my employee is obsessed with cleaning

A reader writes:

One of my direct reports, Carol, is obsessed with cleaning, and I can’t get her to stop cleaning constantly.

Carol loves cleaning, and she will talk about it non-stop. She just found a great new sponge that we should all start using. She can’t wait to receive this miracle fabric cleaner that she mail ordered. Did we know that this one brand of paper towel is far superior to the others? She’s got the latest news in cleaning technology from her favorite podcasts. On her breaks she can be seen watching videos of carpet cleaners, vacuums, etc.

That’s okay, but the obsession has unfortunately carried over into her work.

Keeping the front area of the office clean is one of her responsibilities, but Carol has taken it to an excessive level where she’s constantly cleaning even when it’s not needed at all. Any time she finishes all of her major tasks and it’s time to do some low-priority work, she will suddenly discover that all of the counters need to be wiped down (again), there is a single fingerprint on the glass of the front door that has to be eradicated, or she heard that someone just made a mess in the kitchen and can’t leave it alone. It’s clear to me that she avoids minor tasks she doesn’t want to do by turning to her favorite hobby, but since cleaning the reception area is technically part of her duties and “clean” means different things to different people, it’s difficult to establish boundaries and I can’t have her stop cleaning entirely.

I’ve had discussions with her about making sure she isn’t neglecting other work for cleaning and redirecting her to focus on other tasks, and I’ve tried things like giving her strict windows of acceptable cleaning times of the day or instructions to only clean certain things so often, but I constantly catch her cleaning when she’s not supposed to. When I confront her about it and remind her of what she was told to do, she always has an excuse ready for how something actually wasn’t clean enough and so it had to be cleaned again, and it’s her job to keep it clean, therefore it was okay. She’ll be cleaning the same things five times a day when nobody has touched anything. It’s already clean, trust me.

I can’t reason with someone who appears to have a never-ending compulsion to clean and either no concept of a regular level of “clean” or an intentional disregard for it, so I don’t know how to get through to her. High-priority tasks get done promptly, so I think she’s smart enough to realize what kind of work she can procrastinate on via cleaning without it affecting things to a point where people outside her direct team will notice.

I am admittedly frustrated with Carol, but I always make an effort to take a step back and approach anything with her professionally and politely. Other staff have commented on her extreme cleaning/escapism, so I know it’s not just me, but some people find it harmless. Am I being unreasonable in wanting someone to clean less?

No! She’s neglecting other work in order to do something that doesn’t need to be done. That matters.

Think about how you’d handle this if instead of cleaning, Carol were spending all her time … I don’t know, reorganizing files that didn’t need to be reorganized instead of doing other waiting tasks, or repeatedly checking lists of data that had already been triple-checked and confirmed to be correct. It’s important to check data and keep files organized, yes, but not if you’re doing it past the point of reasonable returns while also neglecting other work. It’s the same thing here.

It’s pretty common for people to spend extra time on the parts of their jobs that they like. But it becomes a problem if it means other work is going undone.

The easiest way to manage this is by focusing on the work that Carol is neglecting.

It sounds like this is the kind of job where there’s an ongoing list of low-priority but still important work that Carol should turn to as time allows … but time is never allowing because she turns to cleaning instead. Can you pump up the accountability on that stuff? That might mean setting deadlines for it, following up on it more frequently, or simply calling out that it hasn’t been done yet and asking why. It’s possible that by doing that, you’ll create more pressure for her to work on those things (similar to the pressure she apparently does feel for the high-priority parts of her job) and the excessive cleaning will naturally solve itself. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll be addressing the part of this that matters — the work that’s getting neglected.

If for some reason that won’t work, your only real remaining options would be a strict time limit on cleaning (like “you can spend a maximum of 15 minutes a day cleaning and the rest of your time needs to be spent on other work”) or just a super straightforward “what is up?” conversation. I don’t love the strict time limit idea because you already know from past experience that she’s likely to blow past it and justify it by saying she saw some additional cleaning that she felt was needed. In theory you could tell her to clear it with you first if that happens, but that’s getting more micromanagey than you should need to be.

The super straightforward conversation option might work, though. That would be something like, “I know you enjoy cleaning and it’s easy to turn to that when you have spare time rather than tasks like X and Y. But you are spending too much time cleaning and not enough time on X and Y. We’ve talked about this before and it hasn’t changed anything. At this point I’m not sure where to go. Part of your job is ensuring things like X and Y get done at a reasonable pace, and you’re not doing that. Understanding that it’s a requirement of the job, are you up for approaching it that way? If you’re not, this isn’t the right job for you to be in. If you are, I need your actions to show that — because right now your actions are saying otherwise.”

You would need to go into that conversation with a clear understanding of how much power you have and how you’re willing to use it. If Carol’s behavior never changes, what consequences would be reasonable, are you willing to follow through on those, and do you have the power to do so? Is her neglect of her work significant enough that you’d ultimately fire her over it? Or does it not rise to that level but it’ll affect things like her performance evaluation, future raises, and/or what kind of opportunities are available to her? Or is it none of those things, just aggravating? Your answers to those questions should inform your tone in this conversation … and at some point you should spell out for Carol what consequences she’s risking, if there are any (and if there aren’t any, it’ll be useful for you to get clear in your head about that reality too).

But I think you’ll have most success if you just focus on what’s not getting done. Hold her to what you need from her role and name it when you’re not getting it, and then it’s up to her to figure out how to get there. If she can’t make that adjustment on her own, then you’ve got a bigger problem but a clearer path for addressing it — because in that case it will be about her not doing her job, rather than about an excessive devotion to cleaning.

Read an update to this letter

{ 265 comments… read them below }

    1. Casper Lives*

      If I didn’t know my mother’s job doesn’t involve cleaning…

      Does your mom also apologize for her spotless house being dirty? Sometimes there’s a single dog hair the vacuum missed!

      1. That'sNotMyName*

        I grew up in a house like this and it really warped my ideas about cleaning and cleanliness for a while. Also, if your house wasn’t 1000% spotless when someone came over, it was proof that you didn’t actually want them there and weren’t a good host. Ooof.

    2. Worldwalker*

      No, it’s clearly my mom!

      I think a major reason I’m a slob is that my mother is an incredible clean freak. You can’t just eat off her kitchen floor — you could perform surgery on it. She was a SAHM (common when I was a child) and each room in the apartment had its assigned day to be thoroughly cleaned. And she insisted incessantly that the house was “filthy” and did further super-cleaning when friends were coming over.

