your office is filthy … and Jolie Kerr can help

You might think that work advice doesn’t have much crossover with cleaning advice, but I get a fair number of questions that relate to cleaning at work. Why is the microwave in the office kitchen so disgusting and how can we keep it clean? The person who shares my workspace leaves it in a terrible mess. How do I lead a meeting when I just spilled soup all over my shirt?

On today’s episode of the Ask a Manager podcast, I’m joined by Jolie Kerr, who runs the cleaning advice column Ask a Clean Person, hosts the Ask a Clean Person podcast, and is the author of the bestselling book, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha.

The show is 39 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen here.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Lena Clare*

    I loved this! And thanks for the new Twitter recommendation :) I’m now following Jolie Kerr.
    And if you like reading about cleaning, ‘unf*ck your habitat’ dot com is a pretty good one.

  2. Nicki Name*

    Ever since your crossover with Captain Awkward, I’ve been wondering who would be the next recruit for the Advice Avengers. Now I know!

  3. RabbitRabbit*

    Jolie is amazing and I love her podcast, so this is a great crossover. She is, frequently, NSFW but I’m fine with that (it’s what headphones are for).

  4. peachie*

    Ugh @ the ‘no dish soap’ thing. We do have a ‘kitchen’ sink (it’s not a kitchen, just where some of the tables are), but it’s pretty gross–not full of dishes, thankfully, but it backs up like crazy, and the hand soap dispenser next to it is perpetually.

    I went to the drugstore and bought dish soap and one of those sponge things where you add dispenser to the handle (one less thing to carry back and forth to the sink) plus a few drying cloths for good measure. I only use the sponge after I’ve rinsed as much as possible and dry it out thoroughly so it doesn’t get gross, and I store it sponge-face-up so the detergent isn’t soaking in. It feels like a lot of effort, but I don’t really have a better solution.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Stinky sponges — throw them away. They just make your dishes stink too. And that stink is due to bacteria building up. And people who wouldn’t put up with them at home never throw them away at work. Be the person who throws it away. (Same goes for dried-out markers in conference rooms.)

      Got a microwave oven? Put the wet sponge in there for a minute, every week or so. Prevents the stinkies by killing the bacteria.

      Get 2 sponges and alternate them, so one is always bone dry. (Those bacteria need moisture and die when dried out.)

      Always have a backup sponge, still in the plastic package so it’s obviously unused.

      And get a plumber out there to snake the drain. It’s backing up for a reason and the reason won’t go away on its own.

  5. HailRobonia*

    I once put up a little doodle of a gremlin saying “I’m the dirty dish gremlin. If you leave your dish in the sink I’ll pee in it.”

  6. Enough*

    Will listen later but for the hand soap issue. Just use dish soap for the hand soap. It’s probably cheaper even. Years ago Consumer reports did a shampoo test and included dish soap in the mix. It did pretty well.

    1. Brandy*

      Many years ago when all stores were closed on Thanksgiving, we ran out of dish soap to wash the dishes in. I had just learned in my biology class that shampoo and dish soap were basically the same thing, the main ingredients are identical (when reading the back). So we did the dishes with shampoo.

      1. Solidus Pilcrow*

        Did you have to do extra rinses? My experience is hand soap/shampoo tends to be more heavily perfumed and not rinse as clean as a true dish soap. I’ve used hand soap for dishes and can usually smell or taste it even after the dishes were rinsed. (I don’t use Dawn dish soap because I find it leaves too much scent behind.)

        1. Brandy*

          We just did a regular rinse I think. This was in 1994 1995 ish. So i cant remember and we were handing dishes thru, multiple people washing, rinsing and drying and putting away. No one mentioned anything.

  7. Murphy*

    We just got an email recently about allergies asking us to cease use of air fresheners (people have put some really strong ones in the women’s bathrooms) but I honestly haven’t noticed any difference in people using them. We used to have Poopouri, which doesn’t leave behind a strong odor, but I guess whoever was bringing it in stopped buying it.

    We get emails about dirty dishes pretty frequently. People are gross.

    1. Amber Rose*

      I have started to treat my coworkers like small children. I held a meeting where I told them they were slobs, they needed to smarten up, and if they didn’t stop throwing their garbage on the floor in the cleaning room I was gonna lock it and not let anyone in anymore.

      The garbage got replaced about 15 minutes later. Time will tell if it stays neat. My last tear down about dirty dishes was surprisingly effective for quite a while though.

      People are gross, but also susceptible to shaming and threats.

