Etiquette in the Office Cubicle

Businessman and businesswoman talking to each other over cubicle wall
Show respect for your cubicle neighbors by keeping the noise down, eliminating unnecessary smells, and giving them enough personal space. Thomas Barwick/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Do you work in an office with a partially enclosed space, commonly known as a cubicle? Although the open-office concept is gaining favor among businesses, many companies still provide cubicles for employees, giving them the feeling of having their own office without the company having the expense and design constrictions of permanent walls. However, there are some drawbacks, creating the need for a list of etiquette rules.

Most of the rules are tied into the Golden Rule—treating others as you would want to be treated.

Privacy

Although the cubicle wall is typically somewhere between four and six feet tall, privacy can be an issue for those who want to hold conversations that they don't want others to overhear. Remember that people on all sides of the space can hear whatever you’re saying in a normal tone of voice. The quickest way for word to spread about some office secret is for someone to hear you discussing it in your cubicle.

Follow some simple rules for discussions. If you need to conduct a private business related conversation, borrow a vacant office or conference room. Personal conversations need to be taken outside or to the break room during your lunch hour or during your coffee break. Remember that there’s no such thing as a confidential conversation in an office cubicle.

With short walls and no door, everyone who walks by can see what you’re doing, so don’t conduct too much personal grooming in your cubicle.

This includes anything you wouldn’t do while standing in front of a group of people, such as flossing your teeth or plucking your eyebrows. Take care of personal hygiene before you leave home, or if you must handle a personal issue, go to the restroom.

Interruptions

Seeing someone jumping around at the entrance to your cubicle, making gestures and trying to get your attention can be distracting when you’re deep in thought about your current project.

Let this person know that you will be available when you get to a stopping point. This can be done with a smile and a gesture toward what you’re working on. If this happens frequently, make a card with the message, “I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll get back with you soon.” You can hold it up when needed or find a way to affix it to the edge of the cubicle entrance.

Conversely, if you need to speak to someone else in your office, but you see that she’s busy, either drop a note on her desk and leave or go back to your own cubicle and send her an email. This shows respect for her time. The only time a coworker should be interrupted is for emergency situations.

Openness

Although the cubicle has “walls,” it is still open to anyone who walks by. Remember this when you decorate your space. Coworkers, bosses, and the cleaning crew will all be able to see what you have on display. Yes, it’s your personal office space, but that doesn’t mean you can treat it like a dorm room. Keep your workspace neat and tidy. A messy area is a reflection of you and may likely become an issue when it’s time for a review or job promotion.

Avoid trespassing on other people’s space inside their cubicles. Never borrow supplies or personal items from a coworker without asking first.

Don’t read office correspondence intended for another person. This includes printed messages lying on your cubicle neighbor’s desk and open emails on his computer.

Smells

Most cubicle workers can remember a time when someone next to them waltzed in wearing too much perfume—or not enough deodorant. Be mindful of what those around you can smell. And that delicious fish dinner you had last night? Your cubicle neighbors might not think it’s so wonderful if you decide to eat leftovers at your desk.

Cubicle dwellers need to be mindful of other people’s smell sensibilities and possible allergies. Use fragrance sparingly, if at all. Don’t put scented candles or air fresheners in your cubicle. If you must eat at your desk, make sure it doesn’t have strong smells that can bother those around you.

Noise

Be aware of how noise travels in an office space with cubicles.

Even the softest music can be heard in surrounding areas. If you like to listen to music while you work, use headphones or ear buds. Resist the urge to hum, or you may have coworkers gritting their teeth. Telephone conversations should be kept short and business related. Don’t use the speakerphone unless others need to be in on the conversation.

Relationships

You don't have to be best friends with the person in the next cubicle, but it is important to maintain a good business relationship with him or her. A friendly greeting when you arrive at the office and an occasional smile will help.