Why don’t my coworkers clean up after themselves in the office?

Our advice columnist answers all of your office housekeeping questions—from the terrifying fridge to dirty dishes to bad recyclers

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: ideasbywe@wework.com.

I work for a company that has recently moved offices, and despite the fancy new kitchen, the fridge situation has taken a turn for the worse. There’s so much stuff packed in that there’s nowhere to put your lunch, and food remains in the fridge way past the point of mold. We’ve asked our facilities team to step in, but no such luck. Is there any way for employees to self-police office fridge usage so we can actually use our fridge? What’s the best way to go about it? 

In most offices where I’ve worked, this is a problem. And in most offices where I’ve worked, there’s an every-so-often officewide email letting everyone know that the fridge WILL BE CLEANED OUT at 5 p.m. on Friday, and if you have anything in it you want to keep, you must mark it as such by then or face its imminent demise. Usually, this is sent by an office manager. Maybe it comes from an assistant or even an intern or the big boss herself—the point is, it’s sent by someone whose job it is to do this. And it works, at least enough to mean there’s room for your lunch by Monday morning. 

You can certainly try to self-police, but I suspect that even if 100 percent of your office is gung-ho about joining the force right now, this is going to break down over time because you have other work to do—work that doesn’t involve cleaning out the office fridge every Friday. From that breakdown, tensions can arise. As Alison Green points out with regard to a related issue in “Ask a Manager,” “you might think that the most obvious solution is to have everyone clean up after themselves, but so often it doesn’t work.” A volunteer force only works so far as everyone is involved, cares, and has time—and so far as they actually manage to command involvement from others, who have nothing to lose, really, by continuing to leave their moldy lunches in the fridge. You can tell people what to do all you want, but how do you make them not only listen but also obey? You need influence. You know who has inherent influence? The person who is paid to do this job, who has been hired by a manager who wants them to do exactly this job.

Besides, there’s a level of personal with regard to fridge leftovers that could start to create problems among you and your coworkers. Throw away someone’s lunch, no matter how gross, and you’re probably going to get side-eye, or worse, because you decided to “waste” a six-month-old Fage that was probably still “totally fine” and your coworker was going to get around to eating next week. Do any of us want to exist in a society of fridge narcs? Does it ever go well to hear from a random coworker that your moldy lunch is disgusting and deserves to be tossed, a truth, perhaps, that can too easily be construed as an insult? 

So, back to your facilities team. If they can’t or won’t take on the job, it’s time to make the case to HR or the powers that be that you need an office manager. The office fridge is an unhealthy situation—mold can lead to serious problems! This could become a health-code violation!—and someone needs to be regularly taking care of it. If that person does not exist at your company, make the case for them to be hired.

You can’t be alone in your desire for a neat fridge, but I don’t think a collective volunteer force of self-policers is going to get the results you desire in the long term. Ultimately, someone needs to take charge of the fridge, and, ideally, this is someone who is getting paid to do it, and who also is in the office and can send emails and put a face to various lunches. If the facilities team or office manager doesn’t consider it their role, go up the ladder and find out whose job it is. “Health-code violation” is generally not a phrase your human-resources department takes lightly. 

My coworkers seem to have the idea that it’s cool to leave dirty dishes in the sink for someone else to wash. Housekeeping will do it, but I feel really bad… they shouldn’t have to! Plus, it means there’s no room in the sink to wash my own dish, which I would happily do. Shouldn’t everyone in the office just clean up after themselves?

The short answer is yes. Even if the office has hired cleaning staff, not washing your own dang dish and leaving it for someone else to take care of—which involves assuming that there’s someone around to take care of your mess—is kind of the height of entitlement. Yes, we should all absolutely clean up after ourselves. But will we? (See fridge question above.) Unfortunately, the answer is probably no, or at least no from enough people that it’s a problem for all the yes-ers.

OK, so what to do, then? Well, you can certainly wash your own dish, if that makes you feel better. If there’s no room, I don’t recommend washing everyone else’s dish—unless you’re REALLY procrastinating (wait and do this at home, where it’s far more satisfying). 

You might ease your guilt and the situation, though, by figuring out whose duty this really is. Start by having a conversation with HR or, again, facilities, or the office manager, who should have some information about this. Is washing dishes actually part of the cleaning crew’s job description? If not—and maybe even if so—could your office manager/whoever applies issue an email reminder as to that: “Hey, everyone, please wash your own dishes, they’re cluttering up the place and making it more unpleasant for all of us!” or “Hey, everyone, you are responsible for washing your own dishes. Take a second and make this space nicer for everyone!” 