      I don’t share my mother’s OCD-like obsession with cleaning; instead I can’t stand it when window blinds are closed the “wrong” way (the inside edge *has* to be down — I’ve left restaurants because it disturbed me too much to eat comfortably) or picture frames are hanging slightly skewed (the Wehrmacht would have gotten me for sure — in WWII, they hung booby-trapped picture frames askew as they retreated, on the theory that officers would be more likely to straighten them up than common soldiers). And I’ll go check three times to make sure I’ve watered my plants. So there’s something that runs in my family. But nothing like my mother and the cleaning.

  1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    If Alison’s suggestions don’t deliver results, you could also take the cleaning tasks off her plate entirely and give that duty to someone else. That would remove her go-to excuse.

    1. Mitford*

      I don’t think I’d be a happy camper if the cleaning duties got re-assigned to me because of an issue like this.

      1. Lea*

        I sure wouldn’t! Take cleaning away from someone who enjoys it and give it someone who is dragging to clean their own house? No thanks

      2. Mockingjay*

        I actually came to suggest reassigning. Carol is using cleaning as an avoidance technique (successfully).

        Carol may not be happy about it, but her manager isn’t happy that tasks aren’t being completed. It doesn’t take much to straighten a reception area – dust once a week, pick up random items and put away or toss. Likely that is all Carol is supposed to do; by happenstance cleaning is a hobby/quirk of hers so she is focused on her favorite thing, not her job.

        1. J!*

          I think the point was that if Mitford (or I, or lots of other people!) would be annoyed if they were Carol’s coworker and had cleaning duties reassigned to them because Carol can’t rein it in and clean a reasonable amount.

          It’s not just Carol who would be unhappy.

          1. MusicWithRocksIn*

            It would create a sense of *Carol* is why we can’t have nice things. Every time someone had to clean they would be thinking “dammit Carol”. Not great for office harmony.

          2. DataSci*

            I think a lot of people would be well beyond annoyed and into “quit on the spot” if something so far removed from their job description got assigned to them.

            1. Jen*

              Are y’all serious??? Every single person at my company helps out around the office and kitchen even though we have a cleaning staff. I am so glad I work with helpful people.

              1. Vio*

                that’s a very different situation though. imagine a setup where the cleaning has, for a long time, been the responsibility of a specific person. somebody who enjoys and is good at it. sure, they’re over the top about it and you avoid talking to them much because you really don’t want to talk to a human youtube ad for cleaning products, but they’re harmless. mostly. then the job’s taken from them and given to you. suddenly you have both an undesirable task as an extra responsibility and an enemy who wants that task and will never, ever be happy with how well you do it

        2. Emily*

          Reassigning the task to someone else is managing around the problem, instead of managing the problem, which is a mistake far too many managers make.

          1. Olivia*

            Yeah, that’s the perfect way to describe it. And it will definitely impact the team’s cohesion. The other people will resent Carol for it and will think that the manager is being unfair/foisting their job onto their reports.

        3. Not a neat freak, but still*

          her manager isn’t happy that tasks aren’t being completed

          OP specifically states that Carol cleans when “she finishes all of her major tasks and it’s time to do some low-priority work” and that “high priority tasks get done promptly.”

          I don’t see the problem here.

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            The problem is that while the low priority work isn’t as time sensitive as the other work, it does still need to get done and Carol is not doing it.

          2. Nodramalama*

            Just because her other work is BAU not high priority work doesn’t mean it can be never done. The worker is prioritising cleaning over her other low priority work. That’s the problem. OP needs the worker to do this other work.

      3. Teach*

        If everyone has some kind of admin/housekeeping type task, I don’t think it’s unfair or avoiding the issue to switch hers with someone else’s. Even giving her a different cleaning task far away from her area might lessen her temptation to do it all the time. It’s worth considering.

        On the other hand, if she’s the only person with housekeeping chores in her job description…why is that?

        1. DataSci*

          Because it’s her job?

          This doesn’t make any sense. Offices aren’t families with multiple kids where chores need to be parceled out fairly. Some people are hired to do cleaning and some aren’t. Some people are hired to do IT and some aren’t. Some people are hired to do payroll and some aren’t. Not everybody can or should do all of these things.

          1. Teach*

            I think we’re just reading the letter differently.
            “Keeping the front area of the office clean is one of her responsibilities.”
            To me this sounds like, instead of using a formal cleaning service, they give the responsibility of keeping different office areas clean to different people. It doesn’t seem like she was hired as a cleaner or anything like that.

            1. wordswords*

              To me, it reads that she’s a receptionist or similar, who is generally responsible for keeping the reception area tidy and cleaning up any minor messes that the cleaning service may not handle (like putting away dishes), may not get to for a few days (since a small office may not have the cleaning service in every day), etc., and that the person in Carol’s role generally has some scope for judgment calls about things like “I don’t technically need to wipe down and disinfect the counters unless there’s coffee spilled on them, but I like sparkling clean counters so I’d rather do so.” Or something along those lines — a position where minor cleaning tasks for the specific part of the office that’s customer-facing or otherwise seen as the company’s “public face” make sense for the role, in addition to the custodial service’s cleaning work. For example, I used to work in an administrative role in an office where the building cleaners came a couple of times a week or when we called them to take care of a significant spill, but my coworker and I were expected to generally keep the office and break room clean and tidy. A lot of the stuff we did, like tidying up mugs and papers and keeping our own desks tidy and so on, was stuff the cleaning staff didn’t do, whereas we didn’t vacuum or take or the trash or any of the deeper cleaning work they did.

              I definitely wasn’t reading it as the kind of situation where there’s no formal cleaning service and everyone is supposed to pitch in for their designated area. That would definitely change the calculus! But then it seems like there would be a lot more in the way of significant cleaning tasks being parceled out to all.

              1. Mr. Shark*

                That’s what I read it as. Carol doesn’t really need to clean the windows, or make sure everything is shining bright and there is no dust on the tables, but she is responsible for making sure there are no spills or trash on the floor. General tidyness rather than spic-and-span clean. But she takes it to the extreme, even if things are clean and shiny already, she’ll focus on making things sparkle when she should be doing filing, or other low-stakes work that needs to be taken care of.

                I agree with Alison’s response. Make sure she is doing all of the work required of her, even low-priority stuff. If she gets the low-priority stuff complete in a timely fashion and she still wants to clean, then more power to her. But she can’t ignore the low-priority stuff to over-clean the front area.

