should other people be allowed to use your office when you’re out?

A reader writes:

I have a private office. When I am out on travel, I get back to find out that visitors were allowed to use my office. Yesterday, when I got back, the door was open, my keyboard was moved, my chair was adjusted, and a pen was left there. There was an email midweek canceling a staff meeting because of visitors, so I am speculating that could’ve been why. But we have a visitor cube available for that purpose.

I’m extremely busy and I have sensitive information kept out. (I work for a large defense contractor and have been traveling a lot to support a “sensitive” project. Documents pertaining to that project were sitting on my desk.) I closed my door when I left and wasn’t expecting “visitors.” We do not have keys to our own offices, so I can’t lock it when I leave.

What is the standard office etiquette? Are private offices “open” for others when out? Is it reasonable to expect private offices be “private”? I’m mainly interested in what the general etiquette is concerning usage of offices before I say anything.

It really varies from workplace to workplace. In some workplaces, using someone’s office without their permission would be no big deal; in others, it would be tantamount to entering someone’s home while they were away, using their toothbrush, and sleeping in their bed.

So, as is often the case, it really comes down to what the norm is at a particular workplace.

However, in your case, the fact that you do sensitive work and might have sensitive documents around changes things — you have a legitimate reason for wanting to protect your space. I’d talk with your manager and say something like, “Is there any protocol for using offices when someone is out? It looks like someone used my office while I was away last week, and I’m concerned because I had a number of sensitive documents related to X out. Is there an alternative to that happening in the future?”

(Of course, the answer might be to put your sensitive documents away when you leave work, which might be good practice regardless.)

Alternately, if the issue wasn’t about confidential work material and instead was about just not wanting anyone in your space, then you’d approach it a little differently. You might say something like this: “How do we normally handle it when a visitor to the office needs a space to work? It looks like someone was using my desk while I was out last week, and I wasn’t sure if that was normal or not.”

Then, if the response is, “Yeah, we needed a place to put them and the visitor cube was in use,” then generally you’d suck it up and accept that it’s reasonable for your employer to use their own resources — which include the physical space where you sit — when it’s needed and you’re not there. The exception to that would be if you have some legitimate reason for why they shouldn’t, like the example of confidential documents above, or allergies so sensitive that the visitor’s lingering perfume is making you ill, or so forth … and in that case, you’d explain that and see if it can be handled differently in the future.

{ 129 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    In my experience, using an office is kosher. But making adjustments to someone’s chair is tantamount to a capital offense.

    If your work was classified it should have been secured prior to you leaving. Even with sensitive materials – if you didn’t secure it you should have made sure that nobody would use your office by sending an email, locking it, etc.

    Offices are few and far between where I w0rk and it’s not uncommon to duck into an empty one if you need to.

    1. Jessa*

      This, office/desk borrowing has an etiquette, and that etiquette is you be INVISIBLE to the original owner. Unless it’s a shift by shift share and you have made rules between you and your co-owner (which you should,) if you’re borrowing, you make as close to zero imprint as possible. And that ESPECIALLY MEANS do not screw with the chair (particularly if the chair belongs to the office holder and not the company.) Even if you have to use your phone and take a picture, leave nothing out of place.

      Ideally a person should be told – “Shuvon came from New Jersey last week when you were gone, you had the only open desk.” And you go “Huh? She used my desk? Okay.” Because you honestly could not tell.

    2. anon*

      “But making adjustments to someone’s chair is tantamount to a capital offense.”

      YES. It should be a universal rule that you do not mess with someone’s chair. Ever.

      1. Sourire*

        OMG yes! Along the same lines, if you borrow my car, please don’t eff with my seat settings any more than you have to. I get it, long legs vs short legs and all that, but all you need to do in that case is slide the seat forward and back. Messing with the seat tilt and back rest options gets me aggravated to the point of seriously considering never letting that person borrow it again. Which I know sounds petty, but my car has some kind of magic voodoo spell on it. Even when I get it back to how it was supposed to be, it still doesn’t feel “right” for quite a while.

    3. Kou*

      Agreed. I know people occasionally use my workspace so all sensitive materials I have are not only put away when I’m not at work, I lock them away if I’m so much as away from my desk. This is especially important because these are patient materials are there are HIPAA issues involved, it’s expected of me that I will be in charge of making sure these are not where anyone could get to them even if they were invading my personal space unreasonably. Since I know (and the LW knows) people will be there, we both need to make sure sensitive documents aren’t just lying around.

      1. Elaine*


        There are janitors and such as well–you can’t expect total office privacy in a workplace.

  2. De Minimis*

    At a former workplace, the expectation was that most people’s offices were fair game [other than the highest level people] and also that employees were supposed to secure any confidential information before leaving–not necessarily locking everything up, but putting it out of sight.

    1. Elaine*

      Absolutely–I used to work as a civilian for the Department of Defense. NO WAY should a contractor leave any sensitive documents out–that is by far the biggest problem with this post, not to ding the OP, but if her/his office doesn’t lock, he/she *must* get a locking drawer or shelf or whatever to keep these secure.

      I think it’s fine that visitors use empty offices–as long as the occupants are aware that this is a possibility (for reasons of courtesy).

  3. bob*

    If you’re working for a defense contractor and people have security clearances it’s highly likely your facility also has a clearance so it might be worth asking your FSO what the protocol is for that issue.

