The state of your desk likely influences perceptions of your professionalism

One of the columnists who writes with me over on RealSimple.com tipped me off to an interesting survey produced by the staffing firm OfficeTeam. OfficeTeam interviewed human resources (HR) managers and asked them:

How does the neatness of an employee’s desk or office affect your perception of that person’s level of professionalism?

The results of their survey found that 83 percent of respondents said that desk and office neatness affects their perceptions of employees. Eighteen percent said it “greatly” affects their opinions, and 65 percent said it “somewhat” affected it. Only 17 percent of respondents said it didn’t affect their perceptions at all.

What does this mean? If you work in a traditional office environment, it’s statistically likely to assume that the state of your desk and office is influencing HR’s opinion of your professionalism. If an HR representative sits in on discussions regarding hiring, firing, layoffs, raises, and other aspects of your job, keeping a clean desk might be in your best interest.

35 Comments for “The state of your desk likely influences perceptions of your professionalism”

  1. posted by Anita on

    Interesting to note that the survey does not go into further details to ask HOW neatness affects people’s perception of your level of professionalism — i.e. positively or negatively. The assumption is made that a neat desk will always have a *positive* effect on your perceived level of professionalism, but there’s zero data to support that assumption.

    The flip side of that might be that a desk that’s too neat might give some people the impression that you don’t actually get any work done, which would reflect negatively on your perceived level of professionalism. My desk is always neat, so is the deak of the person working in the next office over, and I’ve lost track of the number of people who come by when she’s in a meeting and ask me “is Claire in today? Her desk is so neat, I never know whether she’s actually here” — the assumption being that if you’re at work and getting work done, surely there would be more stuff spread out on your desk.

    I’d be far more inclined to give credence to a survey that asked a follow-up question re: HOW people’s perceptions are affected, rather than make assumptions based on zero data.

  2. posted by Carrie on

    Funny, I strive to keep a very clean desk and fear that people think this means I don’t have enough to do. It’s not uncommon to see people buidlign walls of paperwork to look busy.

  3. posted by Carrie on

    Sorry, Anita. I did not see your comemnt prior to posting. I absolutely agree. I suspect it is a balance and when you tip toward being a paper hoarder that is when the negative effects on perceived professionalism kick in.

  4. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — If you read the full results, it’s pretty clear that they did ask follow up questions. OfficeTeam even went on to survey another group of administrative professionals to get suggestions for ways to clear clutter from your space. It’s always best to go back and read the full survey — we don’t typically reprint entire works on our site.

  5. posted by Chris Norris on

    Then you have people like Joel Spolsky (software guru type guy) who think that messy desks are a sign of being busy and creative.

    I found this book too, interesting: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B001QFY2E8/associatizer-20/

  6. posted by Sam on

    People used to say I must not have enough to do even though I was was clearing my assigned duties and helping out on others’ projects. Now I keep prop clutter on my desk. Most of it is completed work that could be filed or shredded. The passerby has no idea what’s pending and what’s completed. My desk is still the neatest in the office, but it’s staged so that it looks like I’m extremely busy and organized. It’s very annoying but it’s foolish to ignore office politics and gossip.

  7. posted by Stephanie B. on

    My desk gets cluttered while I’m working, but I always leave it tidy when I leave for the day. My workspace is very organized, but very colorful – I have photos and my own artwork displayed (neatly) to keep me motivated throughout the day.

    My boss, however, prefers minimalism in shades of brown, so I think my colorful personal touches read as visual clutter to him.

  8. posted by DawnF on

    My 8-year-old son and I recently saw a vehicle parked next to us that was REALLY dirty – I mean FILTY – like it had never been washed and he immediately said, “If their car is that dirty can you imagine what the inside of their house must look like?” Both of us cringed at the thought…

    It’s very easy to see a disorganized and even dirty (say with drink cups, food wrappers) desk or workspace and immediately think the worker is sloppy and inefficient – if they can’t make the effort to tidy up then it’s quite easy to assume they don’t make the effort to produce quality work either. It’s just my opinion.

    I think another up-side to keeping your workspace at least somewhat tidy and organized is what if you are out sick, etc. and someone needs to find something (report, project, etc.) in your space?

    Interesting post today! I look forward to reading all of the comments.

  9. posted by Carol on

    I think there needs to be a middle ground. When I first started at my current position I had a hard time keeping up with the work and people constantly commented on the clutter. Now that I have the hang of things, I’m organized. My desk does look a little cluttered while I’m working but is cleared off when I leave at the end of the day.