      4. Worldwalker*

        It might actually be worth considering a cleaning service, if Carol’s work is otherwise valuable. It might be considered a sort of accommodation.

        1. Harper the Other One*

          I don’t think that would stop Carol. OP already describes her cleaning things multiple times a day. Knowing a cleaning service was there last night won’t keep her from doing the same.

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            Here’s a thought–use cleaning as a reward for Carol if and only if all her other work (including the stuff she’s avoiding) is done to the right standard.

            She might be that wrapped up in cleaning that she will do those other lower value tasks well and quickly if it meant she could get down to the cleaning that she clearly loves.

    2. lost academic*

      In a small enough office there may be no one else that could fit the role appropriately. I had an office of about 20 people and only the office manager/front desk person could have appropriately handled something like that for various reasons and the best alternative would have been to a) have a partner do it which they would not have done or b) rotated it which would not have been effective. Also, if part of the cleaning is her work area/space, it’s doubly bad to have someone else do it.

        1. Me ... Just Me*

          It doesn’t seem as if this rises to the level of hiring additional help. After all, the tasks needing done don’t even require Carol to spend much time. Adding additional expense to the business isn’t going to be the best solution here.

        2. wordswords*

          Sure, but if the only problem with having cleaning be part of Carol’s job is that she’s overdoing it, it does seem like either overkill or a misaligned solution to hire a cleaning service (at extra expense to the company) to take away what would otherwise be a normal, reasonable part of the job.

          Plus, I would guess the office or building already has a cleaning service, and that this is about ongoing tidying and cleaning during the workday to keep everything neat in between the cleaning service’s visits (presumably less frequent and/or after hours). In that case, what is the cleaning service going to do? Come in at midday to wipe down the door? Stop by to put away all the mugs in the dish drainer? That seems like a waste of resources for everyone. And if not, then Carol is likely to continue going “Oh, I know it’s not my job anymore, but there was a fingerprint on the glass so I just had to do a quick wipe-down! I want to make sure the office looks good for the customers!” And you’re right back where you started. The issue is that Carol is doing this one task too much and leaving other things undone, not that her position has “keep the front area clean” under its responsibilities, from the sound of it.

          1. AcademiaNut*

            Yes, hiring a full time cleaning person to spend half an hour a day wiping down the kitchen counters and tidying the mugs is massive overkill.

            It doesn’t sound like Carol is being asked to scrub the bathrooms, mop the kitchen, vacuum/sweep/mop the offices, wash windows, take out the garbage and the other things a cleaning service would be doing. She is simply expected to keep the reception area tidy. I’d also bet that if they somehow *did* hire a full time person to do Carol’s half an hour a day of work, she’d still find excuses to clean.

        3. Jane*

          I don’t mean to be rude, but I frankly don’t understand this mindset. Carol isn’t a good worker, and she needs to either manage her responsibilities better or be let go in favor of someone who can balance this (what sounds like a very reasonable) workload.

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            But she’s doing the high value stuff well. It’s just getting her to do the lower value stuff, too. If she was told she couldn’t clean unless she gets *all* her other tasks done first up to standard, that might actually work.

    3. OrdinaryJoe*

      I was going to suggest the shift in duties, too but it does bring up the point of … who has to do it then and their feelings? I wonder if talking to the person/people its being shifted to and phrase it as a short term task (90 days maybe?) to help Carol in shifting her priorities. I can’t help but think other people are also noticing as well and see it as a problem.

      If cleaning is a big deal for someone to take on, maybe offer a bonus or extra day off as ‘thanks’ for picking it up for 90 days.

      If a team member suddenly needs help or isn’t able to do a task because of something, it’s common in my office at least to ask someone else to pick it up short term to help, be a team player, etc.

    4. I should really pick a name*

      I think the problem is that she doesn’t follow instructions, not the fact that cleaning is part of her duties.

      When you start redefining a job because someone doesn’t follow instructions, I think you’re at the point where you should be questioning whether or not you actually want this person working for you.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Yea. It’s also not clear to me that her excessive cleaning is actually the problem. It sounds like OP would be okay with the cleaning if Carol were also getting her low-priority tasks done, in which case the actual problem is that she isn’t doing her low-priority tasks.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          I’d make it clear that all tasks, including low priority ones, were done before any cleaning should be done. If she gets everything done and wants to clean the resto of the day, let her have at it

          1. MusicWithRocksIn*

            Yes – the priority of cleaning needs to be very clearly pulled down. “I don’t care if someone vomits on the rug, the reception area does not need anymore cleaning today – if I find you up there cleaning we need to have a serious talk”. Which is kind of challenging the fates, but will drive the point home.

          2. Mr. Shark*

            That’s what I’m thinking. She’s definitely obsessed, but if she is getting all of her tasks done, then there’s really no harm in her cleaning everything five times. But if she’s not getting all her tasks done, which is what is happening now, that’s the problem.

          3. allathian*

            Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. Carol enjoys cleaning, so for her, getting all her other tasks done so that she’s allowed to clean would be a *reward*.

            The LW should start by bumping the “not urgent but important” tasks higher in Carol’s priority list.

        2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I wonder if it would be possible to give an actual priority to the cleaning tasks. So the urgent work is this priority, then the lower priority tasks. Cleaning comes in absolutely dead last, everything else in the workload has to be completed first before Carol can even look at cleaning.

      1. Kella*

        Do you want to pay someone by the hour to clean the same already clean area 5 times a day? You’d still be faced with the problem of how to get her to *stop* cleaning. She would not actually be an effective cleaning service.

  2. Jaques*

    Is it possible to shift the cleaning task to someone else, so that she no longer has the excuse that it is part of her job duties? You could even warn her that you may do this if she doesn’t reign it in.

    1. Venus*

      This seems like a suggestion from a manager who prefers to avoid problems. Why would OP reassign a task that is loved by the employee to someone who is likely to hate it rather than manage the actual problem?

      1. yala*

        I guess it depends on whether “managing the actual problem” is more time or effort than it’s worth.

        I keep thinking about a woman with OCD who told her therapist that she would always worry she hadn’t unplugged her curling iron, and drive back home on the way to work to double check. The therapist’s advice was to take the curling iron in the car with her. Technically, it didn’t solve the *actual* problem, but it created a workaround that allowed her to proceed with her day normally.

