advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

The break room is a mess

I’m a shift manager at a call center. Recently, our usually tidy break room has become a disgusting mess, and it needs to stop. Dirty utensils in the sink, a countertop covered in crumbs and indeterminate stickiness, and food left in the fridge to rot. Someone even forgot to turn off the coffee so that once all the water evaporated a crusty black residue was left caked to the bottom of the pot. Yuck. I’m pretty sure I know who the guilty party is since it all started right after he was hired (and some of that rotting food was labeled). But I’ve been bringing it up at the pre-shift meeting for weeks now, and it’s still a problem. What should I do? – Name withheld

Employers often ask their employees to treat the workplace like a ‘second home’. That sounds great…but if they’re slobs around their own house too, that’s not going help you much, is it?

Yes – yuck. And it needs to stop.

But using the morning meeting to address the problem is a bad idea for a couple reasons.

First, by taking it up with the entire group you imply that you don’t know who the culprit is. But it seems you do. So approach this individual directly. Otherwise you give him—and everyone else—the impression that he’s getting away with it.

Second, it suggests the slovenly conduct is more widespread than it actually is. If it wasn’t, your staff is probably thinking, why would you bring it up to the entire group? That, in turn, may actually exacerbate the problem. Those who do make a sincere effort to keep the area clean may now throw in the (paper) towel, given that no one else seems to be doing their part.

Finally, by making it an issue worthy of mention at your daily meets, you risk negatively impacting morale of the entire group – and needlessly, I might add. This will probably lower their enthusiasm and engagement levels, and thus ultimately diminish their overall productivity and effectiveness. As a manager, that, of course, is not anything you want to be associated with.

Consider that, in addition to a paycheck, there is compelling evidence to suggest that most people want to feel good about the organization that employs them. This includes being proud of their colleagues and coworkers, and the work that they collectively do. When workers experience this, they tend to be more happier, and therefore more productive.[1]

Your daily chastisements do nothing to put them in this frame of mind. Just the opposite. They serve as a constant—and inaccurate—reminder of what pigs they all apparently are. Trust me – that’s the last thing your people want to hear before starting their day.

I have a theory that there’s a secret management school out there teaching managers to avoid conflict at all costs. Instead of confronting an employee directly about their unproductive or otherwise inappropriate behavior, managers are instructed to address such issues only in the broadest possible setting with the largest possible audience. Typically, this means at some departmental meeting where the subject itself may not even be all that relevant.

But why? So as not to hurt anyone’s feelings? Does this mysterious school of management really see us all as such wilting flowers as to be incapable of handling even the faintest of criticisms? Or perhaps these shadowy academics believe that instances such as the one you describe are better used as a warning, an example of what not to do – and which a manager might use to preemptively reprimand employees given that they can’t be trusted to do what’s best for the organization anyway.

Like I said, it’s just a theory.

So put your manager helmet on, roll up your sleeves, and approach the office slob directly. Tell him you’ve noticed he’s been leaving the break room a bit of a mess lately, and that even though it may not be a big deal to him, it is to his coworkers.

Then ask him to please, please, please clean up his s***.



[1] Sirota, David; Mischkind, Louis A.; Meltzer, Michael Irwin, The Enthusiastic Employee, (Wharton School Publishing: Upper Saddle River, NJ), 2005.

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