a sticker on my stapler once that had a picture of Milton on it and the legend, “Get your own!” People laughed, but no one touched my red stapler. XD

    3. Ali*

      I have a teacher friend who does that too :) She got pencils from Oriental Trading that are engraved “I stole this from Ms. Lastname.”

      1. A teacher*

        Sadly, chairs, tables, rolling carts, and even file cabinets have to be labeled where I’m at…

        1. louise*

          file cabinets? Rolling carts I get–they’re just begging to be relocated, but file cabinets? Too bulky to steal!

      2. KellyK*

        What grade does she teach? I can see that engraving making the pencils *more* desirable to at least a few sixth and seventh graders.

  8. Dana*

    Next time you confront her with taking things from your cube and she say’s ‘it’s ok’ ask her ‘what’s ok?’, which will force her to acknowledge taking things from your space. This gives you an oppportunity to explain to her that while she might be ok with this type of behavior you are not.

    While she may be older than you and have more tenure at the company she is still just a co-worker. Setting boundaries in these types of scenarios is difficult for everyone, but if you can master this in your 20’s your going to be a much happier person in life for it. This situation is particularly benign, so think of it as practice for other more confrontational issues down the road. I guarantee if you handle this very directly with professionalism you will garner more respect from all of your co-workers.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    I am picking up on the fact that you work in a non-profit. I think that environment tends to be a lot looser environment than the for-profit sector.
    Sometimes there is an expectation of “sharing”. This can mean anything from office supplies to “life” stuff. Try to figure out if this is the culture of your work place. See what other people are doing and how they are handling similar situations. This just could be a “loose” environment where such norms are not expected.
    A friend of mine worked for a non-profit, when she found out her child had a birth defect. Her coworkers pitched in and helped her through the crisis. I would not expect that to happen in every workplace. It could be you have a similar work place where people just take care of each other. High familiarity brings on pen snatching and report lifting… “Oh, Donna won’t mind if I just grab this…”

    1. RaeLyn*

      Are you serious? You’ve had some crappy jobs if you think people in the for-profit sector can’t be as sympathetic and helpful to each other as people in the nonprofit sector. We had a coworker that had breast cancer and we each took turns sitting with her during chemo, and the company paid us while we were with her.

    2. Anonymous*

      I’ve never worked in a nonprofit but plenty of my workplaces have had a vibe like this. Private companies have been the worst/best in this regard – the whole “we’re all one big familyyyy!” thing and all that goes with it.

    3. OP*

      You are right NewReader, it is a pretty relaxed environment, and the department is really close knit, but the level of sharing really only extends to this co-worker. She doesn’t do it to others in our department and it seems only me. I suspect it’s because she helped train me when I first came in and sees me as a baby, which she sometimes refers to me as, which is a completely different rant for another time, but I suspect it is more of a domination, power thing than it is an indicator of the organization at large. It is annoying, but it’s not the end of the world, or making my work day unbearable though. I figure the tips here will help me out a great deal!

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For what it’s worth, small organizations — whether they’re nonprofit or for-profit — tend to have looser environments. It’s not something about nonprofits specifically … which I say because I hate the stereotype that nonprofits are somehow less professional. It’s generally about size more than anything. (Although of course there are looser-culture organizations of larger size too.)

  10. Anon*

    I like the idea of keeping decoy supplies on your desk. I keep the company-supplied stuff out on my desk and the personal stuff – a bedazzled stapler and cute paper clips or binder clips – in my desk drawer. It’s kind of hard to stop people from taking stuff off your desk. Each time I’ve come back from maternity leave, I’ve had to go around and collect expensive books and reference manuals, tape recorders, expensive pens, etc.

    Re: the tape recorder, I went to the office manager to ask for it back. She had the nerve to NOT want to give it to me, saying, “I thought it was “ours.” I said, “No, it’s NOT,” and snatched it off her desk.

    People are bold.

  11. Gobbledigook*

    You could take a cue from The Office and take all her supplies and put them in the vending machine? (Probably not a good idea).

  12. Anonymous*

    This statement “Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal, I’d appreciate you humoring me on this. It really bothers me when things disappear from my desk” is too gentle. When co-worker says “It’s okay” when asked not to steal from your desk, the correct response is “No, it’s not.” Use of the word ‘humoring’ suggests that this is some quirk of the OP’s that needs accommodating, not the standard of dealing with human beings, to wit: don’t steal stuff, especially when asked not to.

