Catching a co-worker going through your desk can be an unnerving and anger-inducing experience. You might be caught off guard and have no what idea what to say. Once you compose yourself, it's important to confront the colleague and let her know in no uncertain terms that this type of invasion of privacy is not acceptable.
Address the Colleague
Get right to the point with the rude co-worker by saying, “I saw you going through my desk. What were you looking for?” She might defend herself and say she was searching for a report or memo she needs for her job, was borrowing a writing utensil or thought she left something there during a previous conversation. If it’s a first-time event and the explanation seems plausible, let it go. If the answer appears sketchy, then lay down the law immediately. For example, you might say, “If you need something from me, please tell me. My desk is private space and I feel uncomfortable if somebody goes through it without my permission.” If you catch the same colleague going through your desk again, it's time to step up the volume. Be firm, address her by her name, and show her you mean business while still maintaining a professional decorum. For example: “Jane, I've asked you not to go through my desk. This is inappropriate behavior and the next time it happens I'm taking it to the boss.”
Consider the Explanation
If your co-worker is nosy and lacks appropriate boundaries, that's one thing. However, if the colleague is searching your desk for paperwork or reports you were supposed to get to her, but didn't, it might be wise to examine what role you play in the cycle of behavior. For example, if you're supposed to deliver a daily statistical report by noon each day, and your co-worker is at your desk every day at 2 p.m. looking for it because you failed to turn it in on time, you need to take care of your own issues. This doesn't justify invasion of privacy, but your colleague has clearly reached a breaking point and needs to attend to her responsibilities.
While you're trying to work out the situation with your colleague, protect yourself by putting a lock on your desk and storing confidential information in locking file cabinets. This is especially important if you handle sensitive customer financial information. Do away with your jarful of pens and your candy dish, both of which some staffers find hard to resist. If you have an office with a door, close and lock it when you leave, even if it's only to get a cup of coffee or make a trip to the restroom.
Go to the Boss
If you’ve done everything you can to curb your co-worker’s behavior and she has no reasonable excuse for going through your belongings, take the issue to your immediate supervisor. Explain what you've done to address the problem so your boss knows you to tried to handle it yourself. Pose the issue as something you need advice about rather than as a complaint. For example: “I regularly find Jane going through my desk. I've asked her many times to stop and ask me for what she needs, but it hasn't resolved the problem. What do you suggest I do from here?”
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.