        I think sometimes folks get caught up in “managing the problem” instead of managing the person. Sometimes a work-around solution is more effective and less of a hassle, even if it feels like it shouldn’t be necessary.

        That said, it does feel like this is an issue with following instructions. I wonder if specifically clear boundaries could be more helpful? (And yes, OP has already given reasonable boundaries, but those aren’t working for whatever reason). Upping the priority of lesser tasks? Setting excruciatingly specific deadlines or quotas that *must* be met/completed before *any* cleaning takes place?

        Carol might never really stop cleaning, but if she can actually manage to do the rest of her job–all of it–in a satisfactory manner, it should be ok, right?

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          In the case of the woman with the curling iron, the only person affected by her taking it with her was her. In this case, reassigning the duties would affect someone else.

          Carol might never really stop cleaning, but if she can actually manage to do the rest of her job–all of it–in a satisfactory manner, it should be ok, right?

          The problem is she isn’t managing to do the rest of her job in a satisfactory manner.

      1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

        As someone who recently hired a cleaner, and had to let the first one go, I agree. The first cleaner I had, she kept showing me things like “Oh you should use X for this!” I didn’t hire her for cleaning tips, I hired her to clean so I didn’t have to. The whole paper towel thing leads me to believe Carol would be similar, imparting her wisdom onto people who just want someone to clean their bathroom. Also I want someone who seems open to doing what I ask/want vs someone who thinks their was is best.

    1. Lora*

      There tend to be time limits and strict limits to that job, though. Like, you have 15-20 minutes to get this hotel room looking presentable, you have one hour to clean a 3-bedroom house, you must use the cleaning agency’s signature products and low-water-use method.

      Source: me, one of my summer jobs was hotel housekeeping. Also had a housekeeper for years, and if she was running more than a couple of hours to do my house, the agency called to get approval from me to charge for it, it was a big deal.

    2. Kella*

      I don’t think there are any jobs that will pay you indefinitely to clean the same thing as many times as you want to. Cleaning jobs tend to want you to clean something well, ONCE, per cleaning period, just as OP wants. The same problem would apply.

  3. Falling Diphthong*

    This need to procrastinate some boring task is how countless college dorm rooms got cleaned.

    It’s fascinating how videos of people doing almost anything will develop a following. Playing video games. Taking a newly arrived item out of its box. These are whole genres! So that someone out there is relaxing while watching videos of vacuuming is just part of the tapestry.

    1. Mid*

      Mildly off topic, but I’ve been known to watch cleaning videos as a way to body-double when I need to start a cleaning task I’m avoiding! So if I need to wash dishes, I’ll watch a video of someone washing dishes and it makes it easier for me to start the task. I figured this out when I was trying to remove a stain from something and found a YouTube channel that did really in depth explanations of why certain cleaners and stains and fabrics interacted the way they did, like the chemistry behind it, and had good videos showing how to wash certain items. I watched it while cleaning that item, and then autoplay went to a vacuuming video and that made me start vacuuming, and soon my place was sparkling clean!

      Back on topic–it makes sense why it’s hard to tell someone “stop cleaning” when it’s an objectively positive behavior in most cases, but reframing it like Alison suggests as “missing other duties” rather than “stop cleaning” will hopefully make it easier to correct Carol and help her understand the problem.

      1. LB*

        If you can remember the name of that YouTube channel with stain and cleaning tips, that would be really handy to learn about!

        1. COHikerGirl*

          I second this. Also, I might try this whole cleaning tip…body doubling works for me in some things, maybe it can help keep my brain focused for cleaning.

      2. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        Ooh, I’ll have to try that! I have a terrible time getting started on cleaning tasks; it’s a major struggle and a real problem for me. This sounds like it just might help. Thanks for the idea!

      3. Zoe Karvounopsina*

        I watch rug deep cleaning videos. Not sure where that falls.

        They’re dirty! And then they’re CLEAN.

    2. JustaTech*

      Dorm rooms, apartments, houses, desks, offices, labs, you name it.

      “I really need to find a lawyer and write a will, so I’m going to declutter that table that’s been a mess for two years.”

      “Write this really terrible memo I don’t agree with … or … file all the papers sitting on my desk.”
      (I’m not a tidy person. Clean, but not tidy.)

    3. SongbirdT*

      This is a bit of a derailment here, but I don’t think that gaming videos are quite the same category of “oh wow, there’s actually a YouTube rabbit hole for this”? People have been watching other people play games as entertainment for centuries, probably longer. Seems very much like a natural progression, unlike power washing videos or deep clean videos.

      1. Worldwalker*

        A lot longer. Consider the chariot racing fans in ancient Rome. They were known to riot when their team lost. Yep … Rome invented football hooligans.

  4. Ellena*

    Carol should quit her job and become the next aurikatariina. Life’s too short not to be devoted to sth someone loves so much!

    1. Wilma Flinstone*

      Alternately, Carol could come to my house to get her cleaning fix! I volunteer as tribute!

      1. Joanna*

        I know where you are coming from. I would love to have my house cleaned that well. But this is a be careful what you wish for situation. My brother is actually like Carol, and personal experience has taught me that it’s not a good idea to get someone that obsessed about cleaning involved in any cleaning in your home. They will NEVER leave. Or, they will want to come back and finished the job after you have finally managed to get them to leave hours after you wanted them gone.

    2. Lizzie*

      Hahaha. I just started following her and OMG! I feel badly for those who’s homes she’s cleaning because its clearly beyond their control, but wow. they are gross, and she gets them SPARKLING clean.

  5. Lea*

    What is this woman actually neglecting? Because the Lw is super vague on that to the point where one wonders if they’re just…annoyed at the cleaning and that’s it.

    They’re getting important stuff done at least. Sometimes there is down time.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      She does the high-priority stuff but not the lower priority stuff. From the letter: “Any time she finishes all of her major tasks and it’s time to do some low-priority work, she will suddenly (clean)” and “I’ve had discussions with her about making sure she isn’t neglecting other work for cleaning and redirecting her to focus on other tasks…”

      1. Lea*

        I did read that but it is very vague is all.

        I agree ‘make sure x gets done in y time’ is the way to basically handle it.

        1. Not a neat freak, but still*

          I agree. The LW is incredibly vague. If the low priority tasks are in fact that important, make them medium- or high-priority tasks. If they’re not that important, why is the cleaning so consequential?

