February 22 2008: 9:24 AM EST
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Clear your desk of family photos?

Maybe it's time to redecorate your workspace. A couple of recent studies suggest that displaying too many personal objects makes you seem unprofessional.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Can you settle an argument for me? I work in a very large, drab office space divided into grayish-beige cubicles, with fluorescent overhead lighting. So, just to cheer me up a bit, I've decorated my cubicle with lots of family photos, a couple of shelves of pretty things (I collect antique glass paperweights), and a couple of funny posters. I also have several cactus plants.

I enjoy looking at these things, and nothing I've added interferes in any way with my work. Also, colleagues seem to like looking at my stuff, especially the photos, which are great conversation-starters. However, one of my co-workers, who is also a friend, keeps telling me that my workspace looks more like a room in my house than a professional office, and that I should get rid of some of my mementos if I want to make a good impression on higher-ups. Is she right? Why should a boss care what my cubicle looks like, anyway? -Clutter Bug

Dear C.B.: Believe it or not, someone has actually done academic research into the question of how much personal clutter is too much. To see if people's professional image is affected by what's displayed in their offices, and how recruiters view job candidates who mention personal topics, researchers conducted two separate studies with corporate managers and recruiters.

The verdict? "Family photos, kids' artwork, and favorite knickknacks help personalize an office work space, but too many personal touches reflect poorly on an employee's professional image," says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, who teaches management at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business (www.bus.umich.edu), and conducted the studies with two colleagues. Too much is about 22%: If more than one in five objects in your cubicle are non-work-related, others may regard you as less than serious about your job.

The researchers found that this is more true in the U.S. than elsewhere. "A general aversion for blurring the work-personal boundary is more reflective of American business practices than of those found in many other industrialized societies," Sanchez-Burks notes. "Americans are expected to put aside personal matters and focus almost exclusively on work when at the office."

In the first study, 95 managers were given descriptions of workers that described them as professional or unprofessional. The managers were then asked to furnish the office of each worker by placing stickers of dozens of items usually found in workspaces onto color images of offices and cubicles. The stickers included work-related items (stapler, file folder, calculator, etc.), personal items (family photos, sports equipment, non-work-related posters), and items that are considered neutral (clock, plant, landscape painting). The managers put more personal items into the offices of employees described as unprofessional - "a pattern that was particularly strong the longer one has lived in the United States," the study notes.

The second study asked U.S.-based corporate recruiters from several industries to evaluate information given to them by American and Brazilian job candidates. The American candidates were penalized for mentioning personal topics, while the Brazilians were not.

"Even minor personal references, even when used as a way to build rapport, can have a negative influence on how one is viewed by recruiters for American companies," says Sanchez-Burks. That's not necessarily true when the candidate is from another country, though, he says.

Taken together, the two studies provide some insight into "how cultural differences in the criteria used to form negative and positive impressions of others can contribute to misunderstandings and potentially missed opportunities for recruiting the best talent," Sanchez-Burks says.

In other words, bosses and recruiters who turn up their noses at someone's bric-a-brac may be overlooking the fact that he or she is actually a fantastic worker.

So it seems your friend may be on to something. If you can bring yourself to do it, it might be wise to take most of your photos, paperweights, and posters home. At least the managers in the Michigan study viewed plants as neutral - neither work-related nor personal - so feel free to keep your cacti.

Readers, what do you display in your workspace? Do you think family photos and the like make people seem more likable or unprofessional? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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