    I would also suggest pretending not to hear intrusive questions. No need to say ‘rather not discuss,’ which suggests that there’s some wiggle room there, where OP *might* feel inclined to discuss under different circumstances. If you pretend you didn’t hear the question, you don’t have to get into anyone’s face and you don’t need to provide info you don’t want to. And a behavioralist will tell you that it’s a great way to extinguish behavior.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I just think a lot of people won’t say those things because they’re too uncomfortable. I’d rather give them wording that they’re more likely to use, than to give them wording that they won’t use because it feels too aggressive.

    2. Gobbledigook*

      Interesting. I read it was using the word “Humouring” to make the situation about the OP to diffuse any potential defensiveness on the part of the co-worker.

      I tried to un-type the Canadian “u” from that word so it won’t show as a typo and it just feels wrong. I am a Canadian and I use u’s :-)

      1. -X-*

        But more seriously, was it your cubemate’s pen, or was it your organization’s pen that she had and was using?

        1. Lisa*

          Point taken. I have pens that are my client pens that I get from meetings with them. Its a hotel client, so they supply free pens per meetings held there anyway. Everyone knows to fork over their free pens to me now when we go there. The VP of the hotel once threw me his too when he saw everyone pile the pens in front of me. He asked why does lisa get all the pens, and I said, you guys have the best pens, I’m stocking up until the next meeting.

          1. AdAgencyChick*

            What? You GET pens from clients? Because one of mine steals my pen all the time! He’ll bring one to a meeting and it dies, or he forgets to bring one at all, so he just grabs mine. I used to get annoyed by this; now I just keep one company-purchased pen in my purse all the time, so that if I have to hand it over, it’s not like I’m giving him a nice pen that I lovingly picked out myself. (And if the office manager ever calls me out on taking company pens…my coworkers will back me up! Not sure why it’s always MY pen he grabs.)

        2. Hmm*

          Company pen – probably one she got from an internal promo. Nothing too special about it. I can’t return it because I’m a chewer. Stealing and chewing and putting it back is much worse than stealing and keeping in my opinion.

          I am ashamed.

          1. Long Time Admin*

            Dear Hmm,

            If it was your coworker’s personal pen that she bought and paid for herself, you owe her a new one. If it was a company Bic Stick, keep it, but don’t do that again.

            I once had a supervisor who was an office klepto, and I kept a couple of company supplied pens on my desk just for her.

  13. DA*

    “And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire…” – Milton Waddams, Office Space

    1. Esra*

      I could see the squirrels, and they were married

      I love that line. Love it. It sums up the character perfectly.

      1. KellyK*

        I always heard that line as “they were merry,” like the squirrels were frolicking.

        1. Esra*

          Haha no, that’s Milton’s deeply strange way of telling him there were two squirrels always doin’ it outside the window.

      1. Another anon*

        Okay, I was on John Milton and I just couldn’t figure the reference out. Thank you. :-)

  14. Ash*

    “If you’re worried that telling her to cut this stuff out will cast a chill over your relationship with her, you can counter that by making a point of being warm and friendly to her the rest of the time, as long as she’s acting appropriately … but if you want this stuff to stop, you’ll have to tell her.”

    I love this because it’s Psych 101 – operant conditioning. Train her by only being nice when she is “good”, and reprimand her when she is “bad”. It would be just like training a dog that has a bad habit. You only give them positive interaction when they are behaving in a “good” manner, and you give them no interaction when they are bad. It may sound cynical, but you can train people like you can animals. Sometimes it’s easier too.

    1. Eric*

      And the coworkers’ “no it’s okay” is classic psychology, too. Many people are socialized to back down at that sort of response, because it’s usually said when the person saying “no it’s okay” is being apologized TO.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Yep, I had a co-worker who used this kind of psychology.

        Me: Please stop taking my stapler.
        Her: No, it’s okay.
        Me: No, it’s not. It frustrates me when you take my things instead of going to the supply closet.
        Her: It’s okay for you to feel that way. Really, it’s okay.
        Me: No, it’s not! Wait, it’s okay for me to feel frustrated but not okay for you to take my things.
        Her: Good, I’m glad we’re both okay with this.
        Me: Wait, what?!

        And the entire time she would wear this calm, serene expression on her face with the tiniest half-smile that never reached her eyes.

        1. fposte*

          That’s what I’m thinking–this lady’s got serious game, and the OP’s going to have to bring it to compete.

        2. Gobbledigook*

          That is so manipulative! How can people be that manipulative on a daily basis over something as petty as office supplies and not feel guilty? It would not give me satisfaction to do that and slyly thing “haha I outwitted them again” I would just feel like an evil comic book character. The Staple Stealer?

        3. Hmm*

          I keep picturing the OP getting frustrated while this woman takes her under her arm and pets her head “shhhh. it’s okay… shhhhhh.”