          1. nodramalama*

            I don’t think LW isn’t being vague. just because some work is non-priority doesn’t mean it can never be completed. the worker can’t only do high priority work, clean, and never do all the other low priority tasks. That’s not doing her job. She shouldn’t need all tasks to be high priority to complete them.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I am wondering if the “lower priority tasks” are tied into OP’s job in some manner. So the high priority tasks are managers things, and those always get done. But OP’s tasks aren’t getting done because Carol is always cleaning instead.

        If true, that could explain why OP is more concerned about those tasks and the person who keeps tabs on what is and isn’t done from the lower priority list (and also why the over cleaning bothers her more than others).

        1. Former Employee*

          Unless I do not understand the meaning of the phrase “One of my direct reports…”, the OP is Carol’s manager.

    2. lost academic*

      Low priority work becomes a bigger problem and a higher priority but also a problem the longer it waits. It also takes more time. Regardless, that work is higher priority than unnecessary cleaning, which has zero priority.

      1. GreenDoor*

        This! My filing is low priority compared to my other tasks. But if I let it pile up indefinitely, all of a sudden the CEO wants to see some slip of paper that isn’t in the digital file…or we’re being sued and the lawyers need to see documents with original signatures…and I can’t find the file because my “low priority” file pile is now a mountain. In that case, my super-duper-clean workspace won’t impress anyone.

        I hate being micromanaged, but this is a situation where it might actually be beneficial. A daily dose of “let’s meet in five minutes to go over your progress on the Less Important Analysis” and “I would like to have the next three Lowstakes Reports on my desk before you leave today” might do the trick.

        1. JustAnotherKate*

          Totally agree on the filing — when my job involved a lot more paper, I would put it off and put it off, and the “file pile” would take on the shape and relative size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (yes, I’m exaggerating but it was massive), forcing me to come into the office on the weekend and deal with it.

          Luckily for me, almost all my documentation now is electronic, and I don’t dislike digital file management so stuff gets filed correctly as it comes in. For tasks like paper filing and staying neat at home, I’ve adopted the mantra “don’t put it down, put it away.” I find that whether it’s a paper document or a t-shirt, I do better if I never let it find a surface to rest on!

    3. Hlao-roo*

      I’m not the OP so I can’t say for sure what low-priority tasks Carol is neglecting, but I can say that in my office job there are often low-priority tasks that are more important than obsessive cleaning.

      Things like:

      – Updating documents (work instructions and the like) to the latest format/current company name (if the company has been acquired/spun off/rebranded).
      – Confirming contact details for infrequently used vendors.
      – Cleaning up/organizing project files in a shared drive.

      Not doing these things won’t prevent important work from being done in the future, but doing these things when there is downtime will speed that work along when it becomes necessary. So it is not more important then completing the monthly budget, but it is more important than cleaning a single fingerprint from a glass door.

      1. Worldwalker*

        Having spent entirely too much of this afternoon updating a list of STLs, their product numbers, and the sculptors assigned to them, I have to agree. It’s one of those things that adds friction to everything that touches it, and at some point, it becomes important to remove that source of friction (“what’s the number for that double-spout teapot again?”) because it’s slowing down other things.

    4. hbc*

      It really doesn’t matter. “Low priority” doesn’t mean “no priority,” and it’s a basic life skill to be able to figure this stuff out. None of us would be thrilled if we had a teenager whose job was to set the table unless he was too busy with schoolwork, and he makes himself “busy” every night by including unrequested illustrations with his English and History assignments.

      Plus, OP has gone beyond that and made clear to Carol that these are higher priority than cleaning invisible dust, *and* set windows in which cleaning isn’t allowed. The low priority assignment could be writing her name 50 times on a piece of paper and then throwing it away, and Carol still needs to do it.

      1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

        It think that happens a lot. People feel low priority things don’t matter. But that isn’t true.

        Maybe explaining the value/necessity of the low priority tasks can be helpful, if only to make it clear it’s just not “busy work” because it’s lower priority.

        1. Tinkerbell*

          There’s also “low priority because it doesn’t have a strict deadline even though it’s important” versus “low priority because while its NICE for this task to be done (or done more frequently/thoroughly), we can do without just fine.” Cleaning is mostly the latter :-/

          1. MigraineMonth*

            I’ve seen a grid describing tasks in terms of urgency and priority; some things are high urgency and high priority, so they must be done immediately. Some things are high urgency and low priority, so you should do them next, and so on.

            My last workplace added an additional designation that was “low priority and low urgency for now, but if it isn’t done in the next 12 months it will be a massive disaster”.

            1. Antilles*

              That’s a common management technique, but one little secret is that a lot of the tasks that fall into the “low urgency and low priority” box are ones that are actually *really* important long-term even if they’re not impactful in the short-term.

              The classic example is something like marketing to new clients. There’s no real deadline or urgency; you could put it off for a week or even a month and it won’t really impact things. In terms of the priority, it’s often hard to argue for “maybe this could turn into something a year or more from now” taking precedence over a current client bringing in money right here and now. But in the very long-term, developing future clients is the lifeblood of the business – and so even though it fits into the low priority/low urgency box on the matrix, it’s something you need to figure out how to keep it going.

              1. MigraineMonth*

                Which is the reason the fifth “low priority/low urgency, but really needs to get done anyway” box was added. If any tasks in that category became overdue, we were required to stop all new work until it was done.

                Sort of like replacing that old bridge. No one really cares now, but if you wait until after the old bridge has collapsed, EVERYONE cares a great deal.

                1. Worldwalker*

                  Two words: Crunch. Time.

                  So very much of that is things that were “low priority/low urgency” coming home to roost.

                  One aspect of that is that the priority and/or urgency level of something will change over time but not be updated. For example, deciding on the new decorations for a line of teapots that isn’t even being introduced until a year from now is pretty low in both regards … but a month before the big home show, it’s suddenly screaming high priority and some teapot artist is going to be sleeping in their cubicle. If someone had looked at things six months ago and said “hey, this is climbing up the priority list” that could have been avoided.

    5. Koli*

      I completely agree with this take. All the detail in the first paragraph lends to the “LW finds the cleaning/person annoying” analysis rather than actual concern about the job not getting done. If “My employee spends too much time on her cleaning tasks and not enough on other tasks” was the issue, all the detail about podcasts and Youtube videos and sponge comparisons isn’t all that relevant IMO, or at least not as relevant as specifics about what types of things are not getting done and why they matter.