  4. Anon*

    Ditto on the putting stuff away but I don’t think that offices are fair game. We had a problem with a very high level staff member (VP) would pop in to my building because it was close to home and want to work for a while. Given the title, one of my staff put him in the biggest office. While the office holder wasn’t upset, we quickly put a stop to that. Guests from now on get to use the vacant offices, computer labs or classrooms. It was a privacy thing. HR documents and such.

    Given your job duties, I’d look into regulations regarding the care of classified materials. You may be required to get locks on those doors.

  5. Jessica*

    Could it have been an assistant or an IT person needing to get something done? I know every once in a while I need to let myself into my boss’s locked office in order to fix or find something crucial.

    1. Jamie*

      True. I have never changed a chair setting (can barely figure out how to do it on mine so once fixed it remains that way until I get a new chair) and I try to leave things as I find them except I always forget to move the mouse back.

      They come in and the mouse is on the left side they know I was there – like my own weird mark of Zorro.

    2. Parfait*

      Then they shouldn’t have adjusted the chair! Like Katie said above, that’s just NOT COOL. It took me days to get my chair just exactly perfect.

      1. Jamie*

        Yep. I accidentally did something once and locked my chair into some weird upright position and was freaking out because I had no idea how to unlock it. I am ashamed to admit I had to ask maintenance for help.

        Chairs and label makers are just beyond my ability to use properly. Once I accidentally changed the language on the label maker to Romanian and could NOT get it back to English. I finally had to give it back to the person I borrowed it from and admit my incompetence.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          Never be ashamed to ask maintenance for help. Make friends with the maintenance people and they’ll be more than happy to move their friend Jamie to the top of the list when she needs help. (At least, almost all maintenance people I’ve ever known were like that.)

          1. Jessa*

            Always, maintenance, cleaning crew, librarians, IT and front office staff are your friends. Make friends there and you’ll never have problems.

            1. Jamie*

              Our are so great they noticed once that I had a flat tire – I wouldn’t have known until I went to leave. (Stupid scrap metal place and their uncovered trucks – grrr)

              Anyway they were so awesome they insisted on putting the spare on for me – so the next day donuts and lunch were on me.

              (Not that I can’t change a tire, but what took them less than 10 minutes would have taken me forever.)

            2. cncx*

              all of these plus, in bigger offices, the ones who do the central mail. if you kiss up to them enough and you have a late DHL one day they won’t kill you and will actually pull strings to get the doc out. Been there.

              i’ve seen people get fired for being jerks to the cleaning staff. never underestimate the power of being nice to people who usually get treated poorly.

          2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

            I recently learned that maintenance people often *prefer* to be consulted on stuff you’d think they would rather others take care of. Because we’re all incompetent fools who mess stuff up.

            Seriously! A friend of mine got a talking to from his apartment building maintenance person because their tub had been clogged, and he put Drano down it. Turns out they had hella corroded pipes, and the Drano ate through them, causing a big leaky mess in the apartment below them, and they had to take out giant chunks of wall and piping. It wasn’t his fault, he had no way of knowing. But the lesson he took away was that very, very little is too small a deal to call a professional.

          1. Jamie*

            Ha!! Seriously I was so mad at myself and wasted way too much time trying to fix it because it was such a stupid error…if I had known you and Jen then I’d have absolutely put out a call for help!

        2. The IT Manager*

          Ha! I recently accidentially changed the langauge of my new mp3 player to some non-latin language. I had to google to find the steps to get back to the language menu.

        3. Jen in RO*

          Next time you can come here and ask! (I switched my phone to something like Chinese… it was not fun to get it back to normal.)

          1. CatB*

            See, that’s why back in the days of Nokia phones with real buttons I ALWAYS noted down or learned by heart the most useful menu shortcuts. Language options included.

  6. the gold digger*

    When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I used to return after lunch to find the agency director, who had her own office 30 feet away, sitting at my desk. She didn’t understand why this annoyed me so much – she just thought I was a territorial first worlder. I kept telling her that I would be more than happy to trade offices with her – I shared an office and the computer was in our office, so our three interns were always in there, too. (I could always tell when they’d been there after hours because I could smell the lingering smell from the cigarettes they swore they didn’t smoke.)

    She was not willing to trade offices, but just didn’t want to sit in hers and be all alone. That is, she wanted the prestige of having her own office but wanted the fun of being in the office with everyone else.

    1. -X-*

      “She didn’t understand why this annoyed me so much ”

      I don’t either. I can see it being a *little* annoying, since perhaps it adds a burden to you in terms of asking that person to leave, but I don’t see it as a big deal?

      1. -X-*

        Oh, I completely believe it annoyed you so much, so that person should respect that. I just don’t understand why.

      2. Jazzy Red*

        For some of us, it *is* a big deal. Especially if they’ve eaten at our desks, snooped through our desk drawers and calendars, and thrown their smelly food trash in our wastebaskets. And left food crumbs all over the place.

        I’m willing to share a lot of things, but I don’t like sharing my space. (Once upon a time, I shared a desk with 2 other people. Our boss did not see how wasn’t right.)

        1. -X-*

          Jazzy, there is no indication the person snooped through desk drawers and calendars or left food crumbs all over the place.

          But yes, I guess those things would be annoying. As would leaving dirty tissues on the chair, drool on the phone, and ink stains all over the monitor would be bad.

          Still doesn’t explain why someone sitting at the desk itself very annoying.

