What Does Your Desk Say About You?

Whether it's a shrine to your kitty or clean enough to conduct surgery in, your workspace makes a big statement. But are you sure it's the one you want to make?

female executive
(Image credit: Sergey Baykov)

Lori Jacks, a 31-year-old paralegal in Talladega, Alabama, is the go-to gal in her firm for legal briefs. She's accurate, confident, and can churn out several in a day, more than most of her colleagues. She's so good, in fact, that her desk has become a repository for case files — hundreds of them. While law offices, by their very nature, create mounds of paperwork, Jacks' desk is in a category all its own. Jacks says she's too busy to throw out yesterday's — or last month's — newspapers, half-finished coffee cups, cardboard lunch containers. "It's a bit of a nightmare," she confesses. "The second I get up from my desk, I guarantee the intercom will ring. I'm embarrassed. I feel like my desk is a reflection on me, that I'm lazy."

She's right to be concerned. A messy desk suggests that its occupant isn't conscientious--a trait that is one of the biggest predictors of success, according to University of Texas professor Sam Gosling, author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Translation: Jacks' clutter could be very subtly informing her boss's decisions as to whether to grant her a raise or promotion. "Accurate or not, people form impressions of you based on your space," says Gosling.

Everything in your office inspires snap judgments, from your collage of Ryan Reynolds (junior, immature) to the jar of candy on your desk (extrovert). Here, a guide to what your belongings really say about you.

Personal photos. A bulletin board plastered with snaps of your tot suggests you're counting down the hours to quitting time. A cube that doubles as a shrine to your kitty may prompt a manager to gently recommend eHarmony.

Spare shoes. A crisp pair of kicks tucked under the desk says you're motivated and concerned about your well-being. Ho-hum black flats say that, deep down, you live for sweatpants, Bravo, and your stain-resistant couch.

Framed tickets from the Monster's Ball. While showcasing your musical interests indicates you have a healthy social life, be careful: Certain genres may cause an uptight, old-school boss to resort to dated stereotypes. Hard to believe, but some folks still think all rap is gangsta.

Coffee mug. Cutesy cups, like ironic tees, suggest that you think you're really, really clever. As for those stainless-steel commuter-friendly mugs? You may be a deadline champ, but you're also last to pick up a round at happy hour.

Map from your trip to Turkey. Distinctive mementos from your travels tell visitors that you're open-minded and worldly. Bosses adore these kinds of thinkers.

Rosary or hamsa. Third-rail alert! Religious icons can be the fastest way to alienate a colleague. Same goes for political paraphernalia. Treat your workspace like Thanksgiving dinner — ideology-free.

A box of tissues. These rarely get noticed unless someone sneezes or cries. Score big points for thoughtfulness when you hand her a Kleenex.

Keith Richards' Life. Dishy and embraced by fans and philosophes alike, this may be the most perfect conversation-starter ever written. The worst: anything by Malcolm Gladwell.

Shot glasses. Why not just interoffice the photo of you doing body shots from your recent trip to Cabo?

Princeton pennant. Truth is, bosses love to know they've hired a winner. What better way to remind them than flaunting Ivy League swag? The flip side: Your colleagues will hate you.