  15. Jamie*

    Just a tip that may only work if you work mostly with men (as I do) but pink stuff is stolen less.

    Since I started buying only pink flash drives I get 95% of them back now…where as black I would never see again.

    My pink stapler never goes missing. If I forget one of my pink pens in the conference room it’s there when I go back.

    My favorite was when I replaced my little toolkit with a pink one. I was replacing screwdrivers/pliers to the tune of a couple a month before I went pink. I have had a complete and untouched tool kit for 3 + years now.

    I don’t know if the men just don’t want to be seen with my pink screwdrivers or if it’s a territorial thing since they are so clearly from my office they just respect the boundaries. Either way it totally works. And if someone ever took my pink stapler which is the best one I’ve ever had (first time I’ve had a stapler for months without breaking it) it would kick of the vendetta to end all vendettas. Or, you know, I’d just ask for another pink stapler.

    1. LCL*

      Yes to pink tools, that absolutely works! Or Scooby-Doo stickers or cute puppy stickers.

      You know, you can also get colored staples…

    2. Anon*

      I think it is that pink items are easy to notice – and the owner can easily say, “Hey that’s MINE!”

      My stapler is blinged out in pink rhinestones. If I see you with it, I will KNOW it’s mine and that you were all in my desk and found where I hide it.

      As for nice personal ink pens…I try to buy that stuff for home use only and just find the nicest pens possible in the supply closet. Pens are expensive, and I would be angry if they constantly disappeared.

    3. Marie*

      I do that too.. I go pink as much as possible.

      The person I’m replacing said her thing were always missing… I don’t have that problem…

      My boss does use my fancy post it, but since I get them at discount I don’t mind

    4. Dana*

      This is a brilliant idea, but sadly not for me. I work in fashion, if I used cute colorful office supplies, especially pink, they would be gone in a hot second. It’s the boring old black stuff that sticks around forever.

    5. Kathryn T.*

      I have a good friend who was an electrician when she was younger. She painted all her tools pink (including her crowbar) , and VOILA, they stopped getting “borrowed.”

        1. Long Time Admin*

          Haaaa haaaa! I’d love to paint some of my coworkers. With invisible-and-mute-effects paint.

      1. Anon in the UK*

        One of my aunts used to work in nursing, and had post-it notes and the like advertising various medications.

        The pen she gave me, advertising Viagra, has never wandered off my desk. Strange.

    6. Christine*

      Very clever idea!! Also love Anon’s bedazzled stapler idea. I’ll definitely put those in my back pocket for when I get a job.

      It’s interesting…any plain, ordinary office items are probably seen as up for grabs regardless of where you got them. But something personalized makes it clear that it belongs to someone, even if you don’t know who it belongs to.

  16. LCL*

    As regards the inappropriate personal questions, I always responded to these by giving an over the top outrageous answer. That will usually stop the person from asking again. Something like:
    “I’m arranging to have my body placed cryogenically in suspended animation so I need a doctor to help with that”

    “I want to be the first woman to father a child, this fertility doctor knows how to do that”

    ‘Implants! No, not that kind. I am going to get wing implants and be able to fly.’

    ‘I only appear to be in my late 20s, I’m really 957 years old, the doctors are studying me to find out how we can all live forever’

    etc. Just don’t be too mean, nothing like ‘allergies. My allergies are flaring up, Doctor thinks I’m allergic to personal questions.’

  17. Jackie*

    Tell her she is hurting your feelings by not respecting your personal space. If she doesn’t stop then ask her what her motivation is to continue to hurt your feelings by not respecting your personal space.

    1. fposte*

      I think that’s fine at home, but at work it doesn’t strengthen your case to bring hurt feelings into it, especially in this case since you don’t want to be the person renowned for having her feelings hurt about office supplies.

      1. Kelly O*

        Yeah, I would not want to start the “but you hurt my FEELINGS” conversation at work.

        For whatever it’s worth, I just keep my own stash of pens in my giant purse, and I carry them with me. Yes, at the end of the day, I put my pens back in a bag, toss it in my purse, and head home. I have a few generic things in my drawer, but nothing on my desktop. I am a freak about keeping my desk as clear as possible. If anyone wanted to take my stuff, they would have to get in drawers.

        I actually do the whole “clear desktop” thing everywhere. Home, work, even the desktop on my PC at home and at work.

    2. Ali*

      As another upper 20s/young-looking woman who works with mostly women my mother’s age and older…bringing “hurt feelings” into it is a sure-fire way to get them to continue to treat you like a child! OP, act how you want to be treated–like an adult.

