As dirty plates start piling up in the office kitchen, so do excuses. And employees will try everything but the kitchen sink: they didn’t make the mess, they’re too busy, they can’t work the dishwasher.
On the scale of workplace disputes, a few stray food scraps might seem trivial, yet the office kitchen is a perennial, highly charged battleground. Even well intentioned staff can come a cropper by stacking the dishwasher incorrectly. Then there are those who think pinching a splash of milk or smidgen of butter is a victimless crime.
Yet long after the ensuing witch-hunt, you’re not the only one still fuming, according to Macquarie University’s Organisational Psychology director Barbara Griffin.
“Our research shows when people are treated in an uncivil manner, they have trouble disengaging from work at night,” Griffin says. “Even 24-hours later their stress is higher.” She says uncivil behaviour, such as leaving common areas messy, has productivity implications. “The more staff experience incivility, the lower their job satisfaction and engagement,” she says.
Leadership development company director James Adonis says one kitchen slob can spoil the bunch. “If people see others leaving dirty dishes then that catches on, especially if managers do it,” the Team Leaders director explains.
By the time the microwave is encrusted with splatters and back-of-the-fridge leftovers require carbon-dating, there are safety risks too, according to Jennifer Chiplin from Active OHS.
“Hazards include slips, falls and burns from liquids on the floor,” the health and safety consultant says. “Then there are issues with staff using unclean crockery.”
A 2013 Initial Hygiene survey found most office kitchens were dirtier than toilets, with more than half of surfaces capable of causing illness. Microwaves and kettle handles were the worst culprits and had the most bacteria .
But while staff may make the mess, Chiplin says the buck stops with employers. “Every employer has a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers,” she notes. “It cannot be delegated.”
So how can workplaces instill good practice in the office kitchen?
James Adonis says while passive aggressive notes make great viral internet fodder, they’re not the key to kitchen harmony.
“They open themselves up to ridicule and people writing passive aggressive notes back,” he explains. “Instead, write a note that’s written for adults who have intellect and manners, but are forgetting them.”
Chiplin says signs and inductions should notify staff of their legal requirement to prevent injuries, and suggests making safety a performance measure.
Carrot and stick
If staff can’t be trusted with kitchen implements, consider confiscating them, Chiplin advises. “In small companies staff are often asked to provide their own crockery and utensils to encourage cleaner kitchens,” she says.
A similar tack could be taken with leftovers by warning that unclaimed items will be thrown out weekly.
Alternatively, try the carrot approach, suggests Active OHS director Kerry Foster. “There could be a star system for completing all kitchen tasks,” she offers. “Stars for every day mean a free BBQ.”
People may steal or leave a mess because they think they can do so anonymously, Griffin suggests.
She points to a 2006 study by Bateson et al. that considered the impact of being watched. It found people paid for drinks in a coffee-room honesty box nearly three times as often when an image of a pair of eyes was posted above the price-list, than when a control image was used.
Adonis suggests more active monitoring. “One solution is to catch (staff) and place them on a performance management program like you would if they stole office supplies,” he says.
To stop the counterproductive pointing of dirty fingers, Adonis advocates a cleaning roster.
“People will realise how it feels when others leave a mess,” he says. If staff already have enough on their plate, appoint the task permanently.
“If you’re hiring somebody new, maintaining the kitchen could be one of their responsibilities,” Adonis says. “Or if you have an office manager already hired, you could add this responsibility, but you will have to remunerate them.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘My office kitchen rules’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.