I’m in charge of our disgusting office kitchen — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am an administrative assistant for a small company (about 50 people). My problem, especially now that folks are fully returned to office, is the cleanliness of the kitchen.

As any admin in charge of the office kitchen will tell you, it is a NIGHTMARE. Food left on counters, molding fruit in the fridge, stolen cutlery, dishes left “to soak” for eternity. Think of your worst roommate and multiply that by an entire office. It is a nightmare. I am fairly early in my career (two years in) and don’t have much authority. However, since I do the ordering and restocking for the kitchen, the kitchen is technically my job and when things are a mess, they are left for me to clean up. I receive reports from my coworkers all day about the state of the kitchen, even if I have just cleaned it!

I have asked our staff repeatedly to clean up after themselves and their guests and yet, every day I come in to a sink full of dishes that I have to clean, and dried food stuck to the countertops. I feel like I’m losing my mind.

To make matters worse, if I choose to leave the mess in a statement of resistance, my boss will clean it and then let me know that he had to clean the kitchen since no one else will.

I have made announcements at meetings. I have made signs. I have sent emails. I don’t know what else to do. I feel like I am screaming into the void that I don’t want to scoop oatmeal out of the sink drains! Every time this comes up I am met with shocked faces and exclamations of “who could do this! That’s so rude and gross!” but someone HAS TO BE DOING IT!!! This can’t be a shock to everyone! I am at my wit’s end and could use literally ANY advice on how to make a group of grown adults treat a shared space with respect.

Based on the experiences of other offices everywhere: You can’t. People are filthy heathens. It’s the tragedy of the commons.

Or at least, you can’t fix it without the authority to impose different systems on the mess than you currently have. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Whenever this topic comes up, people say things like, “Your managers need to be willing to fire people who don’t clean up after themselves!” In practice, that’s not going to happen. No one is going to fire a top performer who left crumbs in the kitchen, or a busy exec who dropped off her mug while running between meetings. Sure, management really dedicated to solving the problem and willing to be a hard-ass about it might nag people enough that they stop, but few managers are willing to spend the energy and capital that takes.

Another popular response: “hire cleaners!” But most offices with this problem have cleaners. It’s just that they only come once a day, if that, and that’s not enough to keep kitchen mess under control all the other hours of the day. You would need full-time, on-site janitorial staff, which is unlikely to be affordable or a priority for an office of 50 people.

Here’s the very short list of things that do work:

A rotation of volunteers who sign up to each be in charge of cleaning for a day in exchange for a desirable incentive (like getting to leave early one day that week). Why volunteers? Because it doesn’t make sense to assign highly paid staff to spend (expensive) time cleaning up after coworkers or to insist someone who’s already stretched thin take it on.

Permission from someone above you to throw out dishes that are left in the sink. If the dishes belong to the office rather than to individuals, get rid of the office dishes altogether.

Spread a rumor that this is happening.

Other than that, nothing really works.

Feel free to show this column to your boss.

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