      1. JustaTech*

        I found the details about the podcasts and YouTube to provide important context that cleaning is the employee’s *hobby* to make sure that no one is assuming that the LW thinks that this is a compulsive behavior, because that would change the advice.

        To me this situation feels like the letter a few weeks ago with the receptionist who was spending too much time/money decorating the reception area, except with cleaning wasting time rather than decorating wasting money.

        1. Cait*

          Except the LW does reference this as a compulsion towards the end of the letter, which rings true if Carol cannot stop herself from cleaning something that’s already been cleaned five times already! Of course there’s no way to know if this is a hobby, compulsion, mental illness, etc. unless Carol gets a formal diagnosis. If she did get a diagnosis accommodations should be made, but until then the LW has to keep trucking and stick to firm boundaries about when Carol can clean and when she can’t. I think if LW does everything Alison suggests but Carol absolutely cannot stop herself from cleaning, even at the risk of losing her job, a very gentle conversation needs to be had about seeing a doctor.

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            I didn’t take that to mean it’s a compulsion. I have a sibling who cleans to procrastinate. When we were in college, it would not be uncommon for our kitchen counters to be cleaned multiple times in a single day because Sibling didn’t want to write their Psych paper. To me, it feels more like Carol doesn’t want to do the low priority tasks, so she invents things that need to be cleaned instead.

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              This is my gut feeling as well.

              I have a carol in my office as well, and they will look over every training that my come due in the next twelve months and make calendar reminders for them; update their email signature; look for filing on other people’s desks; all to put off her low priority task (mailing Dr appointment reminder postcards to patients that have chosen no to opt into text reminders). That one can slide for a day, but much more than that and other people in the office get corralled into doing them as well to get them done in time (Why Yes, several of us who get grabbed the most are at BEC with her procrastination).

      2. Mr. Too Clean*

        OP here, please see JustaTech’s comment! I included that information so you’d understand the extreme scope of the employee’s obsession with cleaning and understand that it’s genuinely their big hobby and not just a work-related thing.

    6. Smithy*

      In addition to what has also been mentioned, this may also be a case of choosing to do such a visible ultra-low priority task that it’s highlighting work not being done and also disincentivizing genuine lower priority tasks across the team.

      If this is a job that has a mix of high priority tasks A-C, lower priority tasks D-F, and then that mix of G-J personal work-tasks people do that are a mix of unplugging for 15 minutes (i.e. AAM) and improving their personal worklife (i.e. having a zero email inbox, cleaning). The larger point is that someone who does only A-C and G-J is in fact missing a key part of their duties.

      It’s not to completely diminish the value of giving staff time for those G-J tasks that make them feel organized in their workspace and have the chance to clear their minds between tasks – it just can’t be at the complete expense of D-F tasks. I think it ends up being a trap trying to tease out which G-J tasks are 100% work relevant and which ones aren’t. But rather that someone’s G-J tasks aren’t supposed to regularly dwarf the time being taken by A-C and D-F, and definitely not at the entire expense of D-F.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Good analysis. If I were the manager, I think I’d sit down with Carol and say something like, “You do a fantastic job on A-C, and you always keep the reception area spotless. Now I’d like you to tackle, D-F, which are kind of in arrears. Let’s work out a plan for prioritizing D-F.” Then set some benchmarks she has to hit.

        If Carol can continue to do good work on A-C and meet her new benchmarks for D-F, then I personally wouldn’t care how much time she spent putzing around the reception area. But I think the OP needs to focus less on the obsessive cleaning and more on structuring Carol’s job so that D-F get done.

    7. Petty Betty*

      For me, low priority work is:

      -printing out inventory lists for work orders so I can inventory the boxes with mechanics
      -send back broken parts (processing documentation for that)
      -ordering supply room stuff

      Cleaning, for me, if a 10 minute, 2-3x a week thing, depending on how often I need to empty my trash. Breaking down boxes happens more frequently and is separate from cleaning.
      But, I don’t get “guests” and only see mechanics who are just as dirty as I am.

    8. Underrated Pear*

      I don’t disagree with all the responses to this thread. But I did feel the same as Lea (top of the thread). LW says she’s told Carol not to neglect low-priority tasks, but… at the end of the day, *is* she neglecting them, or are they all getting done? You don’t really say.

      I know this may be an unpopular take, but here’s the thing: I have worked in many offices where a good number of people simply do not have enough to do to fill 8 hours. There are academics who have gathered plenty of data to argue that a decent percent of entry- to mid-level office jobs can be done in just a few hours a day, and the rest of the day is spent quietly procrastinating and finding “hidden” ways to pass the time. It is certainly possible Carol is neglecting her actual work. But it is also possible that she is doing the same amount of procrastinating as everyone else, just more visibly.

      Now, *that* can absolutely still be a problem, because it’s distracting. And Carol’s inability to listen to her boss is also a problem. I’m mostly on LW’s side here. But I would add one more step to Alison’s advice to the LW, which is to first determine whether Carol’s low-priority work is actually not getting done in a timely manner. If she is getting everything done on time, then her behavior still needs to change, but maybe it can change in a different way (like allowing her to start her work day early twice a week so she has an hour of satisfying deep cleaning time where she’s not distracting anyone? May not work for you, but just throwing something out there).

      1. Underrated Pear*

        I feel like I should qualify my stance a little bit by adding that I am fortunate to be in a career now that I find challenging and rewarding. But I did used to work in office jobs where people basically sat and did “hidden” procrastination for a lot of the day (which means everyone has to plausibly appear to be working, so they are generally limited to things like scanning social media and commenting on blogs, lol). It was truly soul-crushing to spend every day like that. So I do have some sympathy for anyone in that situation who is trying to find a semi-productive outlet. I’m NOT saying that’s for sure the situation in this workplace, but it’s where my mind went.

      2. Jennifer Strange*

        LW says she’s told Carol not to neglect low-priority tasks, but… at the end of the day, *is* she neglecting them, or are they all getting done? You don’t really say.

        OP clearly says Carol is neglecting them. ” It’s clear to me that she avoids minor tasks she doesn’t want to do by turning to her favorite hobby,” and “so I think she’s smart enough to realize what kind of work she can procrastinate on via cleaning” indicate that to me.

    9. Mr. Too Clean*

      OP here.

      The low priority tasks are ones that don’t have a strict deadline but pile up over time, sometimes literally. There’s basically always more that needs to get done, so it’s not stuff with a quantifiable end point.

