Boss Reads Items On My Desk!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about boss reading what is on an employee’s desk:

My boss is always walking into my workplace to ask me something or tell me a personal story. While there he tends to pick up things on my desk and read them. While all items on my desk are work and not private material it seems very rude. I would not walk into his office and while telling him something or asking a question begin randomly picking up papers and reading them. Often I have to waste time explaining what he has picked up and listen to his ‘opinion’ on it when I could be working on it or the matter I was working on when they interrupted. Any ideas on how to tactfully break him of this habit?

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

Even though managers have a right and a responsibility to be aware of what is going on at work, most employees feel that their workspace is at least semi-private, so I can understand your frustration. On the other hand, if the papers he sees on your desk are directly related to work and are in plain sight, I can see why he thinks it is OK to look at them and express an opinion. That is especially true if the items are about topics he’s interested in or that he is working on as well. He wouldn’t do it to a peer or to someone higher in position than him, but he feels your work is his work as well.

It sounds as though your boss is very comfortable with you and is idly fidgeting around as he might do if he was at home and talking to a spouse or family member. Many employees might envy you such a relaxed work place. However, that means there is probably no direct way to completely stop his habit without creating more of a problem and perhaps hurting your relationship. Consider some of the following ideas: Make the papers less open and accessible by keeping them in file folders on your desk. Rather than having them out, just automatically slip them into file folders that only serve as covers for the papers. If your desk is situated so the boss approaches it from one side, keep papers on the other side. (I know that’s a difficult habit, based on being right or left-handed, but would tend to put the papers out of his reach.) Empty a drawer in your desk and keep most things there, with the drawer left open like a lowered work space. (That was what I did to keep confidential files from being visible.) Keep the material about which you don’t want to answer questions in a less accessible area and only have bland material in the noticeable area. Look at the layout of your desk and see if there is a way to create a barrier of sorts where your boss might normally reach. It might be a desk accessory, calendar, decorative item, file folders with resource material, or something else your boss would have to reach over or around to get to other material.

Put a substantial paperweight on loose material so your boss will have to lift it in an obvious manner to look at the items.Unfortunately it will probably be easier to divert his attention or block his reach than it will be to change his habit, unless you are close enough with him that you can say something that gives him a hint.For example, every time he picks up something you could say, with concern, “Was there something you were looking for?” “Do you need a copy of that?” “That’s the file for the Harris invoice. Do you have a question about it?” Perhaps by making your work space look less open and accessible and by making him aware of the fact that he has picked up something you’re involved with, your boss will be less inclined to fidget with your work just to be doing something. If any of these ideas seem to work for you or if you find a solution that works effectively, let us know so we can have it as a resource for others who might have the same question. Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.