    I also work with several salespeople and the perceptions of their desks are interesting. One salesperson keeps their desk immaculate at all times and the joke in the office is that it’s because he never has any work to do. He’s also the salesperson with the least amount of business. One of our top salespeople has so much clutter on his desk that it’s difficult to see how he gets anything done.

  10. posted by Elizabeth on

    I suspect that this matters a lot more for first impressions and for people who you seldom work with. For professionals whom I rarely meet with, especially when I am their client, the neatness of their workspace plays a large role in my impression. I assume that if they can’t keep a neat workspace in which to meet with their clients, then they are probably disorganized in general. For people I meet with regularly (boss and coworkers) I have plenty of other things to base my opinion on, and the state of their desk is minor, especially if clients never see it.

  11. posted by Anita on

    @Erin — I did read the full report (wouldn’t have commented otherwise). Nowhere does it say the same group of people (or ANY group of people, for that matter) were asked HOW the neatness of an employee’s desk or office affects their perception of that person’s level of professionalism.

    HR managers were only asked the one question (or, if they were indeed asked follow-up questions, this is not noted anywhere in the News Release). The International Association of Administrative Professionals were NOT polled for their opinion on this matter (whether neatness affects perception of professionalism), they were only asked for advice on how to clear one’s desk clutter, based on the assumption (made by OfficeTeam, it seems) that a neat desk will make you look more professional.

  12. posted by Eileen on

    I have the problem mentioned above. If I keep my desk neat enough for myself to feel comfortable and productive, my supervisor makes comments about how I don’t look busy. If I keep a few stacks of nonsense around I’m less efficient, but she leaves me alone. However, her entire office is a complete mess and I do notice that that makes it difficult for some of us to take her seriously as a manager.

  13. posted by Geek Fun on

    @Anita – I agree. I didn’t see anywhere in the news release that specifies any follow up questions. It’s like asking “Does the color of a room affect your mood? Yes or No?” You get data, but it’s worthless.

  14. posted by Sian on

    I don’t think an untidy desk per se makes me think someone is unprofessional (unless its a public facing role where higher standards should be kept) BUT ‘that’ person with the untidy desk who can never find anything on it definitely makes me suspicious of the untidy desk. Some jobs just require a large amount of paperwork on a desk – usually these people work amongst ‘organised chaos’.

    The biggest asumptions I make regarding desks are those people who keep dirty dishes/decomposing food on their desks, that’s definitely unprofessional.

    I’ve had bosses assume I’ve finished all my work because I have everything tidied away before now (except the one thing I’m working on).

  15. posted by rick on

    Interesting finding. It is also indicative of the very immature focus of Corp America (and evidently Human Resources as a career path). Logically, a more viable metric of productivity SHOULD take precedence here. And not a subjective determination of professionalism via some observation of clutter (note: many of the comments here are simply ridiculous). Ultimately, is a company interested in the bottom-line or trivialities?

    HR Manager Bob says, “Sally’s idea enabled our division historic savings last quarter… but have you seen the clutter on her desk? She is definitely NOT professional. We must consider firing her soon.”

    Also, the underlying premise of the survey is biased. Remember correlation does not equal causation! If a HR Rep really had any tangible power with lay-offs, etc., the one with the cluttered desk would be smart to tender his or her resignation in any event as that particular corporate structure is weak, ineffective, and shallow.

    America must leverage innovation and creativity to remain competitive. This means thinking and acting with the big picture in mind. The type of outdated thinking (tidy always = professional) illuminated here is an unneeded weight we all still forced to shoulder.

    What absolute bunk.

  16. posted by Mike on

    It depends on what the employee does. If it’s a software engineer, I won’t think they are being productive UNLESS their office is scattered with snack wrappers, empty cans of Rockstar, and scribbled notes hither and yon. :)

    OK, seriously though, I’m a huge fan of the paperless office concept, as I imagine many minimalists and unclutterers are, and that goes a long way toward keeping things tidy. Years ago, I worked for a tech company that was paperless, and even the slobs had fairly acceptable workstations because the only thing they HAD to crud their areas up with was their own detritus. I’m not particularly fastidious, but as I recall it, my desk sported virtually no external adornment, purposeful or otherwise.

    My current job makes stacks of paper unavoidable, so I just try to take the time to shred anything that’s already on the network drive and that I’m not working with in the immediate future. I wouldn’t call my office “tidy” in an objective sense, but from among the other dozen or so people in senior positions here, I’m the clear frontrunner in the neatness category, so that’s kinda nice.

  17. posted by Jen on

    I agree with some of the people who have commented that it really shouldn’t matter to other people what the state of one’s desk is – some people do, in fact, work quite efficiently with lots of clutter around and others work best when everything is neatly organized and put away. It’s a very individualized thing and it would be nice if the corporate world and the individuals who comprise it would recognize that on both a conscious and subconscious level.