      They’re things like:

      – Updating formatting on internal records
      – Ongoing projects for restructuring sharepoint folder & files
      – Digitizing paper documents
      -Standardizing addresses for client files
      -Double-checking reports from other admins

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I have a direct report who sounds very similar to your Carol. My employee’s preferred task isn’t cleaning, but it’s something with a similar sort of ongoing nature. What’s working for us at the moment is that I’ve given her weekly minimums for her low priority tasks. Each week she must process X number of project 1, Y number of project 2, and Z number of project 3. If an emergency hits or a high priority task takes over and she’s not able to hit those targets one week, that’s not a problem. If she spends too much time on her preferred task and doesn’t get around to completing her minimums, that’s a problem. It’s only been a couple of months, but it’s working so far.

      2. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

        Thanks, Mr. TC, this is really helpful in understanding the issue. Sounds like hard deadlines for the tasks that keep falling through the cracks and/or hard number targets per week for completion are in order.

      3. Underrated Pear*

        Please ignore if you’ve already implemented a system like this. But one thing that might help – not just with Carol, but I suspect for many people – is if you are able to divide up some of these tasks into discrete chunks that actually DO have an end point and a deadline. “There’s basically always more that needs to get done” is true in any workplace, but it is just SO overwhelming for people facing infinite tasks, and I’m wondering if creating some sort of firm deadline would help Carol and others tackle their work.

        For example (obviously these would all be adjusted based on what makes sense in your office):
        -All new documents need to be digitized within 48 hours of receipt.
        -Online tickets need to be marked as “resolved” within 1 business day of completing the issue (this is an example from an old job of mine, where we used to have a bazillion unresolved tickets hanging around in the system long after the work was completed).
        -If an admin needs a report double-checked, choose a standard internal turnaround time, like 4 hours.

        There can be flexibility, but there should be a general date/time when things are due. It makes it easy for managers and team members to know if someone is not getting stuff done. It ALSO makes it easier for the employees themselves, since many people work better with a deadline.

        If some of these tasks are “clearing a backlog,” divide them up. Again, people tend to manage work better when they can actually complete something and check it off:
        -If you’re dealing with a backlog of old paper documents that need to be digitized and shredded, divide this into smaller pieces. “File Cabinet A needs to be digitized and cleared by next Friday.”
        -If there is some sort of backlog of internal records that need to be updated: “Carol, take folders A-C. Ralph, take D-F. They need to be updated by the 31st.”

        This doesn’t need an extreme amount of oversight/time, and if I interpret your comment correctly, it seems like there are several admin or other employees doing this, so it might make sense to make one person in charge of delegating the “backlog-clearing” tasks and making sure they get done. I’m sure not all these suggestions are relevant, but I hope at least some are helpful!

        1. That One Person*

          I like this suggestion a lot personally. The ability to individualize the tasks into things that can be checked off rather than thinking of them as an overencompassing thing that will never end is one of those psychological tricks I’ve had to apply myself. Also helps keep things broken up instead of watching a tedious/boring pile of work grow and knowing you’re going to be bored that much longer by the time you finally get to it. If it’s done in chunks though it’s not as bad (not fun, but being bored for 20-30 minutes rather than an hour or more is preferable). Constant deadlines also help keeps things actionable and trackable so if it needs to be done by the end of the week and it’s consistently not, then it’s something that can be noted and added for evaluation purposes as it’s good to have numbers to back those kinds of things up.

    10. Yellow+Flotsam*

      I had this thought too. The problem really isn’t cleans too often – it is does not complete tasks, can’t prioritise etc.

      Start speaking to employee about not getting work done and needing to be more efficient at cleaning because they take too long to do that.

      I’d avoid “it didn’t need doing” “it was good enough” discussions and instead focus on you aren’t getting your cleaning done efficiently – you need to get better at this part of your job because it is interfering with other requirements.

      It might be procrastinating, it might be time filling, it might New a genuine (but wrong) belief that this needs doing. Really doesn’t matter – the problem is you are failing to meet some requirements and you are not good enough at cleaning (because efficiency).

      But yeah if Carol were reading this, I’d say look into running your own cleaning business, sounds like a passion and talent that isn’t fully valued where she is.

    11. Myrin*

      I think this is an excellent example of why Alison’s “give letter writters the benefit of the doubt” rule exists. OP says several times in his letter that Carol is neglecting other tasks in favour of cleaning; Alison asks us to take OPs at their word. By all accounts, commenters should believe him instead of doubting whether these other tasks exist at all.

      I can understand feeling like someone being vague – which it is; he could’ve said “lower-priority tasks, like updating formats or digitising paperwork” but didn’t – might do so to obfuscate their real feelings/intentions/thoughts but really, most of the time it’s just that an OP either thinks something is obvious (because it’s obvious to them), their letter was long and detailed anyway and they didn’t want to add even more, they forgot, or they didn’t think it was important.

      Really most of the time, there’s nothing more-or-less sinister going on with leaving out details, and in fact, OP could provide a completely reasonable list – parts of which people had already correctly assumed -, making this whole thread moot.

    1. Ann Ominous*

      And give it to someone else, whose task it isn’t, because you can’t manage this person well? Nah. At this point you’d need to let her go before you start giving her duties away.

  6. Lori*

    If you can’t reassign the cleaning duties to someone else, can you limit what areas she needs to clean. For example you state they heard that someone made a mess in the break room and she needed to clean it up immediately. Is it her responsibility to clean the break room or does she just do it because of her love of cleaning? If you limited the areas that needed to be cleaned and assigned a specific time limit for that cleaning perhaps that would work.

    1. Lucy P*

      I also wondered if there is an acceptable level of cleaning that should be established. In other words, if the door is full of hand prints, then it needs to be cleaned. If it’s one fingerprint, then leave it alone.
      As someone in admin, I have a duty to tidy the office, but the actual cleaning of the office is left to the cleaning company.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Also, she *heard* someone made a mess in the kitchen? Who told her that? Are her coworkers under the impression that she’s required to clean all the messes and not just keep the reception area tidy? Is there a way OP can make sure their other staff aren’t enabling Carol by giving her more cleaning projects than she should be taking on?

      1. Worldwalker*

        I’m not sure if this was someone assigning her a project, or just someone saying “Argh, someone spilled coffee in the breakroom *again*!”

      2. Mr. Too Clean*

        OP here.

        None of the other staff are encouraging Carol’s behavior or trying to get her to clean more stuff! But if she overhears anyone commenting (not even to her, just people chatting in her vicinity) about a coffee spill or a dish in the sink or whatever, that’s all it takes.