          1. Jamie*

            ink stains all over the monitor would be bad.

            Arghhhh! I have had to physically restrain people from pointing at things on a monitor with the tips of uncapped pens.

            For the love of all that is holy will everyone stop doing that???

            Sorry for the tangent – but it’s just barbarism!

            1. kf*

              My pet peeve is fingerprints. Please do not touch my monitor with your greasy fingers!

              1. Bonnie*

                Ha! Every monitor in this company has my fingerprints on it. That includes the big tv type monitors that we use for presentations.

                I just can’t help myself; I have to touch the numbers (I’m a CPA).

      3. the gold digger*

        It annoyed me because she was in my space. And she never acknowledged that this might be a problem. If she had jumped up as soon as I walked in the door and said, “I’ll get out of your chair now,” that would have been one thing. But I had to ask her to leave every single time.

        Maybe I’m more territorial than most, but it would never occur to me to sit at someone else’s desk. Never.

        1. Andrea*

          Me, neither. I am territorial about space and office supplies (which I buy myself because I’m particular about what I want) and such. I also like to keep my desk well-stocked with things I might need, including personal items like pills and snacks and stuff like that. (I share of course, but it’s not kosher to grab without asking.) It would bother me a lot if someone used my office, for all of these reasons and more, and I’d be annoyed if things were moved or adjusted differently as well.

        2. fposte*

          I’m the same way, but I also think it would be fair to call it “being a territorial first-worlder”–it’s a culturally inculcated preference that’s more common in some places than others. I don’t think that makes it inherently bad or good, though.

        3. LMW*

          I don’t have issues with people sitting in my space, but I do have issues with people moving my stuff…which they would pretty much have to do to in order to effectively use my desk. I hate finding stuff moved. My piles are actually organized. Ugh.

        4. -X-*

          Ahh — putting the burden on you by making you ask her to leave is not right. When you get back that person should get up and go.

          Sitting in the chair itself? If that annoys you it’s a territorial thing.

          1. The gold digger*

            Isn’t that a motif used in the movies to show someone is ignoring social norms or flaunting power? As in, the boss comes in and sits at the subordinate’s desk? Or the younger employee who is plotting to take over the boss’ job sits at the boss’s desk? I always gasp (quietly) when I see that happen because to me, it means, “The person whose desk it is is about to get screwed somehow.”

      4. Diana*

        As a receptionist/”admin. asst” (being a student with short hours) I constantly have to wait for people to get off my chair and finish what they are doing at my computer when I get in. My hours are strange–I somewhat understand they don’t know when I will show up, but they have a general idea and there is another computer just a few feet away (with a less comfortable chair) meant for others to use. What’s the etiquette situation here? Do I wait for them to finish (5-10 mins) or do I expect them to hurriedly save what they’re working on and transfer to the other unused desktop?

        1. Diana*

          Also no respect for the things on my desk. I’ve started hiding them in drawers–but I just don’t understand?? Why do people just take my pens, stapler, calculator, tape, sharpies, scissors and never return them/never return them to where they belong? Isn’t that just common courtesy?

    2. Jen in RO*

      I would be so uncomfortable with that. I am territorial I guess – my desk is my one almost-property in the office and I would definitely be irritated with someone who just took over. I get the cross just thinking about it! I’m the weird one with a weird attachment to her computer :-(

        1. Woodward*

          Reading “I get the cross just thinking about it!” gave me an amusing mental image: the frown lines between your eyebrows being in the shape of a cross or old school exorcism by waving a big wooden cross to banish unwanted spirits/people from your desk!

  7. Jamie*

    Alison is right – it varies based on office culture.

    IMO if the OP doesn’t have a key to his office and can’t lock it the confidential stuff should have been secured before leaving anyway.

    Although this is kind of out of character for me, I don’t have territorial issues about this at all on a personal level, but as a matter of policy I don’t think it’s a good idea for certain positions (IT, HR, Finance, upper management) where confidential information is stored.

    What would be egregious would be allowing someone to use not only another workspace but log in. Using the computer is fine if logged in as a guest with limited rights…no one should ever log in as anyone else with access to documents, email, etc.

    And people who are borrowing a workspace should refrain from rifling and leave the space as they found it. If you need a pen and there is a pen cup on the desk, fine…but don’t open a drawer to look for one. Just basic manners because of course it’s all the employer’s space – but I don’t want some stranger going through my stuff and touching my lip balm, Excedrin migraine, mints, and ketchup packets. That stuff is sacred.

    1. Anonymous*

      If you turn it around, the borrower is probably just as creeped out by your lip balm. So I cannot imagine that anyone normal would touch such things. If you are in an office where there are lots of not-normal people, well you have bigger problems, lol.

  8. Jen*

    I pretty much accept that someone might use my office but you have to use good etiquette – not adjusting chair, not using my items or changing the general set-up of my desk. Although I normally keep a little pile of change on my desk – nothing much, about $1.50 in quarters and dimes. It’s there in case I ever want to grab something from the vending machine. Once I came back from being ill to find out that the temp using my desk took the change. She told me “Oh I used some of that change for something to eat one day because I was hungry! I’ll pay you back if you want.” – I felt weird being like “Yes, I want my 60 cents.” but I thought that was ballsy of her.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      From another thread: “Oh, it’s OK, if you really want I’ll pay you back”

      1. fposte*

        Heh. That “It’s okay” really is a deflection for all occasions, isn’t it?