Because it feels good to do something about a problem you’ve identified, what about creating a cleanliness reminder and hanging it in view of the sink? I know, it sounds corny, but sometimes people need to be reminded that others are affected by their behavior and that still others may or may not be watching. Those signs that tell you you’re speeding and to slow down actually work, apparently. And who hasn’t questioned whether they’re sprinkling when they’re tinkling, and whether they need to do anything about it, when faced with those signs in the restroom? Ask your office manager to put something up, or go ahead and make a sign or print one out and post it after everyone’s gone home for the day, if you want to remain anonymous. Yeah, no one’s getting reported here, but the reminder that there is a right thing to do and a wrong one can help minimize pileups—of dishes and otherwise. 

How do you deal with coworkers incorrectly recycling or not recycling at all? I find this irresponsible, and also really annoying!

If you’re standing next to a coworker who is crumbling Diet Coke cans and throwing them, willy nilly, in the general office trash, while they also put meat in the paper container and plastic in the compost bin, SAY SOMETHING. Wrap it up in a strategic little package to make it easier for them to swallow the correction: “Oh, hey Friend-Coworker-Person, I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re putting your trash in the wrong spot! I didn’t realize that for a while, either,” or “You’re putting your recycling in the wrong bin, my man. Just wanted to let you know.” Most likely they’ll offer up an “oops” and change their ways; if they don’t, or if they get defensive or even rude, it’s time to turn to an HR person to report the behavior. It’s all of our responsibility to try to make our world still suitable for life in the next 20 to 50 to 100 years; we need to be on the same team. A little policing in the presence of the violator is worth taking on, I think. Call them out (calmly and politely). Make the world a better place! 

That said, this is very much your company’s responsibility, too. State and local governments usually have recycling regulations that require you not only to have the necessary bins, properly labeled, but also to post signs on how to recycle—what goes where—in some public area (probably your breakroom or near your waste cans). And there are repercussions for doing it wrong. In San Francisco, for instance, companies that produce too much landfill trash are fined, and the city sends an official from the recology department to educate employees about properly sorting trash. There’s a bottom line here, which is that companies pay for errant recycling, and it’s up to the company, also, to make that known to employees. But you can help the process along the way. 

Google “business recycling” or “commercial recycling laws” in your area to find out what the rules are, and investigate whether there’s a recology department near you that might come and advise your company on best practices. You can also look into composting in the office, and how to get a program started. (The internet really is a great resource, here.) Take all this info to your office manager, who is getting quite the workout this column, or to your human-resources or facilities team, and get them on board. Just because there might be a cleaning person who sorts your trash to make sure everything’s going to the right place (my apartment building in New York City pays someone to do this), but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t put their trash in the right place to start with (which we also do, thanks to posted signs and a general understanding of the importance of the issue). It’s the very least you can do to support Greta Thunberg—and our own futures. 

We have a dog-friendly office, which is great (love dogs!) but every so often one of them makes a total mess, and the owner isn’t around to clean it up. I guess what I’m asking is… if a dog that’s not mine poops in the office, do I have an obligation to pick it up if the owner is in a meeting? Or do I just… let it sit there and wait? (Neither of these options is very appealing.) Thank you!

I am loath to pick up any dog’s poop that is not my own, but I also struggle with the idea of simply leaving poop on the floor or desk as I wait for a dog owner to return. But also, who is just leaving their dog to wander around and poop in an office!? Does this happen? (Clearly, it does.) For this delicate question, I turned to the very lovely and wise clean person Jolie Kerr, who wrote the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag… and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha, for more help. First, the cleaning part: “I would say that the office manager should make cleaning supplies for dog accidents available,” Jolie says. “Paper towels to blot/pick up liquid accidents, an enzymatic stain, and smell eliminator, and probably a portable carpet & upholstery cleaner.” Smart!

As for the responsibility of cleaning, “ If a dog has an accident, I do think whoever witnesses it should do at least the bare minimum of grabbing some paper towels and cleaning up as much of the mess as possible if the dog owner isn’t around,” she says. Don’t just let it sit there, because you’re potentially making it worse in the long run, and you’re definitely making yourself suffer in the short run. “Then, maybe find the dog owner and have them do the deeper cleaning,” she adds. “I would think of it this way: Cleaning up at least the initial mess means you don’t have to sit near it, smelling and seeing it.” 

If this keeps happening, turn to your long-suffering office manager and have guidelines drawn up for pets and pet owners in the office. (This may already exist. Ask about it!) “So that if a dog is repeatedly having accidents, there’s a policy of sorts to address the owner and suggest maybe Fido isn’t fit for office life,” she says. 

Just like people, some dogs aren’t meant to work in cubicles.

Jen Doll is a journalist and the author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, and other publications.

Interested in workspace? Get in touch.