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 pot so when the water evaporated, it left a crusty black residue caked to the bottom. Yuck! I’m pretty sure I know who the culprit 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 frequently ask their employees to treat the workplace as if it were a ‘second home’…but if they’re slobs in their own homes too, that’s not going help you much.

Yes – yuck. And it needs to stop.

Using the morning meeting to address the problem, however, is a bad idea for a couple reasons.

First, you imply you don’t know who the guilty party is. But you do (or think you do) – so why are you bringing it up with everyone? Instead, approach this individual directly. To do otherwise is to give him—and everyone else—the impression he’s getting away with it.

Second, you infer the slovenly conduct is more widespread than it actually is. If it weren’t, your staff is going to think, why does everyone have to hear about it? And that, in turn, could actually exacerbate the problem. Those who do make a sincere effort to keep things tidy may decide to throw in the (paper) towel given no one else is apparently doing their part.

And finally, by mentioning it at your daily meets, you risk negatively impacting morale of the entire group. And needlessly, I might add.

Consider that most people want to feel good about the organization that employs them, and the people with whom they work. When workers experience this, they tend to be happier, which in turn makes them more productive.[1] Your daily chastisements do nothing to help them experience this, however. In fact, just the opposite. They serve as a constant—and inaccurate—reminder of what pigs everyone apparently is.

I have a theory: There’s a secret management school out there instructing managers to avoid conflict at all costs. Instead of confronting employees directly about their bad habits and unproductive behaviors, a manager is instead taught to address the issue in the broadest possible setting with the largest possible audience. Typically, this is at some departmental meeting where the topic 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 shrinking violets as to be incapable of handling even the faintest of criticisms? Or perhaps these shadowy academics believe instances like the one you describe are best utilized as a warning – that is, a way of preemptively reprimanding workers, so as to reinforce what not to do, since left to their own devices employees can’t be trusted to do what’s in the best interests of the organization anyway?

Like I said, it’s only 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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