    2. CatB*

      I felt weird being like “Yes, I want my 60 cents.”

      In such occasions I usually point out that (a) 60c do not make or break the world and I’m still not at the rock-bottom, government-aide-worthy poverty level where that sum would make any kind of difference, but (b) the principle on which I live is “First ask and then pay back to the penny the very moment you promised the return“.

      So yeah, I want my 60c back. Now, please.

    3. Anonymous*

      I would have just said, I’ll take my usual chips, drop them by my desk at 10 am and we’ll call it even if you want.

    4. tcookson*

      My first office job in my twenties was pretty open and casual about using other people’s desks . . . we all had our own desks, but we were 2 to 3 people to each office, and the culture just wasn’t territorial about desks (someone from the front reception area might be assigned to work at my desk while I was at lunch, stuff like that). At my current job, there are some people who are really territorial about their desks and the location of everything on them, seemingly even down to the paperclip level. I can tell that sometimes the custodians take a break and use our computers to log in to their separate desktops, but the only way I can tell they’ve been there is that my computer log-in page offers me a choice of “tcookson” and “other user”; other than that, they’re invisible.

  9. The IT Manager*

    I think the fact that you don’t have a key is a big clue that your office isn’t for your private used only, and you shouldn’t expect it to be unused when you’re not there. I think that’s perfectly fair as the company owns it, but it is helpful if the office mangement makes it known that that’s their culture that your office might get used while you’re travelling so you should lock up all sensitive information in a drawer.

    Although it’s a pain without a key, you probably should never leave sensitive information out overnight (even though I am fairly certain that you do not in anyway mean information the is classified in the military sense of the term).

    1. KellyK*

      Yeah, I’m assuming that because the OP used the word “sensitive,” he’s talking about FOUO or company proprietary stuff, or the like.

  10. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I completely agree that it’s an office culture issue. In our office, there’s no reason that anyone would need to use anyone else’s office.

    We have a lot of people sharing cubicle space, but if you’ve progressed enough to have walls and door, it’s your space. We have plenty of other spaces with closing doors (conference rooms, etc) to accommodate the odd person who needs to have a private conversation.

  11. Lisa*

    Is this a boss throwing that visitor in your office or a co-worker? There is a difference. Speak to your manager about it, and if he/she says yes, send an email to the office and say that your office should no longer be used by visitors. Mention the visitor cube, and if in use visitors should use an empty conference room.

    Since visitors won’t be on the email chain, get a permanent sign from facilities – ‘Due to sensitive information contained in this office, it is not to be used by visitors. Please utilize designated visitors cubicles or an empty conference room.’

    1. Chinook*

      Also, is the person who was using your office higher in the org chart than you? Did they require a confidential space to work which a cubicle didn’t offer? Sometimes, a general office rule of no sharing offices needs to be broken when a bigwig comes, not because they are a bigwig but because said bigwig needs to be able to do her job in a certain manner (ex: a CEO may have a driver not for the prestige but so she can do work while in transit).

  12. Sabrina*

    I think if you can’t lock your office, you should put sensitive stuff away. I assume you can lock your desk drawers? We have to lock stuff away at night here because while you need 2-3 badge swipes to get in, we had an issue with the cleaning staff stealing SSNs a few years ago.

  13. Ann O'Nemity*

    One time I returned from vacation and found powdered sugar finger marks on the side of my *new* office chair. Obviously someone had been using my desk and eating without a napkin. Gross. And I’d only had the chair for less than a month!

  14. Jenna*

    Depending on how sensitive the information is, if you don’t have a lock on the office door it is possible that you really should be putting the work out of sight(minimum) or in a locked cabinet or drawer, even if no one was using your office. I have worked in places that were audited on security every once in a while, and leaving things out and unlocked was not permitted. We also had yearly online classes and tests on security and confidentiality, electronic door keys that also required codes, individual log ins, etc.
    You could ask what the policy is about visitors using your office, but, I’d still be in favor of locking up anything sensitive, just as a good habit.

  15. Elsie*

    As someone who works in a remote office but frequently visits our headquarters, I find it frustrating that we don’t have work spaces we (up to 5 staff) can use during down time between meetings. The conference rooms are often full and the wireless access is spotty, plus most of us don’t have laptops.

    It’s generally accepted, though, that offices are fair game for visitors to use when you’re out but I often feel strange about this. What is great it when staff have a reusable sign reading “I am out of the office! Feel free to use my workspace” that they can simply hang. I’ve tried to encourage this practice institutionally, but to no avail.

    1. JessB*

      Oh, that’s the best idea! It means that the person whose office it is has left it prepared for someone else, and in the full knowledge that another person might use it.

      Good thinking, Elsie.

  16. Tony in PA*

    I’m surprised the OPs company doesn’t have a clean desk policy. You should expect people to use use your office, or at least pass through (like the cleaning staff, for example). If it’s not publicly available information, it should be put away when you leave.

    1. Kelly O*

      This is what I was thinking, especially in an environment with sensitive information.

      I’ve worked in less-sensitive environments where we could not leave things out when we were not at our desks (or just at the copier) and it was very enforced. That actually seems reasonable.

      I do agree that if it bothers you, just ask about how your boss wants you to handle the sensitive information (but be prepared to hear that you need to put things away) and transition into the use of your office.