      1. Lena Clare*

        Yeah, not all people are gross. This is a really annoying tactic because the people who make a mess of the place don’t feel shamed into cleaning it up – it’s the ones who conscientiously clear up after themselves who end up doing it for others too… eventually. But they shouldn’t have to.

        This is a bit like a teacher keeping the whole class behind for the one student who spit paper balls behind her back. It’s lazy punishing everyone.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Maybe in some cases. Not here though. We’re too small for me to not know who’s at fault, and I know it’s everyone.

        2. The Dread Pirate*

          We also had a problem with dishes, and found it was the visiting accountant who was the culprit. Unfortunately, he saw that I was on shift, and because I was a woman, I was assumed to be responsible for bussing his dishes and washing them. He was “too old to change his ways.” Sigh. I don’t work there any more.

    2. Temperance*

      I had to complain to facilities because someone felt the need to bring in one of those Glade Plug-In monstrosities for our restroom. I have chronic migraines, and scents are a huge trigger for me.

    3. LurkieLoo*

      We switched to Poopouri at home and it has been a life changer! Although it was a rocky road getting there. In spite of my verbal instructions AND the instructions on the bottle itself, my partner managed to use it like normal air spray dousing skin, clothes, and bathroom. Airborn (and landed) Poopouri apparently does not stop smelling for hours. After a heated discussion (“I’m not using that, it’s worse!!!” “Then figure out something else that doesn’t give me a migraine by wafting through the whole house!!”), we did some additional training and it works now.

      1. Free Meerkats*

        I despise all air “fresheners”. My wife is apparently unable to poop without one. My protestation that I’d rather smell shit than the VOCs in those cans didn’t sway her. Migraine headaches for me just made her try to use less. Having met her mother, I know where it came from; after one night of a planned week stay, we moved to a hotel because there was a stinker in. Every. Room. At one point I scoured our house and discarded every air freshener can I could find – so she went out and bought more.

        Poo-Pourri essentially saved our marriage.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          *gasp* your wife was willfully bringing migraine triggers into the house? Why didn’t she just get a tennis racket to hit you in the head with?

          I mean, maybe your migraines aren’t like my wife’s (lasting several days *with* medication; waking up with it still hurting, etc) but I’m going to guess that your wife and her mother have never had migraines of their own or she wouldn’t be so dismissive of your pain. I’m really really glad that Poopouri has solved that one problem for you, but I’m pretty mad at your wife and I hope that’s the only way she’s dismissive of your health.

  8. Cat wrangler*

    The sink in my office is full of dirty dishes – about once a week, the owner washes them up (there is only a max of 5 people who work in there so we all know who it is – there are other kitchens available in other parts of the company so it’s not like a whole company is yucked out). I refuse to touch the dishes as much as I dislike washing up hanging around, it’s not my mess and it’s not my job, nor going to come part of it. I know it sounds a bit selfish….

    1. Wendy Ann*

      If you’re selfish then so am I. Three of us in our office are happy to do the other two’s dishes because it’s reciprocated. There’s a 4th person who we all refuse to clean up after. We used to, until we realised she never ever did ours in return and was just leaving them for us to do.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Nope – I will wash dishes for my lovely spouse, who cooked dinner for me, as a guest when someone invites me for a meal, or to help after holiday dinners with my family. At work? People are adults and need to wash their own dishes.

      I am not a tidy person at all and generally hate cleaning, but I just do not understand how people are not embarrassed to leave their dishes around in the kitchen at work. I think because I loathe cleaning so much, I feel like it’s offensive to ask others to do it for me.

  9. Ellex*

    I find if the person in charge isn’t willing to put their foot down, the slobs in the workplace won’t change. And sometimes when the person in charge does put their foot down, the slobs have to be pestered constantly to clean up after themselves.

    I spent 4 years in a tiny law office as the de facto office manager – we never had more than 10 people and that included me and the boss – and the only thing that actually worked was telling people that any dirty dishes/containers still in the sink or on the counter by 4pm Friday would be thrown in the trash. Happily I had the full support of the boss on this. It took several instances of me actually throwing things out to get people to clean up their stuff. And I still had to threaten, and sometimes follow up, every few months. And people would still leave dirty dishes in the sink/on the counter from Monday until Friday afternoon.

    No workplace I’ve ever been in has been free of at least one kitchen slob and one bathroom slob. Sometimes they’re the same person!

