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In one of my previous jobs, I had the following situation, and I'm not sure what would have been the right way to react.

Once, during a team meeting, I was showing something work related on my laptop (I think, slides for a presentation) to my colleagues, and one of them wanted to search for missing information on some website. He took my laptop without asking for my permission, opened the browser and started typing the address of the website. I panicked, because it was my private laptop, and I had been using it to search for some very personal stuff. I didn't want my colleague to type "a", searching for amazon, and to see a suggestion like "am I pregnant?" instead. So I covered the screen with my palms and said something like: "Please don't, there can be something private!".

He apologized, but of course I felt very embarrassed because I overreacted. Most likely my colleagues thought that I had a collection of porn sites bookmarked there, or something similar to that.

I'm not sure if I actually had something incriminating in my browser's search history, but it just made me feel very uncomfortable. To me, using someone's laptop to google something is as impolite as opening this persons' backpack and rummaging through it. Maybe it's a cultural thing.

The laptop I'm currently using for work belongs to the company, and I wouldn't mind my colleagues using it, since I don't store anything private there. However, I might encounter a situation like this again sometime in the future, so I wonder how I should act.

  • Does one have to ask for a colleague's permission if he/she wants to use this colleague's laptop? Does it matter whether it's a personal laptop or a laptop provided by the employer? Does it depend on the country (I live in Germany)?
  • What would be a polite way to say that things like that make me feel uncomfortable? Should I even do that in case using a colleague's laptop is perfectly fine?

Update: I did not have a separate laptop for work, and there was no possibility to get it. Since all this happened in the past, I cannot change it now.

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    @LaconicDroid "He took my laptop without asking for my permission". A guest account wouldn't have been much help – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 4 at 9:35
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    Huge WTF is: "how could he use it, without knowing the password?" – BЈовић Feb 4 at 9:48
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    @BЈовић "I was showing something work related on my laptop" - i.e. it was unlocked because it was in use. It seems perfectly normal to pass round a machine with a small screen, you should be able to trust your colleagues to the extent that they don't go through your stuff in front of you. – Chris H Feb 4 at 10:05
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    @Mawg AconicDroid wasn't suggesting a guest account, but a work account and a personal account. It would help with the personal aspect, but not with anything work-related that might be problematic (e.g. google: "how can I report someones who's harrassing a colleague?") – Chris H Feb 4 at 10:06
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12 Answers 12

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Does one have to ask for a colleague's permission if he/she wants to use this colleague's laptop?

Yes, even if it's a company laptop.

Now, you shouldn't be doing anything on a company laptop which you shouldn't be doing, or which can embarrass you. (I'm not saying you shouldn't do anything private -- whether that's allowed or not is company policy; the company I work for allows you do some personal stuff on your laptop.) But your laptop is an extension of you. It authenticates you and not your colleague. You may have information in a window your colleague isn't allowed to see. You may be logged in to a machine your colleague has no business to. You may be half way typing an email to HR with personal information. You should always ask to use someone else's computer, and you should expect other people to ask before using yours. Etc.

That's why I always lock my screen even if I step one meter away from by desk.

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    Coming from an infosec perspective, I completely agree with this. The issue isn't so much the physical laptop itself, but the session logged into the domain and likely several secure sessions in the browser. Even if the coworker has access to the information, any actions they take would be logged as the OP, interfering with future audits. Of course, if the company policy allows this, or the CEO comes and personally takes it, I guess there's no right to complain, but I highly doubt that's the case here. – aidanh010 Feb 4 at 4:27
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    "even if it's a company laptop" Nope. You need the companies permission to use a company laptop, but that's about it. If Joe goes on holiday for a week, leaves his laptop, and I want to use it; the last person I'll ask is Joe. Of course, using someone elses account on that laptop is another story – UKMonkey Feb 4 at 11:49
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    @Abigail the question was also about a personal laptop. Your extra information is wrong as I pointed out. As for your encrypted disk - almost every disk encryption system offers multiple keys to decrypt - allowing the sysadmin to use the machine. Your password is not required. – UKMonkey Feb 4 at 12:33
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    "That's why I always lock my screen even if step one meter away from by desk" - Awesome advice. Windows Key + L is your friend on Microsoftland. – OnoSendai Feb 4 at 18:50
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    @UKMonkey And most places I know would strictly limit what can be done with sysadmin access to a machine that belongs to a co-worker. Where I've seen a general encryption with sysadmin backdoor on personal machines, even actions by the sysadmins were under a 4-eyes-only protection and they have to document what they do. Under no way that access would have been granted to a coworker that needed some laptop. In urgent cases where the worker to whom the machine belonged would not be reachable, they would extract required information for that co-worker. – Frank Hopkins Feb 5 at 17:48
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Lets make this simple. Don't use your personal laptop for work. Don't bring your personal laptop into a team meeting.

