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Ask UfYH: Sometimes Cubicles Aren’t a Bad Idea

Q: I work in an open office space, which means that there’s a big room where five of us have desks, and one of us—not me—is a hoarder.

There are piles of garbage, bits of half-eaten food, assorted shoes and toiletries, books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, and vinyl records all over this person’s area. We get periodic infestations of ants, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we had bigger vermin, though none of us have seen any yet.

Management is aware of the problem and is not going to take action. I should mention that the hoarding has started getting worse and is slowly starting to encroach on other areas of the office. How can the rest of us survive?

A: OK, first of all? Your management sucks. It’s their job to deal with shit like this, not to ignore it. My first bit of advice would be to escalate to a higher level of management, or go to HR, if you have HR. Have several people do it, so it doesn’t sound like one person with a grudge. Continue to pursue it until they take some kind of action. Seriously. I’ve managed people for almost my entire adult life, and while the “Your personal hygiene has become an issue, so we need to have a conversation about washing your clothes and your body” and “Your work area is unacceptably messy and needs to be cleaned to reasonable standards by the end of the week” conversations are never fun, they are, in fact, part of management’s job.

That said, if, for whatever reason, management drops the ball, the unfortunate fact is that this situation directly affects you and your coworkers, and you have every right to be able to work in an environment free of garbage and critters, even more so if the problem is spreading to other areas. There are things that we have to accept when we share workspace with others, and there are things that are not acceptable, and this is the latter.

Hoarding is a tricky situation. It is almost impossible, and sometimes extremely damaging, to force a hoarder to get rid of things. Going on the information from your question, though, this seems a lot less like clinical hoarding and a lot more like extreme messiness. There’s a difference, and it lies in the way that the person making the mess is emotionally affected by the mess. To oversimplify it: hoarders are attached to their messes and messy people don’t want to or can’t deal with theirs.

I am, in general, against passive-aggressiveness in all of its forms. I think that a direct conversation is almost always more effective than a note or letter, and I think most problems can be solved much more easily and quickly by just talking about them. However, I recognize that this may not be a situation where a straightforward conversation is feasible or comfortable for those who have to have it. If you’re in a situation where you feel that neither you nor any of your coworkers can have the conversation that needs to be had, a letter might be the most reasonable way to go. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be vague. If you send out a memo to everyone or post a note, the person it is directed to will not think it applies to them. Write just to that person, and make it clear.
  • Be matter-of-fact. Lay out the reasons that the mess is untenable, and the effect it is having on the office and its inhabitants. I personally would focus on safety (stuff all over the place) and sanitation (ants and possibly worse).
  • Ask for a specific resolution. Food trash should be disposed of in particular places. Personal effects should not extend past the limits of each employee’s allotment of workspace. Any media and entertainment items need to be in containers. Anything imposing on a coworker’s space will be removed.
  • Leave it at a time where the offender won’t have to read it in front of everyone. Humiliation isn’t going to help anything.

To recap: I still think this is management’s responsibility, and you should make another valiant effort to remind them of that, but I do understand that doesn’t always result in any kind of resolution. I also understand that dealing with it yourself is uncomfortable and awkward, so make every effort to remain as detached and professional about it as you can. Good luck.

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By [E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.

One reply on “Ask UfYH: Sometimes Cubicles Aren’t a Bad Idea”

I worked in a school district and it was tough to get management to do anything about staff or student. It was an always misguided memo to everyone and as you said above, the people who needed to change didn’t recognize themselves in the memo.

And it was hard to get others to join together. Frequently, they came to me (certainly not management) to talk to management. I finally had to refuse to do anything until at least two other people would go with me. More often than not, the problem was never addressed.

So I set boundries about my own work area and stuck with them. It was hard because I looked like the trouble maker but on the other hand, my work area was my own. Even when someone else had to work there they learned to respect my area and I made sure to respect others. How I hate it when management won’t manage what they are paid to do. (Oh! That whole issue is a sore point!)

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