Sunday, January 27, 2008


It's not clear exactly when adults stopped cleaning up after themselves. Perhaps they missed those days in kindergarten when the class sang: "Clean up! Clean up! Everybody do your share!"

Evidence indicates that this lesson didn't take. Many people, myself among them, complain that nowadays people constantly neglect to mop up after creating messes in office lunch rooms or break rooms.

One of my readers tells me that her office lunch room is filled with small appliances -- a microwave, a refrigerator -- that management and staff chipped in to purchase. While she was among those contributing, she says, she seldom uses the devices. On the few occasions that she has during the past seven years, she insists, she has always cleaned up any spill or mess, "whether it was pre-existing or not."

Others among the 60 or so workers in her office have not been cleaning up after themselves, however, and it has become a problem. A committee was formed to address the mess, and the committee recommended asking for volunteers for scheduled cleaning.

Like everyone else in the office, my reader was asked to participate. She declined, stating that she already cleans up after herself.

"I have reared my children and I taught them how to clean up after themselves," she writes. "I don't see why I now need to be a maid to these lazy people."

She was told that she would not be included on the clean-up committee, and indeed she wasn't.

When the clean-up schedule was posted in the kitchen, however, it took the form of a list of all employees. In one column were their names, in another their scheduled cleanup times. Opposite the names of my reader and two others, in capital letters, appeared the words: "NOT INCLUDED AT REQUEST OF EMPLOYEE."

Employees who hadn't responded at all nonetheless were assigned a clean-up time.

"We who did not volunteer have been ostracized by other office staff," my reader says, adding that she's heard under-the-breath comments and other nasty remarks.

The colleague who posted the list insists that it was OK to do so, since the list accurately reflected the facts. My reader disagrees.

"To be pointed out like a sore thumb, I believe, was totally unnecessary," she says.

Was this an appropriate way to address the situation?

No, it wasn't. It would have been gracious for my reader to volunteer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong in her not doing so. Calling extra attention to the names of the people who had chosen not to volunteer smacks of pettiness. It's one thing to praise those who do volunteer, another to single out those who don't. To penalize those who don't volunteer, be the penalty social or otherwise, is to miss the basic meaning of "volunteer."

Unless they explicitly told all employees that those who didn't respond would be included in the schedule anyway, the organizers were out of line there as well. No one would assume that employees who didn't respond to a charity-drive planned to donate, and it shouldn't be any different here. A request for volunteers is a request for people to actively put themselves forward, not a draft notice.

The right thing would have been for the organizers to list only the names of the people who had volunteered, along with their scheduled times. They should simply have omitted the names of the people who had opted out or who hadn't responded.

Instead the organizers have created a messy solution to their messiness problem.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

As more and more conveniences are placed in lunch rooms, more and more messiness happens. This is very disturbing to me, because it brings an awareness that many of our colleagues are not as clean in their habits as we might have thought! I've witnessed people placing items in very dirty microwaves without any thought to cleaning it first. Also, I have seen people mess up the microwave then walk away! We are simply growing lazy with a devil may care attitude. Solve this by staying out of the lunch room and don't leave any personal food there. People will eat out of it or all of it! Geeeeezzzzzzzzz!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Seglin,

I just read your article about office clean-up "volunteering" and feel compelled to comment. I agree with what you had to say, but wondered how your reader dealt with this. For me, I immediately thought that I would change the list. I would strike my name off the second list and add it to a third list. My heading of the third list would be: "Those who clean-up after themselves." If space allowed, I might also add, "and also clean-up the mess left by the previous person."

Will Reeves
Grove City, Ohio

Anonymous said...

There are department store and other building restrooms that have a schedule on the back of the door with a spot for the cleaning person's initials. Perhaps a sheet like this could be used for their lunch room. By simply viewing the last cleaning time to the next mess of the microwave, one could easily figure out from this process of elimination who the culprit is and talk to him or her personally about his Lean Cuisine overflow and show where the cleaning supplies are located.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the woman who refused to join a committee to keep the lunch room clean and was embarassed by the posting on the company bulletin board of her refusal, first I think management was wrong to allow that posting. And second if I had been the one outed, I would have posted my own message that stated I rarely used the lunch room, when I did I always cleaned up after myself as I have taught my children to do, and I since I was not anyone's mother at the office I did not feel that I should have to pick after of them. Childish, yes, but it would get the message that these "adults" should be cleaning their own messes.

Nancy Selof

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, the problem with your charity-drive analogy is that a charity-drive is a pure gift/donation situation where this is not. It sounds as though the small appliances really are being treated by management as employee community property... and that as such, each employee shares a responsibility in keeping them usable. Management could easily take the position that the company is not about to maintain these non-essential niceties and simply do away with them.

What is wrong with a little accountability? Everyone should take turns keeping community property usable. I'd suggest taking it a step further and having everyone USING the equipment log their use... but both actions here were immature.