  18. Anonymous*

    OP, it seems to me that you might be overly quick to assume that your coworker’s behavior is related to your youthfulness. Are you sure it’s even personal? I don’t get that vibe just on account of her nonchalance in these interactions with you.

    It also strikes me that you feel like she is treating you like a child while at the same time your instinct is to get your manager (i.e. an authority figure) to handle this fairly trivial interpersonal matter for you. Perhaps a little reflection is warranted on this score?

    1. Peaches*

      I don’t think that’s fair. I didn’t get that vibe from her at all. I am relatively new in the workplace and I have also had some co-workers automatically assume a motherly or superior type attitude. Others don’t, but it’s not a difficult thing to pick up on.

      I don’t like the generational enmity that is building amongst some people.

      1. iseeshiny*

        +1 I also did not get that vibe.

        Besides, regardless of whether it’s because of the age difference, the coworker needs to cut it out.

  19. Andie*

    In the words of Patrick Swayze from the movie Roadhouse……
    “Be nice until it is time to not be nice.”

    You have to set boundaries or those that cross the line will keep crossing it.

    Feel free to use my favorite line…..

    A & B conversation C your way out of it!

  20. cncx*

    I have arthritis in my hands and most of my pens are personally bought because the standard issue pens in offices are usually painful for me to write with. The easiest for me to write with are fountain pens or gel pens with a wide line. I also get my own notebooks- the thicker the paper, the easier it is for me to write on. So my personal office supplies are quite expensive comparatively but I do this because it is a cheap way to accommodate my arthritis without calling attention to it so double win.
    I worked in a company where everyone was a klepto. My pens walked off daily and people would rip chunks of paper out of my notebooks, or if it was new, take my pages out and keep the rest. It got to the point , after a couple of hundred dollars in pens and notebooks, where I locked my stuff up at night. If something went missing while I was in a meeting or at lunch, I did a sweep of the office the next morning and collected my errant stationery and pens. I feel for OP.

    1. Mike C.*

      I’ll bet that sort of thing would be covered under the ADA if it continues to be an issue.

  21. Elizabeth*

    The words that jumped out at me were these: “The few times I’ve asked her if she could ask first before taking stuff off of my desk…”

    With some people, asking them does not work. You have to just tell them. I have students like this – with most kids, I can say, “Karen, can you please collect the crayons,” and they will. But with a few, I have learned to say just, “Laura, collect the crayons.”

    1. Andrew*

      Yes, a little more assertiveness is needed here. Tell her to use her own supplies, and if instead she continues to take yours you should walk over to her desk and take them back, without asking her permission.

      For whatever reason, she is showing you a distinct lack of respect, and you need to push back. And, speaking as a 50-something, age is irrelevant. She has probably been doing stuff like this since she was in kindergarten.

  22. Trix*

    I’m very particular about pens and purchase my own for work – they’re just a certain type of uni-ball, so not expensive but more than most companies buy for their employees. Unfortunately they are “borrowed” all the time. I now either say “pen please” with my hand out if someone tries to walk away from my desk with one or I walk into their office, pick up the pen, say “you have my pen”, and walk away – always said in calm/neutral tone. In the rare case that I get a negative reaction I just shrug and tell them I have a thing about pens and I buy my own.
    I also label (with pink or green label tape) any other office supplies that I have purchased myself and follow the same process if they are “borrowed”.

    As for the personal questions, “why do you ask?”, with a smile, usually works.

    Is there any chance you could be moved so you’re not sitting so close to her? I would not tell your boss she is the reason that you’d like to move but that it’s too bright/dark/hot/cold/whatever where you are and the new spot solves that problem.

    1. Cassie*

      I’ve run (well, walked quickly) after people who left my cubicle with my pen. Nowadays, I have a couple of generic pens by my inbox which people use and put all the rest of my supplies in my drawer except for a few colored pens that I use. It’s kind of a hassle to have to open my drawer each time I need to staple something but it also lets me have a clean/minimalist desk.

      I don’t let people use my favorite pens (which I bought with my own money), just in case they disappear with them. I learned this in the 8th grade when I let a classmate borrow my cool pencil and I never got it back. I asked for it and he had already lost it. I was NOT HAPPY.

  23. Miss Displaced*

    Annoying yes. But from what the OP described it does not sound like this coworker is doing this out of some malicious intent, but rather just plain old dumb thoughtlessness.

    Yes, time for a heart to heart and let her know that you need to set some personal boundaries (as in “Don’t touch my stuff lady!”). As for the phone calls, I sympathize. I also work in a small office where every phone call is everyone’s business. All I can suggest is to walk out to the hallway or something to make the personal call. It’s a pain, but worth it if you value your privacy.