      I’m weird about my desk too, but I also know I can’t go ballistic if stuff is out of place because that’s not a reasonable response. It’s also why I keep my desk fairly clean anyway.

  17. Still another Lisa*

    Yep, totally a culture thing, I would do a triple take if I came in one day and saw a visiting rep or random account manager sitting in my bosses office when she was traveling, it just doesn’t happen. On a side note, I was working on a project for her and she has a work station in her office that I needed access to, I could just remote into it from my desk, but there is an annoying delay. She was going to be out a few days and told me to feel free to use it directly from her office, which I did, I was getting asked by so many people that day walking by “What are you doing in there? Does she know you are in her office?” I just went back to my desk, the delay was less annoying then the constant questions.

  18. Deirdre*

    When I travel or am out of the office, I encourage my colleagues (who work in more open spaces) to use my office. I am just not that attached to the office.

  19. Jessa*

    Okay, I have NOT read any of the other responses yet, because my reaction was this strong, that if 100 people had already said this, I don’t care.

    As a holder of a security clearance I flipped out at the idea that you leave anything sensitive unlocked even when you go to the bathroom. That if your office does not provide locking space to which you and only other people who have a similar informational clearance have keys, you have a HUGE problem far bigger than someone borrowing the desk space.

    Stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go to whoever is responsible for informational security and get a key to that office or get a locked file cabinet. AND USE IT. And be prepared to get into trouble for it. You didn’t just leave something when you went to the bathroom. You left the building for an extended period and left it OUT. And if other people are doing this, if this is acceptable office culture, it needs to stop.

    Either you can leave it out because everyone and the cleaning staff have clearances for that particular information, or you DO NOT LEAVE THAT STUFF LAYING AROUND. And if you’re complaining that people entering an unsecured office and could see stuff, I’m going to strongly infer that they DO NOT have that clearance.

    The information security person in me has got her inner Drill Sergeant voice wanting to come out. (I was never a DS, but I was in the Army right after high school and I know a tonne of them.)

    1. Mike C.*

      I deal with export controlled materials, and I had a similar reaction to yours. Holy shit.

      And why in the hell is the employer allowing access to areas containing controlled materials to random people? This is a big deal for everyone involved.

    2. MaryTerry*

      Thank you Jessa, this is EXACTLY what I wanted to say.

      Whether it’s export controlled, company proprietary, or department sensitive, ALL “private” information should be locked up when you’re not at your desk. –This includes locking your computer when you run to get a coffee refill.

  20. Wilton Businessman*

    I can’t believe somebody would leave sensitive material out for others to see. Immediate termination in my company. In fact, the moles (ie internal auditors) go around to desks at night to pilfer through your stuff or didn’t logoff your computer.

      1. Jessa*

        Um your computers should have an auto log off, if you deal in sensitive information it should not be possible to walk away for more than let’s say 15 minutes without being logged out. That shouldn’t be left up to people to do.

        1. fposte*

          They should, but all it takes is one additional application to foil that. (I’m looking at you, Microsoft Lync.)

          1. -X-*

            Who can install applications? In a proper IT environment, that takes rights regular users don’t have and for which a password is required.

          2. JessB*

            Can it really? We’ve just got this and everyone in our office is loving it. I always lock my computer when I walk away from it (which is funny when I just go the printer, but forget that it’s just 5 steps away), but I know some people just walk away and wait for the autolock to kick in after 5 minutes.

          3. Jessa*

            Yes fposte, but seriously that’s a larger issue. The average desk person’s responsibility ends when they to the best of a layperson’s ability secure paperwork in the provided locked areas and shift the computer to a password screen. ANYONE trying to break in past that is the responsibility of on-site security, of information security, of IT.

            It’s management’s responsibility to set procedures, and employee’s responsibility to follow them but that kind of specific “espionage” is usually above the paygrade of the general worker. At that point you’re guarding against more than a casual – someone borrowing the desk, a cleaning person checking the trash or something.

      2. bob*

        If your companies’ computer screens don’t lock after a certain period of time that’s an IT policy failure.

        1. MaryTerry*

          Okay, but if you have sensitive information access, you should personally lock it as a rule, not count on the auto-lock to kick in.

    1. Evan the College Student (now graduated)*

      I assume you alert people ahead of time that there’re periodic checks from internal auditors, and you don’t knock people for staying logged on as long as they lock their screens? If that’s the case, then I thoroughly approve! Good plan!

      1. Jessa*

        Why does anyone have to be told there will be audits. Do you tell accountants? It’s part and parcel of having secured information, just like it’s part of an accountant’s job to know there will be audits. This is normal in the industry.

        1. Mike C.*

          You tell people about audits for two reasons:

          1. Use the time as an opportunity for retraining.

          2. Compliance is much, much more important than catching someone screw up. Telling people they will be checked provides an extra incentive to comply and comply correctly.

          That has to be said, there’s nothing wrong with a mix of the two, but I would certainly let people know that audits can happen at any time.

          It’s like safety, are you more interested in making sure everyone goes home they way the came in, or are you looking for folks to get in trouble?

          1. Jamie*

            So much this – I can’t agree more.

            If you are properly conducting an audit people won’t be able to hoodwink you just because they know it’s coming…but it’s about checking compliance and seeing opportunities for improvement. If you’re auditing as a gotcha game then you need to turn in your clipboard.

