That Sinking Feeling

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I recently attended a staff meeting at a company intent on green-ifying its day-to-day operations. One employee suggested substituting metal cutlery for the plastic forks and spoons used in the kitchenette, provoking outcries about "some people" leaving food-encrusted dishes in the sink. "I understand the concern," the CEO intervened, clearly anxious to move on. "But I think this conversation is getting a bit too dorm-ish."

That word -- "dorm-ish" -- neatly captures the housekeeping trivia that bedevils any group of unrelated adults who occupy a common space for long periods. Even surpassingly professional employees muster extraordinary irritation over such malefactions as purloining yogurt from the refrigerator, leaving printouts to accumulate by the printer, and failing to dump grounds from the coffee machine. Bathrooms are a particularly tetchy subject. Among the most heinous crimes is carrying office magazines or newspapers into the restroom--a practice laudable for its dedication to the job but questionable in terms of hygiene.

Discussion of these issues often arises at the end of staff meetings when the CEO looks around and says, "Anything else before we break?" Or it's touched off by persnickety e-mails. No matter the forum, transgressors are invariably alluded to as "some people." ("Some people, apparently, don't mind working in a rubbish tip, but please be considerate of your colleagues.") Sometimes these messages are pretty entertaining. A few months ago the Office Services group here at Inc. asked employees to remove all food from the refrigerators in preparation for cleaning. The memo's author made one exception: condiments could remain, but only those listed in the "condiment" entry on Wikipedia, to which he helpfully included a link.

Such matters aren't wholly unimportant. A few years ago business author Michael Levine published the book "Broken Windows, Broken Businesses: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards," which argued persuasively that seemingly trivial things - burned-out light bulbs, a perennially broken soda machine - take their toll on employee morale. And of course CEOs want the office looking nice for outsiders. During visits to various companies I've been offered coffee mugs with everything from lipstick stains on their rims to desiccated flies inside.

I also understand the temptation to occasionally join these discussions. Leaders who express interest in the concerns -- even the petty concerns -- of employees appear caring and democratic. Not acting haughty is especially important in companies rich with the trappings of hierarchy, where bosses frequent their own washrooms and sally out to pricey bistros for lunch. Still, you should resist getting involved. Dorm-ish matters are a time sap: once you've weighed in on what kinds of sodas to stock employees will assume you want to be consulted on everything. And there's something undignified about what often amount to protocols surrounding human detritus. Ask your executive assistant or office manager to represent you in housekeeping discussions, by all means. But when someone starts a sentence with: "We've been having a situation with the refrigerator," excuse thyself and get thee hence.

You might also consider buying an additional subscription to the daily newspaper and other key publications and leaving the duplicates in a basket in the bathroom. Some people are bound to appreciate it.

Last updated: Dec 20, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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