columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

We have a small office of 12 employees. Our company provides coffee, cereal, sandwich stuff, and snacks for the employees. We have a microwave, toaster oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher.

We developed a "kitchen duty" schedule that schedules someone to provide basic housekeeping for a week on a rotating basis. This includes trash removal, wiping counters, and loading/unloading the dishwasher. For the most part, everyone is compliant, but there are some who do not want to participate in "kitchen duty" yet still want to use the kitchen, eat the food, etc. One claims that bending or stooping aggravates a back injury. I don't want to get into an ADA or workers' comp situation, but at the same time, I firmly believe that if you use the kitchen, you should participate in keeping it clean, and if there is a task that you cannot physically do, you should ask for assistance.

I am to the point where I want to just stop providing the groceries. It's a rare benefit that does not appear to be appreciated. Your thoughts?

Green responds:

Well, it's really, really normal. Kitchen issues like this are pretty much universal; no one has discovered a good way to keep office kitchens clean unless you hire someone specifically to do it.

In some ways, it's understandable. If I just use the kitchen to make myself coffee or tea, I'm not going to be thrilled about spending my time wiping down sticky counters, scraping out other people's dirty dishes, and generally putting in much more cleaning effort than the use I'm getting out of the kitchen.

You could certainly argue that pitching in, even if it means cleaning up messes that you didn't make, is part of being a civilized adult with a shared kitchen space. But you can also argue that your busy, well-paid employees didn't sign up to be their co-workers' janitor. Frankly, neither did your low-paid employees, probably, but this kind of duty is at least more par for the course when you're more junior.

I don't think it's a good use of your time to have to police the kitchen cleanup, and it's not a good use of your highest-paid or busiest employees' time to do everyone's cleaning for a full week (versus wiping up their own messes when they make them, which is quite reasonable to expect). So I'd rather see you hire someone to do it, or make it an explicit part of someone's job (that you disclose to them during the hiring process, not something you spring on them afterward). I've never seen any other solution to this issue that worked consistently and fairly.

There is the option of just stopping providing groceries, as you suggest. But if it's a perk that you felt good about offering and one that your employees like, it seems shortsighted to end it when most people are following the rules and only a few aren't. Plus, even if you did that, you're still going to have to deal with kitchen messes; it'll just be with food people bring in on their own rather than with food you're providing.

(Also, it's totally plausible that bending and stooping aggravates someone's back injury. You don't want to get into deciding whose health claims are real and whose aren't. Whatever you decide to do, you should excuse that person from those activities and not give them a hard time about it.)

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