  24. Tiff*

    Wow I understand the occassional accidental klepto, but she sounds really brazen. I think someone who is that bold needs a bold response. Nothing rude, just very direct. And of course, delivered with a heavy serving of Raised Single Eyebrow.

  25. ITPuffNStuff*

    Call me a bit calloused, but I would be just fine with placing a chill on my relationship with a person like this. People who cannot respect others’ property are not the type of person I want to be buddy-buddy with anyway. I think my reply to her “no, it’s okay” would be more severe, something along the lines of “No, it’s NOT okay. These things are my personal property, and they don’t leave my desk without my permission, period.”

  26. Jen M.*

    This makes me nuts!

    I’ve come in a couple or mornings to find my desk has been rifled. It made me so mad! What I ultimately ended up doing was taking everything personal off my desk–even my French press and my coffee mug–and locking it in my desk. All that’s left on my desk when I leave work now is my generic supplies.

    I even took the issue to security. It feels very violating. Unfortunately, there was not much they could do besides take a report, since I don’t know who was doing it.

    It hasn’t happened again, though.

    Another thing that people do that makes me mad is they will come over and say “Can I use your phone?” Sometimes, they don’t even ask and start just walking INTO MY SPACE to get to my phone. My phone is not a public phone, just because I sit out in the open!

    I have learned to just stand up for myself and say, “Please use the phone in the conference room down the hall.”

    I hate how support staff are so completely disrespected in terms of boundaries.

  27. Jo*

    I can’t help but have this big hypothetical rant at OP’s coworker in my head, haha:
    “What the hell do you mean ‘It’s okay?’ It is not up to you whether it is okay. You gain supplies, OBVIOUSLY it benefits YOU! Of course you are okay. I am NOT okay with you taking my things. Do you expect me to sit here and be content with the fact I am continually losing my possessions?”
    That or
    “So theft of another person’s possessions is totally okay in your eyes?”
    That being said, I’d advise not ranting or reacting like I would.

    1. chikorita*

      Yep, same here! I’m the kind of person who would on the outside calmly sit there and say, “Can I have that back please?”, and on the inside of my head there would be a backdrop of my co-worker’s desk in flames… sans my stationery of course.

      But yes, I agree with everyone else, professional and assertive is the way to go. This is the kind of person who will push and push until you reach the end of your tether and push back. They count on you being too polite to push back.

  28. IronmMaiden*

    You could always turn “No, it’s ok” back on them when they ask the personal questions.

  29. Anonymous*

    If she takes something from your workspace while you are present simply respond by saying her name twice in an effort to get her attention (she probably will not stop), followed by saying “Hey, I need that to do my job! in a raised voice” (loud enough for other people to notice but not loud enough to get you in trouble) which will highlight both the fact that she impeding your ability to do your job (and therefore decreasing your productivity) and highlighting the harrassment aspect of what she is doing to your coworkers, which will affect her reputation. Then quickly follow her back to her desk and say “I need my ____ back” in a calm and assertive voice, if she responds “no it is okay” say “No, it is not” in an annoyed (but profesional) voice and take back whatever she took (make an effort to look haughty at worst not violent) and then quickly walk back to your desk. If she stares at you afterwords ignore her and if she tries to continue to have a conversation about it ignore her and if she gets to annoying simply respond “sorry, _____ I have work to do” (but do not bother to respond to her more then once out of every 3 times, so she does not get the impresion she is in an ongoing conversation). As for her questions about your phone calls just respond “it’s personal” and continue working (or eating) and ignore her. If she tries to continue the conversation simply respond you can not talk right now because otherwise you might not finish your lunch before your break is over and if it is not during your lunch just respond as above that have work to do.

  30. the only female*

    i use a spiral note book daily to jot down all the tasks i need to do and tick them off as i finish them. but ive also had to start writing down things that people take from my office, what time they took them out and if they brought them back or not before i leave in the afternoons.
    Im the only female in my whole office, a few co workers really have taken me under their wings but there is a mfdia movement that is trying to get me to leave by deleting my files from my pc ( im a document controller so these files are vital,) stealing my stationary, calling me a lier and theif because they cant find the petty cash receipts that they have removed from my desk draw.
    Latest issue i have is since returning back from medical leave which was 2 weeks ago, my whole office has been given to a new employee because supposidly his job is more important.

    I say, tell madam “its okay” to either co operate or you go ahead and collect everything she has stolen from your desk and them lock them up. Place a sign on your cubical that says ” if you steal my belongings, i will cutt your fingers off” its drastic yes but boy will it freak her out.

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