            That said – if I am not on an audit and see something non-complaint walking through the factory or in the records I can and will investigate or get it corrected. I’m not going to see errors or God forbid safety issues and then ignore them until they are audited.

            But Mike is exactly right – whether an audit is scheduled, random, or ad hoc it’s not about catching someone screwing up it’s about policy compliance.

            1. Mike C.*

              I will have to confess, at my last job I did like to throw around the phrase, “Emergent Internal Audit” around folks who tried to steal uncalibrated equipment or throw me under the bus at inter-departmental meetings.

              I never really went through with them, but man there were days…

        2. Mike C.*

          Additionally, if you tell people about audits and you still have findings, then it’s a great way to find folks who either don’t give a shit (and you can smack them accordingly) or who somehow slipped through the cracks when training happened.

          1. JessB*

            One place I worked at would, the IT staff would occasionally buy a giant bag of Freddo Frogs and do a lap of the office as they were leaving – anyone with a completely shut down computer, turned off monitor and no sign of passwords written down would get a Freddo!

            Great way to reward compliance, rather than punish those who don’t comply. It also created a lot of talk the next morning, so everyone knew why they got a Freddo, and was talking about how to get one.

      2. Chinook*

        I would think that it shouldn’t need to be said that there will eb periodic checks because it should be a given that there are consequences if you don’t lock up and you would be lucky if it was only found out by an auditor (i.e. there wasn’t a larger breach of security). When DH worked at military HQ, everyone needed to wear their passcards at all times or lock them up. Yet, many people would leave them in their unlocked lockers (with their wallets, etc.) while in the gym (we boths saw this happen). Rumour had it that MP’s would randomly check unlocked lockers, take any passes they found and return them, with charges, when the person went to security and claimed they “forgot it at home.”

      3. Wilton Businessman*

        What would be the point of announcing the periodic check? No, you know the rules, follow them.

        1. KellyK*

          I don’t think audits themselves should be announced, but I do think the bit about going through drawers should be mentioned at least once to new hires, so they know that if there’s anything they’re not comfortable having people go through, it needs to stay with them.

          I have one “personal” desk drawer where I keep a hairbrush, various OTC meds, cough drops, and female hygiene products, and I would be really annoyed if someone rifled through that without even vague and general advance notice. I’d be even more annoyed if I’d been keeping anything more personal there, like prescription meds.

          1. Jessa*

            Honestly, the desk doesn’t belong to the employee. I would not keep prescription meds in a drawer that I could not lock. Which would perforce mean that anyone looking in that drawer was security who had a key. I would not be embarrassed if the security staff saw something they probably see everywhere else in the building.

            And I admit this is my personal bias, but we have to stop as a culture being ashamed of normal bodily functions. And it needs to stop being a trope that “real men” whatever the heck that actually means, will get cooties or be shamed for looking at, handling, purchasing or in other ways interacting with feminine hygiene products.

            This stuff should no longer be an embarrassment to anyone. They advertise it on tv for crying out loud.

            1. KellyK*

              I agree that the female hygiene stuff shouldn’t be embarrassing, but for some people it is. And, regardless of the embarrassment factor, some people just don’t like other people going through their stuff.

              Also, some people’s OTC meds are somewhat more personal–if you need to keep hemorrhoid cream or pre-natal vitamins at work, for example.

              Rifling through drawers isn’t a standard practice, so if it’s going to be done, I think it’s discourteous to not tell people about it (in general terms, not before a specific inspection).

            2. KellyK*

              See, even if it is a locked drawer, if security is going to go through it, I want to know that, and I want to know what privacy standards are in effect. Yes, I would be embarrassed by a random security person knowing what all my medical conditions are (and slightly concerned by the possibility of that information being shared).

              If you don’t have access to a drawer that locks, sure, it’s probably a bad idea to store prescriptions there. But on the other hand, there might be situations where you would need to, depending on what other options you have for storing them. If, for example, purses and coats go in a locking wardrobe by the entrance, and you’re on a different floor on the other side of the building, anything that you might need immediately (inhaler, etc.) isn’t much good to you there. When you’re making that calculation, it’s only reasonable to be told who’s going to be going through your stuff.

            3. Jamie*

              I agree. I have never felt like I have any expectation of privacy as far as my desk goes and wouldn’t keep anything in a drawer I wouldn’t want seen.

              That doesn’t mean I think we should all rifle through each other’s drawers – but kind of like email…I wouldn’t do anything on a work computer or keep in my desk anything I would care if people knew.

              We’re lucky in that we have a private bathroom and there are only a couple of us and we each have a drawer in there. If the maintenance guys need to fix something and happen to see my drawer filled with feminine stuff I’m certainly not going to care…not like I’m keeping guns and sex tapes in there.

              When I worked in a place with a more public bathroom I just kept stuff in my purse. If you keep it in a desk drawer don’t you have to put it in your purse anyway to walk to the ladies room? I don’t think it should be shameful either but I wouldn’t walk through my office holding a tampon either.

              1. KellyK*

                If you keep it in a desk drawer don’t you have to put it in your purse anyway to walk to the ladies room?

                Yeah, I do, unless I happen to be wearing something with pockets. The desk drawer holds more than the purse, though, so I put a whole package in the drawer and a few in the purse, to ensure that I won’t be making an emergency lunch-time run to the drugstore because I ran out.