    However, we all have to live in the world as it is. And as it stands today, many people will judge us based on first impressions that include how messy or neat our desks are. The information in this post can be useful to us if we want to have a little control over how we are assessed by others when we previously may not have thought about it in this way.

  18. posted by Steadily & happily employed on

    Agreeing with Anita. I have never worked in a company where the “HR professional” makes decisions as to who is laid off. They are called in to handle the situation after the decision is made. So, the HR person’s opinion of a desk matters not.

    The smart cookie will mirror their boss to a degree — dress at a formality level like your boss, keep your desk in a similar state, etc. A messy-desk boss might think an employee with a super clean desk is a little…well, you know what.

    Ah, but then what do I know, as I am neither a writer nor a blogger, just someone with about 40 years successful work experience. I cannot possibly know what I am talking about. ;)

  19. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — Actually, the inclusion of the tips IS proof that there were additional questions. Why give tips if they didn’t match the conclusions? OfficeTeam wishes to help employees, why would they provide tips that would have the opposite effect?

  20. posted by CJ on

    I’ve been in the workforce for two decades, ranging from a plebe to a general manager of a small company, to a director-level manager at a regional airline.

    While I have seen exceptions, my experience suggests a messy office is a strong sign of problems.

    People do NOT multi-task, they sequential mono-task. Having a desk rife with clutter is a sign things aren’t getting done or aren’t being prioritized properly.

  21. posted by Anita on

    @Erin – I am not questioning the good will of OfficeTeam, only their research methods and the soundness of their arguments. To give you an example — say you have an article that says the following:

    “A group of 1000 people were asked: ‘Does the shape of a person’s face influence your perception of their intelligence?’

    83% of people surveyed responded that the shape of a person’s face DOES influence their perception of that person’s intelligence.

    We have polled an elite group of estheticians and make-up artists to bring you the following 15 tips to make your face look rounder.”

    Based on that snippet, you would be tempted to assume that there was further data to suggest that people considered round faces the most intelligent-looking; however, there’s nothing in the data you are presented with to suggest this, so the conclusion could very well be based on the writer/researcher’s assumption that round-faced people look smarter.

    It’s very generous of you to assume that the OfficeTeam folks have more data (which they don’t present) that would make their argument sound; however, in practice, this is a fallacy of assumption called begging the question, in which the arguer assumes what they should be proving.

  22. posted by Steve on

    The results of this study are (at least) three degrees removed from actual job performance:

    1st degree: clutter != performance

    2nd degree: HR is not the judger of performance

    3rd degree: asking people survey questions is not the same as studying their responses to stimuli. This is true both because the way the questions are worded has a great effect on what answers you get; and also because people lie when filling out surveys (they say they would do one thing, but in reality they would do another, they just don’t want to admit it to the surveyor or even themselves.)

  23. posted by Mletta on

    Rick writes:
    America must leverage innovation and creativity to remain competitive. This means thinking and acting with the big picture in mind. The type of outdated thinking (tidy always = professional) illuminated here is an unneeded weight we all still forced to shoulder.

    I’m with you, Rick. The focus is off here. If HR is focusing on appearances, its time would be better spent elsewhere (like actually representing the best interests of staffers, for one!).

    Productivity metrics, as defined and agreed to, are the real measure. All the rest (office politics, personality, popularity , whatever)is really irrelevant.

    I don’t care how clean your desk is (I do care about odors, however), but I do care if YOUR part of our shared project is sloppy, incomplete and/or late.

    Personally, I prefer to be around clean and tidy and orderly desks. But, if you’re doing your job, really, it’s not my business.

    I’m always amazed at what people do surveys on. Rarely about anything that could really help improve the quality of life for real workers.

  24. posted by KT on

    They are individual variables.

  25. posted by Amy on

    Um, are you writing reviews for an academic journal? Cause it’s getting that nasty. Chill out, people. It’s an interesting point. Sure, it could sometimes go in the other direction, the study could have been better/more controlled/used better measures. But that’s not the point. Erin just shared something that was thought-provoking. Kind of the point of a blog.

    Personally, I’m astounded at how people can work in clutter, but I don’t say anything to them. I suspect some folks judge me for having a clear desk but I don’t worry about what they think. The one thing that drives me bonkers is having your virtual desktop littered with clutter (icons, shortcuts, actual documents). It slows your computer down and makes it nearly impossible for someone to help you with anything on your computer.