    1. Cat wrangler*

      We actually have signs up in the ladies at work reminding people to flush the loo. I know sometimes flushes don’t always work well but don’t people feel embarrassed leaving their offerings (so to speak) for their colleagues to find or smell?

    2. AnOh*

      My new workplace has been free of kitchen slobs and I’ve been pleasantly surprised! Granted, the office administrator (who’s been here 15+ years) has signs stating to either A) do your own dishes or B) put them in the dishwasher and after 6 months I’ve yet to see a dirty dish left in the sink more than a couple of hours. Even better, anything in the fridge that’s not labeled with a name/date is thrown out by 3pm Friday. I put leftovers in the fridge one Friday without a label and when I remembered at 3:30pm, you best believe it was thrown out. And honestly I wasn’t even annoyed because my previous job there were multiple times I took it upon myself to clean out the office fridge since apparently I was the only one bothered by the lack of space from everyone leaving leftovers in there for 6+ months (I wish I was joking).

    3. Fiona the Fierce*

      Former place of employment had the most disgusting kitchen. The fridge was a cesspool and the microwaves splattered with years worth of nastiness. I never ever took lunch that required heating, and kept my lunch in a insulated bag in my kitchen. Every so often we would have a day when hardly anyone was in the office (very large office w/ nearly 80 people) and I would go in and throw away nearly everything in the fridge and kitchen cabinets (which were like an archaeology dig for expired food products). It was so satisfying even though I never used the kitchen. Eventually they instituted a sign-up list for cleaning, but the only people who signed up were the non-slobs who didn’t make the mess in the first place. Are there people who spill stuff all over the microwave or fridge at home and don’t clean it up? I

  10. Traveling Teacher*

    I am listening to this and cleaning out my desk as I listen! (I work from home, and I’m motivating myself to do 4-5 more hours of work. I cannot believe what I found in my desk. Thank you, Alison and Jolie!

    Also: that nail kit story…my God. This is why I work from home!

  11. tink*

    Keyboards are disgusting, and everyone should keep bleach wipes (to wipe off the keys and your mouse/mousepad) and canned air (for blowing out particles of dust and human that tend to congregate between keys) at their desks for bare minimum cleaning. If you’re in the sort of position where you can actually pop your keys off, do a more thorough cleaning, and put them back on then you should probably be doing that at least once or twice a year.

    1. Mongrel*

      The cleaning putties are good for keyboards and other devices, it’s like thickened slime that squishes between the keys and sticks to ‘debris’. It’s fantastic for getting pet fur out of the gaps as well. Cyber Clean is the brand I use and would heartily recommend it.

      For mouse mats, the cloth\foam ones should either go in the laundry on a regular basis or just be replaced as they’re normally very cheap. Personally I prefer a rigid mouse mat as it’s a much better texture for using mice (I game a lot so this is important) so cleaning them is just hot water, detergent and a quick scrub with a gentle scourer.

    2. Mongrel*

      The cleaning putties are good for keyboards and other devices, it’s like thickened slime that squishes between the keys and sticks to ‘debris’. It’s fantastic for getting pet fur out of the gaps as well. Cyber Clean is the brand I use and would heartily recommend it.

      For mouse mats, the cloth\foam ones should either go in the laundry on a regular basis or just be replaced as they’re normally very cheap. Personally I prefer a rigid mouse mat as it’s a much better texture for using mice (I game a lot so this is important) so cleaning them is just hot water, detergent and a quick scrub with a gentle scourer.

      Oh, and for all that’s holy clean the bottom of your mouse. The number of times I’ve sat helping someone on their computer, thought “the response on this mouse is terrible” and turned it over to be confronted with a sticky black gunk encrusted mess. Just scrubbing it over a clean sheet of paper every now and then should get rid of the muck.

  12. Todd*

    My office (20 people) has a dishwasher. Two dishwashers, actually, but some people still leave their dirty dishes in the sink. Luckily, one person has been assigned to put everything in and start the dishwashers before leaving and another empties them when they come in. But there are still messes. Last week, when most of the office was out at a meeting, I voluntarily cleaned out the refrigerator (we have a full-size one with a freezer and ice maker) that had gotten disgusting. I found food that had gone bad, some turned into mold farms and did find the source of an appalling stench (no idea what it had been originally – I opened the plastic bag and, once I stopped gagging, threw it away). Scrubbed it and put the still good and non-perishable things back in.

  13. Ruthi*

    This episode inspired me to wipe my phone down with Lysol, which turned into a sanitizer party for my purse, with key fob and straps and wallet all smelling lightly like lemon.

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