How to Get an Office Slob to Clean Up Their Act

Even though it feels awkward, it's best to talk with a messy employee about how their habits impact your business.
Put your best foot forward and help your messiest employees start off on a clean slate. (Photo: KREUS/Shutterstock)

Messy employees can be a big problem for businesses. Whether a company functions out of an office space or retail store, untidy workspaces can lead to a range of issues.

Wrong or right, Americans commonly judge their co-workers based on how dirty or spotless they keep their work areas. Colleagues usually believe that messy employees are lazy. This kind of negativity in the office can lead to a rift among your staff, which will have an effect on the organization as a whole.

Related: Do You Really Need to Declutter Your Desk

In retail, messiness can have a destructive impact on the customer’s experience.

“Unsightly messes can project disrespect to customers, like you don’t care about your customers or don’t take pride in your business,” said Linda Strauss, founder of Strauss HR Consulting. “If I see your office or register area is messy, can I also assume you are sloppy with my credit card information, with making sure your pricing is accurate, with food handling or other safety issues?”

To keep these issues from occurring, it’s best to deal with messy employees as soon as possible. Consider these four tips.

Gain insight into why the area is messy

Instead of attacking employees over a dirty workspace, approach them with genuine curiosity. Ask why the area is untidy.

“If the person says, ‘This is my style and I feel comfortable with it and more focused with this chaos,’ say ‘I’m glad you asked, because that’s not the way I work and I didn’t realize it was a positive for you,’” said Rita Casey, a human resource consultant.

Then, tell the employee what works for you, which is to have a clean desk. The hard part, said Casey, is to say that this employee’s style is a distraction for the office and needs to adjust their habits. Then, you can reveal the steps you want to happen next.

Explain how untidiness impacts other employees

Messy workers may not care that their disorganized spaces are affecting your business or other colleagues. They will care, however, when it could damage their careers.

Strauss suggested approaching the conversation as a discussion about their career plans. Start with something along the lines of “I know you would like to be considered for future promotions into management, improve relationships with your co-workers, get the highest sales and customer reviews, etc.,” then finish the sentence with, ‘and I’ve noticed that your workspace is disorganized, which can negatively impact the potential for that.”

Related: Why Job Performance Reviews Are Important for Your Small Business

Provide practical solutions

Asking messy people to suddenly be tidy is not going to be effective. Instead, ask a disorganized employee if he or she would be willing to add a partition to their desk or put all their food containers in the trash at the end of the day, said Casey.

“The key phrase,” she said, “is ‘Would you be willing?’”

Strauss advised giving your workers reasonable expectations and be specific in your requests because, “not everyone agrees what clean and organized looks like.”

If you have professionally explained why a clean area is important to your business, worked with them on a resolution and the problem persists, it may be time to take additional action. Strauss advised reviewing any policies or prior situations where an employee was specifically coached on an issue and did not improve. Also, consider the results of the employee’s disorganization and mess.

“If you let it slide, have a better reason than your own discomfort around confronting the issue,” said Strauss. “Be prepared for other employees to perceive you as playing favorites or not being a strong manager.”

Related: How to Have a Difficult Conversation with an Employee

Reinforce the positive

If a messy employee has listened to your critiques and is making a genuine effort to improve, reinforce positivity in the workplace and let him or her know how appreciated he or she is.

“If you can inspire them to use their individuality and their gifts and creativity in service of the role, that’s also good for them,” said Casey. “That’s how they develop their career.”

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