        2. Mike C.*

          Telling people they will be checked in some way greatly increases compliance before someone screws up. Find out that you or a coworker has screwed up only corrects behavior after the fact, or worse encourages people to hide their mistakes.

          1. Jamie*

            Just like putting people on notice that you have a web usage monitor seriously inhibits people from going to graphic and virus laden web sites. It’s a deterrent.

    2. Jamie*

      the moles (ie internal auditors)

      Ahem. We prefer to be called “Champions of Justice.”

      1. JessB*

        Oh my gosh, I wish I could like this comment! I’m laughing my head off at my desk right now!

  21. Sidra*

    I also work for a large defense contractor and there is absolutely NO way it is acceptable for a visitor to be allowed access to an area with sensitive documents, or to even be unescorted in the facility without special exceptions -and even then, they should not be allowed to use a private office like that. Defense contractors have very strict rules imposed upon them by the DoD on how to handle visitors, and if they aren’t following those rules to the letter it is a BIG problem. I would advise the letter writer to talk to the company security entity about this ASAP, regardless of what the manager may “think” is OK. Also, if she has sensitive info, she needs to store it in a locked location,. I would reprimand someone in my org severely, perhaps even dismiss, someone I found was not protecting our sensitive info – if by sensitive she really means classified. Improper storage of classified materials is a serious offense that can c

  22. Jubilance*

    Leaving classified or even just sensitive company documents out on your desk unsecured is a big no-no. It should be locked up when you aren’t around to control it.

    I’ve never worked in an environment where it was ok for other people to sit at another person’s desk. I’d feel so uncomfortable with that.

  23. KellyK*

    One quick thing before I dive into reading the comments—as a defense contractor, anything you have that is in any way sensitive needs to be put away, not left out where someone else walking into your office can see it. Closing your door might be acceptable if you’re just going to the bathroom or in a meeting for an hour, but not when you leave for the day.

  24. Chocolate Teapot*

    I would have thought that even if the office door didn’t lock, then a cabinet/desk drawers would.

  25. Editor*

    In my experience, the people most likely to readjust office chairs are visiting children of other employees and sports reporters.

    Newsrooms aren’t real private and neither were the library offices and other places I’ve worked. My jobs haven’t included handling sensitive materials or DoD work, although when I did have employee records with SSN information, I kept them in a locked filing cabinet and never left the paperwork out. I was surprised sensitive materials were out on the desk if the employee was traveling.

    1. Collarbone High*

      A reporter (and yes, it was a sports reporter!) once somehow managed to snap my keyboard tray in half while borrowing my desk. His effort to remedy that consisted of leaving the broken halves on my desk with a “sorry :)” sticky note. He also spilled coffee on the newspapers on my desk and left them there. Thanks a bunch …

      The chair thing … I’m really short, and I don’t think our remote reporters realize that adjusting my chair (or monitor height, or keyboard tray) to make themselves more comfortable while checking email really affects me. Our ergonomics team is off-site, so I have to put up with neck and wrist pain for weeks until they can come undo the damage. PSA: Leave the chairs alone!

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m really short too…but I am having trouble imagining a chair so difficult to adjust that you can’t change it around at will. We have some mighty crappy ones here and short of the one that you spin a hundred times, all of them adjust nicely. I change my chair around nearly every morning, I like to sit differently each day, it’s easier on my back.

  26. cncx*

    just another voice for “i’m surprised your company doesn’t have a policy about confidential material being locked up to begin with”- at my job that stuff is not allowed to stay on desktops overnight to begin with. i can’t think of any office i have ever worked in where it was kosher to leave out sensitive material while travelling.

    otherwise, i really think it depends on the company culture. for example, i work in a city with real estate problems, and our offices are at capacity, so if someone is out of the office their desk usually gets sat in by visitors as a rule, not the exception. we’re all used to it. most of us even have a separate laptop cable next to our desks so people won’t use our computers. In my office, OP would not get to be a special snowflake, especially if her job is high travel. Even our VPs put up with desk users, especially during board meetings when the visitor desk and the conference rooms are all booked out.

  27. Wubbie*

    Some of you would probably be very uncomfortable working on my team. We have a lot of shared documents and if one of us is in one no one else on the team can get into it (except some MS Access databases, in which case, only certain editing capabilities are disabled if multiple people are in the file). Of course we’re all a buncha knuckleheads who constantly forget to close out of docs when we’re done so there’s tons of yelling around the suite: “Hey (name of coworker)!! Can you close (name of document)???” And, of course, if any of us happen to be away from our desks, it’s totally kosher for someone on the team to get onto our computer and either close the doc, or even make a quick edit if it can be done in a few seconds.

    But, we’re event planners, not defense contractors, so their are no congressional hearings if our info gets leaked, LOL.

    In our department as a whole it’s pretty common to give someone’s office to a visitor if they’re away. And everyone pretty frequently uses our department head’s office for meetings if they’re not so big they require one of the conference rooms.

    1. KellyK*

      Shared documents are totally reasonable. Even if the documents are actually sensitive, there are times when that makes sense–they just have to be shared *only* with people who have legitimate reason to access them (e.g., everybody in HR can access employees’ benefit info, but random accountants and secretaries can’t; only people actually working on a specific project has access to that project’s documents).

  28. anonintheUK*

    My colleague tells me of a colleague she had in another firm who, due to lupus and rheumatoid issues, had a special chair calibrated by Occ Health to her height and weight. Said chair apparently also featured a sign on the back, along the lines that it had been specifically adjusted for a particular user, and it was not to be moved.