If I needed to hijack or borrow a machine somebody is using at work I would ask for permission, but I would expect that they would not have a problem with it. Of course I would also expect that at a team meeting all the machines are owned by the company. The fact that you were using it to go over work slides would reinforce my belief.

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    @lawful_neutral If you need a computer at work the company must provide it. If the room has no computers and you do not have a portable then the company wants you to use printouts etc. You never have to use your own computer at work. – user151019 Feb 3 at 20:28
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    @Mark Some companies are moving to BYOD (bring your own device) so it's quite possible that the OP would be expected to use a personal device at work. – Eric Feb 4 at 0:01
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    If you really had to use your personal laptop for work, then create two different accounts. That would solve 95% of your privacy problems. And if you still want more safety, use a different OS. – P.Manthe Feb 4 at 3:54
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    I would never "expect that they would not have a problem with it". The device may contain confidential data. It could very likely be a data privacy/security violation to allow access to an unauthorized person. It's also quite a personal privacy intrusion if private use of company devices is allowed (like it is in many companies). – kapex Feb 4 at 11:08
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    If the fact that you have to use your own laptop at work is common in this organisation, and if it was known by the colleague, then their grabbing the machine was really quite rude and inappropriate (though it sounds like it was simply due to not thinking rather than being malicious or boisterous). However indeed there are ways to mitigate the potential problems of this. – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 4 at 12:02
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The other possibility that comes to mind is to have a work account and a private account on the laptop, that way you won't have the risk of "private" or "personal" searches coming up.

But the other answer stands about a work machine, while there are places that do offer "funding" to people providing their own machine...

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    I like the idea of having two accounts. I didn't think of it back then, maybe because I wasn't spending a lot of time with colleagues. – lawful_neutral Feb 3 at 20:54
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    I suggest it to students, when they are using their own laptops for presentations and their chosen screen background comes up... Never too bad, but enough for them to think for the future. But I always have an ADMIN account and my user account... Even for visitors I create them an account - did one for my niece... – Solar Mike Feb 3 at 20:59
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    Same but different type to this is use 2 different browsers. I use chrome for personal stuff and mozilla for work related stuff. – Morthy Feb 4 at 8:26
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    @Morthy and when your colleague opens Chrome as they prefer Chrome... – Solar Mike Feb 4 at 8:33
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    @Morthy And if your work involves using Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari.... ;) #webdev – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 4 at 12:03
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I've worked on my personal laptop at a number of companies and so know this situation well.

In my experience* the vast majority of people understand that just using your laptop without asking isn't OK. The fact that this is your personal machine and that it's in public only increase the need to ask first, but they should be asking every time regardless.

However some people just don't, for whatever reason, get this and need to be politely but firmly told to not do it when they try. This is unfortunate, but you'd hope in most cases will only have to be done once or twice before the message gets across and they don't try it again.

That's exactly what you've done. Rest assured that most people in the room were on your side and would likely have done the same in your position. You have absolutely no reason to feel embarrassed.


*I am confident it's a universal professional norm, and doesn't depend on culture all that much, but for context I've worked in the UK and Germany with colleagues from all around the world

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First, to answer your question: Yes, you should always ask for permission to use a colleague's laptop, unless it's an emergency and said colleague can't be reached at the moment. It doesn't matter if it's personal or only for work.

Even if the laptop is "just a tool", it's not a tool like a hammer or a screwdriver, we are talking about a tool that saves information about the person who uses it, and that person should have a say in giving you or not access to that information.

Now, a tip I wanted to tell you: Chrome (for example) allows you to save different user profiles. Each one with a separate history, extensions, configurations, passwords, etc.... So you could use one of that for when you want to browse through your stuff (or a specific one only for work-related browsing) in the future, that should help you avoid this kind of situations.

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    Don't be too quick to call hammers and screwdrivers "just tools." In the days (not so long ago in the UK) when apprenticed craftsmen were expected to provide their own hand tools, "borrowing" from someone else's toolbox without permission would quite likely be an "instant dismissal without a reference" situation. Or at best, you might need medical attention when the matter was settled outside, after work... – alephzero Feb 4 at 16:38
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I have no idea who would simply start typing at a different users computer, let alone touch it. You reacted with shame; react with indignation.

My responses would have been as follows:

To a colleague:

"Hands off my computer, please."

or

"That is not yours, thank you."

To a manager: I'm not certain.

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    Yea I think that's a good way to further turn your colleagues against you. – Jack Feb 6 at 3:21
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    "Hands off my computer" or "That's not yours" sound very rude. – Tvde1 Feb 6 at 13:10
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    @Tvde1 Your rude is my stern. It would never cross my mind, with my own etiquette, to ever touch a colleague's machine without permission. – paulj Feb 6 at 15:34
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I now work in a academia where the line between personal and work is a bit more blurred, so this may give a different persepctive even if the conclusion is similar.