  26. posted by Kate on

    My co-workers know I had a crazy day if they come in the next morning and there is stuff all over my desk from the previous day. I HAVE to clear it off every night. But I am also the biggest user of Purell in the office and the one that goes over contracts to catch all the possible issues that could cause us troubles. A little OCD in most people’s opinion but my boss (and her boss) know that I am the detail, make it all neat, catch any troubles person.

  27. posted by rick on

    @Mletta… completely resonate with odor constraints!

    @Amy… maybe tonality is giving off some type of academic journal vibe, but definitely not as terse as the average (real) scientific debates.

    The study itself was presented in a way as to be interpreted as a significant survey leading to an important socio-psychological finding with real implications in the business world. Alas, the study is a complete fairy tale. And as a result the conversational thread should encompass this fact.

    Note: this is not meant as a slam against Erin (a very bright, articulate anti-clutterist!) but towards the Staffing Firm, OfficeTeam.

  28. posted by Uchatome on

    I actually had my boss tell me once to place papers on my desk to make me look like I am indeed busy. Tried it one day and couldn’t find a thing. Actually lost some papers within the stack of display papers. Went back to a clear desk. Her office is filled with non-sense clutter
    Odd as it is, I am in charge of all the 10000′s of documents to file (I work in a hospital system) so in a sense I have lots of papers but simply not on my desks.

  29. posted by Rachel on

    I agree with the folks (Anita, etc) who pointed out the flaws in the study that is being presented.

    Additionally, I think there are other assumptions being made too. Seems like a marketing gimmick by the folks at Office Team.

    For example – professionalism does not equate to productivity. How busy someone may be is a function of their production or performance, not their professionalism.

    Also – “neatness” does not mean minimalist. Someone can certainly have a lot of stuff (work-related) organized neatly around their desk.

  30. posted by the other Tammy on

    As someone who meets with clients on a regular basis, clear desktop is the rule. I allow myself one stack on the edge of my desk for whatever I am currently working on–if a customer comes in unexpectedly, everything is gathered up onto the corner stack and dealt with later. Everything must be off the desktop by closing time–confidential data.

  31. posted by dustwindbun on

    I’m surprised nobody’s pointed out the other problem – this study was done by OfficeTeam. They’re horrible! I’ve dealt with at least a dozen staffing agencies, either as employer or employee, and OfficeTeam doesn’t return calls, is terribly disorganized – I scheduled an interview/processing session with them to get listed as a job candidate with them, and and sat in their lobby from 1 pm until they closed that day at 5 for a 1:30 appointment, and all they ever said was, sorry, guess the person you were supposed to meet with was too busy, they’ll call you. And they never did – and this was someone who practically begged me to come in and join their worker pool.
    Erin here is pretty awesome, but I’m not about to take organization tips from a place like OfficeTeam.

  32. posted by infmom on

    My husband’s office at his last job was a trash pile and his boss was a neat freak. Deadly combination. I begged and pleaded and did everything I could to encourage him to for pity’s sake clean the mess up, but he wouldn’t. Claimed he had too much work to do.

    He actually lost a merit raise because of it. So he and I went in there one weekend and I spent about three hours tidying things up. I think he was overwhelmed by the notion that he had to deal with every last scrap of paper in the place, a job that would have taken forever if he looked carefully at each item and made a decision on what to do with it. “It doesn’t have to BE clean, it just has to LOOK clean,” said I. I got a box, gathered up all the paper piles from every horizontal surface, stacked the papers neatly in the box, and put the box under his desk out of sight. That way nothing valuable got thrown out, but he could deal with the box contents gradually as he had time to do it. I suggested that anything he hadn’t seen reason to remove from the box after three months should just be summarily hauled out to the trash.

    In his current job, he’s in a cubicle with very limited junk space and his boss is much more relaxed. So that problem is solved. But his desk at home is still a trash pile. Sigh.

  33. posted by Aunt Cloud on

    In academia, researchers’ and grad students’ desks range from complete chaos to OCD neat and everything in between. In my department, I didn’t see a clear correlation between the state of one’s desk and work bench to the quality of one’s research results. But I guess academia is not part of real life.

  34. posted by amandalee on

    This is why I’m a freelancer. People judge me on my work, not on what my office looks like (most of the time it’s orderly, but not always).

  35. posted by lady brett on

    yes, desk neatness greatly affects my perception of people in the workplace…negatively.

    i think it’s a combination of adhering to Einstein’s philosophy on desk cleanliness and personal experience. i work with the most amazing, hard-working, intelligent, awesome people and all of our desks are at best a little cluttered. to me, it signals that people are actually working. and i’ve found personally that the harder i am working on *work,* the worse my desk gets as i am focused on things other than my ocd.

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