Workplace Doctor: Phantom note maker feels like a victim of poor office etiquette

A lot of notes get left around the office. These are notes on the correct etiquette of using the office fridge, notes on how to clean the kitchen after use, notes even on how to use the toilet. I’ve no idea who leaves these “helpful” post-its – an example in the fridge would be “this food is mine; touch at your peril” – but it makes me want to write something very sarcastic in return. Should I get involved or simply learn to ignore? WL, Abu Dhabi

Someone in your office seems to want to “stamp” their authority, but is finding it difficult to appropriately voice this frustration, equally they may not know exactly who the perpetrator is and not want to make any false acquisitions. Yet this person is annoyed by the behaviour of others in your office.

Office culture is fascinating and guided by the informal rules of “the way things are done around here”. You can unknowingly break the rules in a number of ways, for example, not showing up to a team social event, forgetting a birthday or leaving a hot desk messy after using it. These unwritten laws are what guides the psychological contracts people have with each other and with the organisation and are usually more powerful than any formal contract or written handbook.

Often newcomers miss these subtle cultural cues, like we may do when moving to a new city or country, and then learn the hard way as to what is and isn’t appropriate. My own experience, after first moving to the UAE, of going into meetings and diving straight into business without building rapport was quickly shut down. I quickly realised my very British approach needed to be adapted to the Middle East.

In this fast-moving world we need to learn quickly about how to conduct ourselves, both in business and in life. Yet it can be frustrating when someone else doesn’t seem willing to adopt these customs.

It appears the workplace is becoming increasingly stressful for one of your coworkers who is seeing the behaviour of others fall completely out of line with their own views of what is appropriate at work. He or she is likely to have been the victim of some less-than-savoury workplace behaviour.

Try to put yourself in their shoes. I know how irritated I would feel if someone ate my freshly prepared meal waiting for me in the fridge, or if I went into the kitchen at work and it looked like it had been set upon by a pack of hungry wolves. Remember, we spend 40 hours a week at work and all want to feel comfortable. Imagine how you would react if someone came into your house, messed up the kitchen and then ate your dinner.

That being said, leaving notes around is an extremely passive-aggressive way of dealing with the situation. This individual either needs to speak up or put up, as their chosen approach is rather childish and clearly having an adverse effect. Maybe you could find out who the “phantom note maker” is and suggest a more adult strategy.

In terms of deciding whether to get involved or to ignore, I would avoid sarcasm at all costs and instead promote a more positive, considerate and polite work environment. This means you could raise the general issue of cleanliness and manners or ask the management to do so.

To overcome these irritating post-it notes; you may want to create and share information regarding “kitchen etiquette”. In my office, there are some friendly and humorous signs encouraging certain behaviours and people do actually adhere to them. This could have dual benefits by creating a better working environment and stop the childish displays of frustration.

Doctor’s Prescription:

I understand why you are becoming irritated at these patronising statements being left lying around. Yet your own frustration is probably tiny compared to the perpetrator, who considers themself the victim of someone else’s messy workplace behaviour. Instead of sarcasm and cynicism towards the “phantom note maker ” instead try to promote more considerate behaviour in the office and tackle both issues at once.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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