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Desk decor can be an adventure in office politics

By Annie Flanzraich
Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE — At the beginning of a job, it’s just a flat surface — bare, untouched, undeveloped. It’s even clean, if you’re lucky.

But transforming an empty desk into a visual representation of an employee’s personality and professional competence is not an easy task, say business etiquette experts and environmental psychologists.

Every detail can provide an insight — or a distressing revelation — into work ethic and ambition.

“You should dress your office with the same kind of attention you dress yourself,” said Beverly Kaye, a human resources guru and author of “Love ’em or Lose ’em: Getting Good People to Stay” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002).

Some studies show decorative employees are more satisfied at work. According to a survey of 338 workers conducted by Meredith Wells, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, employees who are able to personalize their desk are happier at their jobs.

“If you personalize, you’re going to be more satisfied with your work environment, and the more satisfied with your job you are, you’ll have a higher level of well-being,” Wells said.

Not all workplaces may agree with that, of course. Kaye said she knew of one company that allows employees 13 personal items on each desk at a time.

Decorations also must be considerate of others, she said.

“Imagine you’re someone else walking into your office and run that simulation through. See what unnerves you or what bothers you,” Kaye said.

Picking the wrong candy dish, packing every wall with awards or having an empty bookshelf could estrange colleagues and supervisors alike. Here are some of the experts’ most precarious office ornaments:

The candy dish

Sure, it looks innocently inviting, that open bowl of primary-colored M&Ms waiting to be munched by a procrastinating employee. But the candy bowl actually can be a strategic accessory.

“If you want people in and out, don’t put food on your desk,” said Barbara Pachter, author of “New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead” (Prentice Hall Press, 2006).

“But if you need people to come talk to you, it’s a good way to lure people in.”

Still, a candy dish is not always an open invitation.

LisaMarie Luccioni, a professor who teaches business etiquette at the University of Cincinnati, said her class had a lively discussion about appropriate candy behavior.

“It could cause some potential confusion if someone doesn’t want to share their candy,” said Luccioni, who is also certified image consultant in Ohio. “Someone could say, ‘That woman ate my Hershey’s kisses!’ ”

The bookshelf

Pachter said bookshelves acquiring dust instead of titles could send a message to supervisors that an employee sees her role as transitional.

“We expect places to look like where work takes place,” Pachter said.

She suggests including trade publications or books about topics related to an employee’s field.

The walls

While a wall full of awards and accolades could testify to an employee’s professionalism and achievements, it could also suggest a pretentious attitude, Luccioni said.

She once met a woman who covered every bare wall with an award or certificate.

But instead of coming off as competent, she came off as intimidating, Luccioni said.

“Balance is a key aspect,” Luccioni said.

Instead of including every certification and congratulations, Luccioni suggests displaying some key awards, degrees or received thank-you notes.

The photos

While a few carefully chosen photos can make someone more approachable, a dozen photos of every cat, dog and second niece twice removed in your family makes an office cluttered and disjointed.

“You want to look like a person who is serious and work gets done here,” Pachter said. “Not someone who is taking family phone calls all day.”

She said people should consider the message a photo is sending, especially if it involves extreme sports or scanty clothing.

“How much do you want people to know about you?” she said.

The cell phone

It all depends on your company’s culture. And if you’re not sure what that is, better safe than sorry.

Some like Andrew DuBrin, an environmental psychologist and professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said keeping cells phones out in the open is unacceptable.

“More and more companies are complaining about the misuse of cell phones,” DuBrin said. “I think it’s good to put that away.”

But Beverly Kaye, a human resources guru, says it’s OK to keep cell phones out if your company allows, and keep personal chatting to a minimum.

“I think every company has guidelines and a culture that goes all the way from extreme “Thou shalt never leave thy cell phone in public’ to ‘Come as you want,’ ” she said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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