can I ask my employee not to put papers on my desk? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

My desk is (shamefully) extremely messy, both with crumbs and stray papers. I clean it once a week, but I’m not a naturally neat person. However, my direct report, Lauren, is very neat and loves physical media. If I send her a Slack message, she’ll show up at my desk with a Post-It note. She keeps putting things on my desk for me to review, expecting that I’ll get them done since it’s on my desk.

Last month, Lauren let herself into my office while I was out at lunch with our office-wide key and put a Post-It note on my desk with an update for a project. I didn’t see the note, and then in our meeting I asked her for an update, to which she responded she’d put it on my desk. This made me feel I had to scramble to review it on my messy desk. I then asked her to not put stuff on my desk, or if she did, to send me a Slack message so I could look out for it. Since then, she’s put a few papers and notes on my desk for me to review, no Slack message accompanying them. She even gave me a written-out schedule before my office move and asked for it back when my supplies were in boxes, and I had to stop and find it for her since she hadn’t stored the information anywhere else.

This week, I returned from a sick day to see that Lauren had let herself in my office again to put papers on my desk with a note for me to review before our meeting later that day. There’s not a ton of context in the papers themselves to review them — it would make more sense to me for us to just go over them together in a meeting. Then, she sent me a file link for a shared drive for my review before our meeting yesterday through Slack. I asked her if she could just print it and bring it to our meeting later that day so we can look over it together, since it’s not a long file (1-2 pages) and the content would make sense to just glance at in our meeting. Instead of doing that, she let herself in my office again and put the printed copy on my desk, I assume for my review before our meeting.

Was I wrong to ask her not to put stuff on my desk? How can I ask her to stop assuming I always have time before our meetings to go over documents? Am I being too weird about my personal-ish office space, or should I just be neater?

No, it’s completely reasonable to ask someone not to put stuff on your desk. That’s a pretty common preference — even among people without terribly messy desks — and you’re not being weird or unreasonable by asking for it.

To the contrary, Lauren is the one being weird by insisting on doing it after you’ve asked her not to.

Because you did ask her not to, and she’s continuing to do it anyway! That’s a problem, just like if you said, “Please email me instead of calling me about X” and she kept calling you about X, or if you said, “Please send these files electronically rather than printing out 50-page tomes” and she insisted on printing them out every time anyway. Hell, it’s the same sort of problem as anything where you, as her manager, told her to do X rather than Y but she ignored you.

It’s time to ask why she’s still doing it! Sit down with her and say, “I’ve asked you a few times now not to put anything I need to see on my desk but you keep doing it. How come?”

Maybe she’ll have some explanation that makes sense, although I’m hard-pressed to imagine what it is. Do you never see emails either? Do you have her blocked on Slack? Did she completely mishear you and hear, “Please do continue putting things on my desk — I love it”? Who knows what she’ll say, but it’s useful to ask what’s happening on her end of this.

But then it’s reasonable to say, “I want to be really clear: Going forward, please do not put anything on my desk.” Also, don’t water this down with “unless you message me on Slack to say it’s there.” You’ve tried that, it didn’t work, and at this point you should leave no wiggle room.

Similarly, with the thing about her dropping off documents for you to review before a meeting when you’ve explicitly asked her to bring it to the meeting to look at together, that’s probably a case of needing to be more explicit too: “When I’ve asked you to bring something to our meeting so we can look at it together, that’s what I want you to do. Sometimes you’ve printed it out and left it for me instead — but my schedule is packed and I often don’t have time to review those documents before we meet. So when I ask you to have it ready for us to look over together, I want you to take that literally and bring it to our meeting. If that causes issues on your end, I of course want to hear that, but otherwise please assume that’s the plan.”

Also, do you want her continuing to unlock your office when you’re not there? It sounds like it would be useful to tell her to stop doing that too.

I think at some level you’re wondering if you’ve brought this on yourself by not being neater — and maybe are having some Messy Person Guilt? — but this is really about an employee who’s ignoring clear and specific directions from her manager, and that’s how you should approach it. If your desk set-up works for you, then it’s really no one else’s business (assuming you’re not creating a fire or health hazard, and assuming people can find what they need when you’re out if they have standing to go looking, and assuming your own boss doesn’t have an objection to it — none of which sounds like the problem here).

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