Since I work in the computer software industry, I enjoy walking past the cubicles and offices of my fellow employees. I’ve had the chance to discover that when it comes to office decoration, there are several schools of thought.
Some are what I call “business plain,” with only work-related information on the desk and walls. A family photo or occasional calendar is about the only indication this denizen has a personality. Boring!
If I were to hazard a guess about what type of office is the commonest, I would suggest the themed office. This is a space strewn with paraphernalia from some favorite movie, game or sports team. Within just a few feet of my office space, there are posters for the local college football team, a large model of the Iron Giant, and signs indicating the Tech Wizard is in, accompanied by a row of wizardly models and items. Office toys in these places are a must. Zen gardens are common, as are little toys like kinetic art sculptures and squeeze balls. Several people went wild with Nerf guns at Microsoft, and it was not uncommon to see Nerf battles raging down the halls. Magnetic poetry sets are great for the break room fridge or the hallway whiteboard.
Some cubicles are heavy on posters, whether inspirational — “Unity!” “Perseverance!” “There is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’” — or very geeky — “There are 10 people in this world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” “2 + 2 = 5 for very large values of 2.” or “I’m lost. I have gone out to find myself. If I return before I get back, please ask me to wait.”
Then there are the few offices that really stand out. I’m thinking of one with 50+ posters and stickers. Most are of the insultingly funny variety: “Did you eat a bowl of stupid this morning?” “My imaginary friend thinks you have serious issues.” “I’m sad that you suck.” When you find an office like this, stop and make friends with the owner. This is the person who totes the Xbox into the office for some lunchtime play, or who knows the people who do.
Some offices succumb to too much cute. These offices have dozens of pictures of family, dogs, cats, and sometimes calendars of dogs and cats. Grandparents are drawn to these offices, sensing a kindred spirit. You can recognize them by the photo album tucked under an arm. Unless you are also armed with your own family photos, avoid these offices. If you’re a diabetic, run.
None of this office décor is a problem in the workplace (assuming you are not diabetic), but some things are best kept out of the office. For instance, few things rile people up faster than religion and politics. Since I now live in a battleground state, there is a pretty even mix of Republicans and Democrats in my office. Emotions run high when it comes to politics, particularly in an election year, so placing a large Bush or Kerry sign in my office would be guaranteed to cheese off half my co-workers. This is not the wisest way to start a new job.
Religious or political differences between co-workers are bad enough, but when these things happen between employer and employee, it is tantamount to harassment. If my position or chances for promotion are based on my participation in the boss’ religion or adherence to his chosen political party, that has clearly crossed the line of acceptability.
People are still likely to express their deeply-felt beliefs. One of the guys at my workplace wears a lanyard with the initials W.W.J.D (What Would Jesus Do?) on it. In another cubicle, there are several Bible verses written on a small card attached to the wall. Neither of these instances crosses the line for me, but I am religious myself and have little difficulty with such items. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what others may find offensive. People have claimed that merely seeing a Bible on a co-worker’s desk is an offense worth suing over. Other people have been fired for wearing a cross to work. The problem lies not in the nature of the subject matter, but rather in the offensensitivity of others.
But what is too much? Who draws the line? Sadly, the final judgment lies with those who are offended. This means that an innocently intended comment, political opinion, or religious idea could be seen as offensive. In a society where people respect each other, the offended person would talk to the other person privately, explaining why the comment or item is inappropriate or offensive. But ours is a society where simple issues that could be solved by a heartfelt conversation are increasingly settled in court. Offensensitivity is driving respect and tolerance out of the corporate workplace, and it keeps people from discovering some of the most interesting aspects of their co-workers’ personalities.
Personally, I share the opinion of Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins in the movie 1776: “in all my years I ain’t never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” I would prefer the open and free expression of people’s opinions and beliefs. But not everyone feels this way. If you think one political party is better than another, or if your religious beliefs are important to you, then you had best spend time expressing these concepts outside of work. This is why I vent my feelings here, rather than climbing on a soapbox on the corporate campus. If you cannot keep away from volatile subjects at work, be ready for the potential heated comments or lawsuits that will come from hypersensitive people.