My work machine is a desktop (I do a fair bit of CAD and a little number-crunching) so when I give presentations (and can't use a lecture-theatre PC) I use a personal laptop. This is not uncommon, and people also use work laptops for fairly personal stuff (hopefully at least with different browsers/profiles). Postgrads in particular work on personal machines in work - they're not employees and while they often do have work machines they're often old and rubbish.*

Grabbing someone else's machine and firing up a browser is poor etiquette at best, even (especially?) in an environment like this. My preference is to ask the owner to look stuff up, but general practice is (at a minimum) to ask the owner before starting the browser, even if you've already been using the machine with them .


* Some more to horrify the sysadmins and infosec specialists: We also end up with systems where one user has to log another on (essential software that only functions when run as an admin, but getting admin rights for a new user can cause massive delays). I'm atypical in locking my work PC when I walk away from it; that's probably an industry habit, and I've had people email me passwords unrequested so I can send them data.

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Frist of all there is the politeness factor: If I have to borrow your hammer or your knife, good manner dictate that I ask "May I borrow your hammer, please?". We're not talking about a piece of steel with a wooden handle, but a delicate and costly electronic instrument, one could easily break it.

Second thing, on a work computer normally who is logged on is responsible of what happens from their login, think about typing the wrong command in a remote root shell, and in some case is even required by law that the loggen on user must not allow other people to use their credentials.

1

It is a breach of privacy, even if it is a "work" computer. Same goes for phones. With the way we use electronics today they tend to become an extension of our personal space rather than simply exchangeable objects. I would make the analogy to work clothes - even if these are provided by the company, for a specific purpose, you normally wouldn't borrow someones personal boots or lab coat.

Another reason is hygiene, as a lot of people don't wash their hands. One of my pet peeves is people handing me their phone to take a call with someone. You spend 1/3 of your time using that phone in the bathroom and I don't want it anywhere near my mouth.

Anecdote: My boss once borrowed my laptop (without asking) to show videos (or whatever) at an expo booth, leaving it unattended in a public space for the whole day. After this I started using full disk encryption, so the machine won't even boot without me present.

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Too many of the existing answers beat around the bush. Which is:

What the heck is wrong with your colleague ???

Yes, he absolutely needs to ask for permission before using your machine. That is common etiquette. Not doing so is a lack of respect, disregard of boundaries and possibly a domination gesture. It may well be a violation of company policy as well.

No, you don't need a polite way to point out that it makes you feel uncomfortable. You need a polite way to say "what is wrong with you?"


What could you have done different?

Not much.

  • You did not need to point out that there could be something private. Simply stating something along the lines of "my machine, not yours" or "you know it's polite to ask first?" would have been good as well.
  • You had no reason to be embarrassed.

In short: You were right, he was wrong. He apologized, no harm was done, I hope the answers here give you closure because moving on is all that's left to do.

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Your laptop is your personal property and nobody gets to use it without your permission. If you are going to give someone permission, they'd better be gracious enough to let you secure any personal stuff that you might have left open on it too.

Work computers, on the other hand, are company property. They can and will be co-opted by your colleagues at a moment's notice and you're going to have to have a very good excuse if you want to refuse them. It's still the done thing for them to ask politely first, but you shouldn't always count on that. For instance, if your CEO walks in with a broken laptop and needs to send an urgent e-mail, you'd better be prepared to hand it right over.

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    Hand over laptop - yes. Hand over laptop with my account logged in and laptop unlocked - never ever. If he needs it, let him re-log into his own account. In most companies I worked in (all that mentioned that case), it was serious offense to let anybody access your account. – Artur Biesiadowski Feb 4 at 8:05
  • @Artur Biesiadowski No arguments from me. To access their own e-mail, etc. they'd typically need you to log out in any case. – Matthew Barber Feb 4 at 21:37
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Let's assume that this was your work laptop. There will be lots of people saying "it's your work laptop, your employer has the right to access it". That may be right, but your colleagues are not your employer. They have no right to access your computer unless your manager tells you otherwise. And many people are not allowed to give anyone access to their computer for security reasons.

However, this wasn't your work laptop. This was your private laptop that you had to use because your company was too tight to buy a laptop for you. In this case, I don't even think the company has a right to access that computer without your permission.

Forget about all the technical solutions. And forget about being polite - what this person did was absolutely rude, and I very much doubt he would have done that if you hadn't been a woman, but a (strong) man. In this situation, the first move would be to go to your manager, tell him or her what happened, ask him to make it stop, and in your particular situation, if he doesn't assure you this happens again, tell him that you won't bring your private computer to work anymore.

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