Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Desk Surfers Abound

Cubicle Culture by Jared Sandberg/20050314

Desk Surfers Abound, But Some People Find Ways to Outwit Them March 9, 2005 by Jared Sandberg The Wall Street Journal

Unless you're a dentist, doctor or family member, don't get within three feet of Carol Kromminga.

That's pretty much the radius that circumscribes her personal space. It's bad enough that some colleagues waltz around to Ms. Kromminga's side of the desk and linger. And it isn't any better when they try to eye documents on her desk or the work on her computer screen from afar.

When a desk surfer barges in, she says, she swivels her chair around, puts her elbow on top of her documents and makes eye contact to "control those roaming eyes." But the computer screen is trickier to protect. She has closed one embarrassing site -- say, the Estée Lauder Web page -- only to reveal another embarrassing one. So she has concluded that her best tactic is to click on the Start menu -- "A big menu pops up and temporarily distracts them," she says -- and then to swivel and make eye contact.

The prevalence of snooping is yet another indication that office privacy is a myth. And because some co-workers mistakenly think they're subtle about it, it's yet another example of office self-delusion, right up there with all the people who think they have great leadership potential or interpersonal skills. Granted, it's impressive that these people can read upside down or somehow appear out of thin air behind you. But that's where their magic ends.

One New York equity trader isn't exactly fooled when someone he calls the "chief surfing officer" visits. "When she is at your desk, she does the old, 'Oh, your son is so cute,' and leans forward to grab the picture," he explains. "But prior to picking up the picture she thoroughly scans the content on my three flat-panel screens."

Some people peep to gain grist for the rumor mill; others do it to slake their insatiable curiosity. "They're trying to pick up any shred of information, personal or professional, that'll give them a sense of power that they don't have in their current job," says Angelo Calvello, a financial-services executive in Chicago.

And sometimes snooping stems from office rivalries. Fred Chang and his colleagues in the marketing department used to be visited regularly by the folks in sales to find out what was going on. "They couldn't help but look at what we were doing," Mr. Chang says.

Lynn Urban admits to an occasional look-see at someone else's work because, she says, "you can find a lot of things out." She never goes into someone's office intending to conduct reconnaissance, she says. But "if I get bored, the longer I'm in there, the more likely my eyes are to wander." And if someone takes a phone call, she adds, "how can they expect that you not look?"

Still, office spying tends to inspire massive counter efforts. At one point, when Ms. Urban's office was arranged in such a way that her back was to the door, "it drove me nuts," she says. One colleague even lifted documents off her desk for closer inspection. So she bought a small rear-view mirror, which she attached to her computer screen, at an auto-parts store. "I had a wide view of what was going on behind me," she says.

Some victims behave as though their most innocuous information is a state secret. Patricia Witkin, who works for a computer-book publisher, says she doesn't mind providing data that colleagues request. "If you ask me, I'll probably give you the key to the castle," she says. But anyone who tries to glean information surreptitiously, as a female colleague did recently, isn't met with the same sharing spirit: "On principle now, I don't want to share anything with her: what I had for breakfast, how I spent my weekend or what Web site I'm visiting."

Obvious counter measures may only serve to whet the office snoop's appetite. When Tim Dougherty worked for a publisher, he was asked to use a privacy screen on his computer that limited the angles from which it could be read. But it also prompted snoopers to think: "He's got a privacy screen, this must be juicy stuff," he says. "People would just come right up behind me and stand there, without any qualms, and read what I was doing."

Engineering manager Jeff Ihnen has developed a special rebuke for
peepers: "Would you like to have a seat at my laptop for a better view, operate the cursor, see what I'm writing, or should I just e-mail you a copy?" Eric Blinderman, on the other hand, recommends a diversionary approach: "Hey," he suggests saying to snoopers, "I hear there's chocolate cake in the kitchen."

To battle office spies, Mike Wetherington, a securities analyst in Dallas, puts his messy office to use. "There is so much crap on my desk, floor, credenza you can't really tell what I'm working on," he says.

And Stephen Cotton and a colleague at a manufacturing plant tried setting a trap. One of their co-workers had a tendency to rifle through their supervisor's desk, so they wrote a bogus memo on the company letterhead exploring the "feasibility" of having "a very small implant put into employees to monitor their activities."

A day or two later, people from human resources came around asking questions like, "What in the world is going on here?" Mr. Cotton recalls.

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