Manager must enforce sanitary and safety standards

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Dear Joan:

I have a perplexing issue involving medication for control of a medical condition and a very cluttered desk. 

The first issue involves that of leaving capped needles and other supplies (the employee is insulin-dependent) scattered about their desk, both when they are at work and when they have gone home. I believe this presents a health hazard to other employees and the custodial teams who clean our offices.  It has been talked about previously but has not been resolved.   

The second and perhaps most pressing issue is the condition of their work cubicle.  This employee will accumulate several containers of food and drinks at their desk during the workday, often leaving them on their desk overnight - sometimes for several days at a time.  There are several empty boxes stacked beneath their desk for no reason.  There are also boxes under their desk that contain personal items such as stuffed animals, numerous pictures that cannot be hung on the walls of the cubicle, a rock collection, home decor items, and other items that will not fit on their desk because it is already cluttered.  There is always an odor emanating from this cubicle; myself and another manager spray the cubicle each evening with Febreze after this employee has left due to the odor. 

This issue has been addressed several times by their current manager (which is not me) but continues.  In light of an upcoming move to a new location I assisted in packing this employee's cubicle into boxes since they are unable to return to the office to do it themselves.  I was appalled at the condition of their cubicle and the amount of non-work related items that were present.  

Not only does the condition of the cubicle demonstrate disregard for company property, but it creates an unsanitary environment which other employees are forced to endure.  No one appreciates seeing this kind of mess at work, and a cubicle that smells due to unsanitary habits is not an appropriate or sanitary environment for others to work in. 

Since this person is not my direct report, are there any tips I can present to their manager to perhaps help improve the situation?  We have an excellent rapport and are banging our heads on the brick wall because we are at a loss as to how to address this issue further with the employee.  

I know this employee has been spoken to about these issues on several occasions previously but talking does not seem to be working.  The employee will do well at managing these issues for a couple of weeks and then begin backsliding.  My finding capped needles while cleaning their cube was the last straw because of the potential risk to me and to other employees.  

Answer:

Why are you and your fellow peer dancing around this issue? If it’s because you think this mess is outside of job performance—and therefore off limits—you are mistaken. 

In my view, you have the right and responsibility to impose some safety and sanitary standards on this individual. If the person wishes to live like this at home, that is his or her choice but when it spills over into the workplace, others are being negatively affected and it is the manager’s responsibility to keep the workplace habitable for everyone. 

Needles scattered about, even though they are capped, are a health risk and need to be stored and disposed of in an appropriate container. (I assume you have provided one for this purpose.) This is a serious situation and warrants a write up and further disciplinary action if he/she doesn’t comply. Look at it this way--if you worked in a factory and this employee repeatedly disregarded safety regulations, wouldn’t the person be disciplined? This situation is no different. 

Leaving food to rot and stink is also a safety and health hazard, in addition to demonstrating a disregard and disrespect for fellow team members. It could attract insects and rodents and presents the possibility of spilling on work papers, computers and other equipment. 

You and your peer are within your scope of authority to expect the person to clean up the mess—not do it for him or her. 

I recommend that the supervisor of this individual be very clear and specific about what must be done, as well as consequences if it slips back into its current state. The manager should say, “I have talked to you about this several times and each time you have slid back to your prior habits. I feel it is only fair to tell you what could happen if you fail to consistently keep your workplace clean and safe…you could be disciplined or even lose your job. Please don’t put me in that situation. To make sure you are clear about these expectations I will summarize this conversation in an email and put it in your file.” 

Before your peer has this conversation he/she should let HR and senior management know what the plan is, so they will be backed up in the event this employee complains. I expect that both parties will support this action because to not do so suggests that this unsafe, disrespectful behavior is acceptable from everyone in the organization. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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