    Some wiseacre decided that this did not mean him, and was lucky to still be among the living when his antics were discovered, particularly since the disabled co-worker was quite literally unable to use another chair (or not without a severe flare).

  29. Sophie*

    We had a temporary assistant work with us for a couple of months last year. I was out of the office for one day, and on that day she was put in my office – for just ONE day.

    Unfortunately she also had to use my log ins and email address.

    I wasn’t given any warning that she would be at my desk, but that’s fine. And using my email and log ins is normal in our slightly-disorganised small office.

    However, in the one day in my office, she:

    * Changed the placement of my monitor
    * Moved the placement of my calendar and pen-holders
    * Took all my files that were on my desk and put them into one massive pile of files with no order at all
    * Changed the view settings on my outlook (changed the reading pane from on the right of the screen to down the bottom of the screen)
    * I had my web browser on settings that re-open at the last webpage I was using. I use this for research I’m in the middle of, so that I don’t lose the sights I’m using and don’t need to re-find them or save them elsewhere when I don’t know if they’ll be useful yet. She cleared ALL of them.

    I was ropeable. I was so glad when she didn’t get hired here full time.

    1. Sophie*

      I feel I should add that I wasn’t ropeable at her for using my space – but for changing settings etc on my computer when she knew she was only using it for 1 day, and not changing them back.

    2. JessB*

      Oh my gosh, I have worked for a few years as a temp, and I would NEVER do any of this! How clueless and selfish of her!

      I have to admit that I can’t see the issue with changing the height of a regular office chair, but to completely change someone working space, and not put it all back as it was seems so selfish.

  30. nqdenise*

    I left a job in the defense industry 16 years, so things could have changed since then. We were required to lock up any sensitive info in our locking file cabinets at the end of each day. Hopefully this person isn’t living under a similar policy. If he/she is, I don’t think it would be wise to admit having left sensitive documents out on their desk. There were several people terminated during my stay at that defense contractor, and it was all for not following proper procedure in handling classified documents.

  31. Cassie*

    I sit in a cube so I guess it wouldn’t bother me too much if someone used my space while I was out (I keep it fairly neat and sparse anyway). What does drive me nuts is when people borrow my chair and they either: 1) adjust it or 2) put it back in a different cubicle.

    We all have the same model chair, but really – how difficult is it to remember which cubicle you took the chair out of? I once spent like 5-10 minutes in the morning hunting down my chair. I put a small label near the arm rest with my cubicle number , but I’m thinking of putting a brightly colored post-it note on the back.

  32. Another Emily*

    Those of you who are frustrated by people borrowing your desks… you could always get an ergonomic mouse. >:D

  33. Tax Nerd*

    Hrrrm. When I’ve worked in offices where space was a premium, your desk became fair game if you were out for the day (unless you were a partner, and then only a more senior partner would use your office, and only if absolutely necessary).

    Nowadays, most tax stuff is electronic, but whenever I’ve had to deal with paper source documents and/or printed tax return drafts, the rule has been to NOT lock them up. Covered with something innocuous, so the random janitor wouldn’t get SSNs at a glance, but so that another member of the team could get the file if you were sick that day or whatever. But then the floors to the office tended to be pretty secure. If we knew we’d be gone for a length of time, anything like that was parceled out to another team member or something. (Now that most things are electronic, I will get any source docs scanned right away, then mailed back to the client ASAP, so they aren’t just laying around.)

  34. Laura*

    I say be thankful that you even have an office, and don’t begrudge anyone else who needs a meeting space and uses yours while you’re not there. Lock up sensitive documents when you’re not there, and you won’t have to worry about anyone seeing something they shouldn’t. My company has very strict security procedures, and it is spelled out that any sensitive information/documents should be under lock and key when it’s not being used, whether you have an office or not.

    It’s a rare thing these days to get an office with a door that closes. I had an office at the first company I worked at after college, for about a year and a half. Then it was sharing an office with someone else. And ever since then, it’s been cubicle land. And when I was a consultant, a cubicle would have been a luxury.

    At my company there are waaaaayyyy too many directors, and of course they all get an office. At least half of them are travelling at any given time, so their offices sit empty. At the same time, conference room space is at a premium, and once every 6 months or so an email is sent out saying that this or that conference room is being converted to an office for yet another director. So they all get a nice big office, while the rest of us are making do by meeting in the cafeteria and calling people on our Blackberries and huddling around someone’s laptop, instead of behaving like professionals and projecting our meeting materials onto a flatscreen and using a tabletop speakerphone.

  35. AllisonD*

    I think you should really re-consider leaving sensitive material out on your desk, regardless of your company’s policy on office use. You acknowledge that it is sensitive and that you left it out and about – not good on you.

  36. Steve Simmons*

    Get over it. The office and most of its contents are not your property. They are corporate assets which should be used to the benefit of the company. If that happens to mean that they are used by other staff or even a visiting customer in your absence then that is far better use than an office sitting empty while someone is not able to properly work due to lack of adequate seating (which could include the need to make calls or have a conversation not overheard by others).

    As for leaving confidential papers related to a defense contractor’s project out in an unlocked space that is an issue that could get you and your employer in a fair bit of trouble. I would expect that a defense contractor would have a policy requiring this type of material to be locked up when not actively in use.

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