I work in USA as a Software Developer. I took a week off as a vacation, and came back today to see my desk in a mess: my 3 screens were unplugged and stacked, and there were cigarette ashes everywhere. It turns out, last week all remote interns/employees were working in the office and my manager had to use my desk.

The manager left the below note:

Welcome back! Tasks:

  • rearrange desk (sorry about that)
  • this
  • that

I feel extremely upset with this situation.

Is it professional to mess up someone's desk when they are on vacation? How should I deal with this?

  • 5
    What happened and why? That's nowhere in your question. Finding out may help.
    – user8036
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 18:40
  • 22
    What country is this?
    – Strawberry
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 9:00
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – phresnel
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 15:47
  • 2
    What is your job? What is your expected work environment? Are you a software developer in a startup or an established company? Or are you in sales and marketing or maybe finance? The reality is each career path and each culture each comes with some baseline “norms” of expected office setup and behavior so this might not be aberrant in some cases as much as they are in others. So the responses to this question really can range from “unacceptable” to “get used to it” very easily. Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 1:39

5 Answers 5


Don’t panic

Clean your desk. Optionally, complain to people in general about how messy people are.

Get it set up the way you like it.

Carry on working.

This kind of thing can happen when you leave your desk for a while.

It's not terribly professional of your co-workers to leave your desk like this, but spending a few minutes giving it a clean and setting things up shouldn't be a huge task. If the same thing happened to me, it would probably be a good excuse for me to give it a good clean.

I am assuming here that the ash isn't a health risk to you (as you're a smoker yourself, right?)

  • 13
    Nice answer, but what gives that OP is a smoker? Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 6:25
  • 8
    Ash is a health risk even to smokers, perhaps a little less because the first cigarette is the most harmful, but the rest of them aren't healthy either. Beside, it's disgusting.
    – Dorus
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 8:08
  • 26
    It appears that smoking is permitted in the office in this case, so the health aspects of some old ash on a desk is pretty much irrelevant in the larger picture.
    – user44108
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 8:34
  • 4
    Smoking is never allowed anywhere, and he was working Sunday late night, and said he was "rolling a cigarette" on my desk but NOT smoking. Yes I am a smoker (at home), and I honestly like my manager. Maybe I exaggerated in the title? :) I carried on and felt that it won't happen again which is what I care about. Thanks
    – Sandra K
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 17:29
  • 9
    I feel like you're missing the point where it isn't the co-workers that messed up the OP's desk, it's the manager themselves, and they're not only not cleaning it up themselves, they're going so far as to put "Clean up your desk" as the first item on OP's to-do list which seems highly disrespectful to me.
    – sgf
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 21:22

I'm going to steal @Erik's comment and say, yes, if you come back from vacation, and the first day of work makes you want to die, it's time to find a new job.

Also, your boss (or whoever) is a jerk for messing up your workstation, even if he's left a parenthesized note. But really, who cares now that you're job hunting anyways, just consider it motivation. :-)

  • 2
    I think the OP may have been exaggerating a bit....
    – Neo
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 18:38
  • 8
    @MisterPositive I was, just a little :)
    – Sandra K
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 19:56

I disagree with the other commenters here. Does the boss treat everyone's desk this way, or just yours? If the former, then listen to the others here, and accept that your boss is a thoughtless, rude person and move on. If the latter, then this person does not see you in the same way as other employees. Why might that be the case?

My guess is that you are not upset about the mess per se, but about the lack of care from colleagues and your boss about your space (literal and otherwise) in the office, and whether or not it is reflective of how they think of you as a person/workmate.

It is incredibly thoughtless of your boss to do that, and it's not okay. Reflect on how you are treated in this office versus how other people of the same level are treated, and whether there are discrepancies there. If there are discrepancies to how you are treated relative to others, then you should look for a new job.


I'm going to come at this from a slightly different angle from the other answers I've seen.

  1. This is largely an interpersonal/communication problem

    The first thing I would do is politely tell your manager that you're upset and that this is interfering with your ability to do your job (whatever you do, don't blow up on them - that's bound to make things worse) and ask if they can spare a few minutes to get your desk back in shape. If they're expecting you to clean up their mess, that's incredibly disrespectful, and I wouldn't consider it acceptable or professional. The least they could do is apologize in person and offer to help tidy up.

    And if your manager didn't inform you that there were going to be a bunch of interns invading your office space and they were going to be using your desk, that seems like a pretty major communication breakdown.

  2. Your employer should have channels to file a complaint about this incident

    If your manager refuses to clean up their own mess, then report the incident to someone who has the clout to tell them to get their act together (i.e. their boss and/or the HR department). They shouldn't be allowed to just carry on as if that's an acceptable way to treat their employees.

  3. If all else fails, clean up the mess yourself and get on with your life

    I'm sure this isn't what you want to hear, but if your manager and the higher-ups aren't willing to listen, making a scene will probably just create more problems and possibly get you fired. Be the bigger person, take care of what needs to be done, and then find a new job. This one doesn't sound like a good place to stick around.

  4. Is the lack of respect for your workspace (or self) a recurring theme?

    If there's an ongoing pattern of your manager (or others) not respecting you or your stuff, that sounds like an unhealthy work environment, and I'd agree with @KlaymenDK that it's time to kick your job search into high gear. Get out of there before anything worse happens.


While your edit clarified that this is not the case, on some teams it is common to "prank" the offices of people who are away on extended vacation or leave. At my workplace, for example, people have returned to find their offices filled with packing peanuts, their computer replaced with an 'upgraded' machine from 1998, or otherwise significantly 'redecorated'. Personally, I once orchestrated a scheme to stack all the boxes from about 20 newly-acquired computer towers in a coworker's office.

Stacked and unplugged monitors would definitely not be out of the ordinary, however most people would recognize cigarette ashes as a bad idea.

  • 12
    This really doesn't sound like an office prank.
    – user8712
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 2:00
  • 2
    @Emrakul Do you mean my answer or OP's situation? Remember, the purpose of answers on stack exchange is to primarily help future visitors, not OP's particular issue. As the original question (messy desk after vacation) can be caused by pranking, I felt it needed some mention in an answer, as future visitors may in fact be the recipients of a benign prank.
    – MooseBoys
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 8:56
  • 1
    Um, no, thats not what stackexchange is for. Consider that I could write an answer telling the OP that interpersonal relationships are A-OK at work. It has nothing whatever to do with his/her question. The point of the questions are that others might have the SAME question. If you want to answer a different question, ask it, then post your own answer to it.
    – crthompson
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:59
  • @paqogomez I agree that answers that don't address the question are off-topic, however in this case the question is essentially "My office was trashed while I was away. What should I think of this?", to which my answer clearly applies. Only after the edit did OP clarify it was in fact the result of disrespectful interns.
    – MooseBoys
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 21:16

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