    3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I really like setting a defined standard for time and level of cleanliness. Some flexibility probably is a good thing eventually – but in the beginning it’s probably better if there is just a “this is the standard and time frame for cleaning” and no deviation permitted (while breaking the procrastination habit).

      Somebody up above suggested deadlines for some of the ongoing low priority work, I think that or a “from X-Y every day work on the digitize records project” sort of scheduling may help.

      Also, have to agree – is cleaning the break room really on her list of areas to clean, and if not, figure out who is telling her about messes in the break room and see if you can squash it (maybe by making cleaning the mess the responsibility of your “mess reporter”).

  7. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    It sounds like this is a comfortable thing for her to fall back on, and so it’s a cover for avoiding/procrastinating her other work.

    And I also think “cleaning” is too broad of a description. The front office needs to be neat and presentable — no mangled brochures or abandoned coffee cups on the tables & couch. But it doesn’t need to be obsessively cleaned. Vacuum once a week, dust once a week, wipe down the end tables once a day at opening, etc.

    1. ferrina*


      Another strategy might be to give her a time limit, and any time spent above that limit must be pre-approved. LW can position that has a way that Carol and LW can align on goals and priorities (over communication is essential for aligning on goals anyways). The key here is for LW to allow a path for Carol to pursue what she love (cleaning) while still getting lower priority tasks done. “Can you finish Task A, then once that done yes, please do the cleaning.” That will incentivize Carol to get those lower priority tasks done.

    2. Dark Macadamia*

      Yes, this seems like a great time for a checklist and an “only do this once a day” rule. If it’s like “wipe counters, empty trash cans, refill hand sanitizer” and then you DON’T CHECK AGAIN until the next day there’s a pretty clear boundary that no, you don’t need to wipe the single smudge on the window, you’ll get it tomorrow. Make it clear that once the checklist is completed, it becomes a lower (non-existent) priority compared to the other tasks, even if the room doesn’t stay spotless.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        If it’s possible if LW goes the direction of a time limit… put the allowed cleaning time at the end of the day. You may spend the last hour (or whatever is appropriate) of the day tidying, cleaning the day’s messes and then leave. Depending on the office random mid day cleaning could be disruptive anyway (I know it is where I work… that vacuum cleaner always seems to run when we are on meetings). Let the office get the normal amount of dirty that an office will for the day and then tidy up at the end of the day. I know it’s possible the structure of the job/workday may not allow this, but if it does, it might help box it in more.

  8. I should really pick a name*

    When I confront her about it and remind her of what she was told to do, she always has an excuse ready for how something actually wasn’t clean enough and so it had to be cleaned again, and it’s her job to keep it clean, therefore it was okay.

    And then what happens? That’s an excellent opportunity to tell her that her assumption that it’s okay is wrong.

      1. ferrina*

        Yep. This is her “misunderstanding” priorities. Try treating it like it’s a true misunderstanding- start overcommunicating.

        Set a time limit on how long she can clean, then have her check in with you before she does further cleaning. Then provide a path where she can do further cleaning, but have her do a non-cleaning task first. So “I want you to get A done and sent to me, then yes, go ahead and do the cleaning.”
        I’ve found that this kind of negotiation can work. Otherwise she’s just decided to not do part of her job.

      2. English Rose*

        Yes, this! The boss gets to decide what an acceptable level is for a task to be completed, whether it’s filing, cleaning, programming. Carol isn’t the one to decide.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      This OP might benefit from reading the post “my employee lies to me about things he just said 30 seconds ago” from August 23, 2021.

      Alison provided scripts for a manager who was dealing with a lying employee. Different from an obsessively cleaning employee, but this part of the advice is key in both cases:

      In other words, don’t let him control where the conversation goes. You need to control the agenda, and your agenda is to clearly state when something isn’t acceptable.

      1. Olivia*

        This is a great suggestion. Carol’s excuses shouldn’t get to be the end of the story. And I think setting a time limit could work if OP makes sure that she is not letting Carol’s excuses fly. Carol will go over the time limit and then OP can call her on it and Carol will proffer excuses and then OP can say the nice, professional version of “Did I stutter? 15 minutes means 15 minutes.”

        And at that point, if Carol does it again because [excuses], it will no longer be plausible that she thought the OP would think it was okay if only she knew about the excuse situation of XYZ.

    2. LittleMarshmallow*

      This is a good point. Just because an employee has a reason for what they did, that doesn’t automatically mean they win the debate.

  9. CatCat*

    she’s smart enough to realize what kind of work she can procrastinate on via cleaning without it affecting things to a point where people outside her direct team will notice.

    Is this procrastination negatively impacting the work of the team? Like Wakeen can’t do a certain task until Carol completes her tasks? I think that would escalate the priority level of these items.

    If it isn’t negatively impacting anything, but is just a thing you find annoying, I’d let it go. Tons of people procrastinate without it causing any real issues, her form procrastination just atypical in terms of office procrastination (as opposed to say, taking an extended coffee break, chitchatting with coworkers, or reading the news).

    1. ferrina*

      The time duration is also atypical. She’s just….not doing Task A.
      If Task A is part of her job and she never does it, LW needs to decide if they are willing to re-write Carol’s job to not include Task A, or if they want to enforce that Task A is part of Carol’s job and needs to get done.

    2. whingedrinking*

      I’m picturing something like in retail, where there’s a sort of general hierarchy of tasks and the odds of getting a sharp talking-to for neglecting a task decrease as you go down the list. You could never get away with shirking a task you hate but that you had been expressly told to prioritize, but you could at least kind of justify lingering on a task you like as long as it’s the current highest priority.
      If Carol’s favourite thing was, say, stocking supplies, I can imagine that she would never ignore a customer or leave a display unfinished – but she might go around to all the tills, checking and double-checking, at every opportunity, so she could run to the back and grab a single roll of receipt tape or half a dozen more bags. (And yes, I’ve known people with weirder quirks than that at retail jobs.) And while technically making sure that supplies are stocked is more important than facing product, and the store won’t go up in flames if a bunch of beer is at the back of the shelf instead of pulled forward – you should still pull the beer instead of triple-checking that all the cashiers have a pen.

  10. irene adler*

    First, we send Carol to my house.
    Carol needs a firm understanding of the priorities- all major and minor priorities must be completed first before the cleaning occurs.

    If she had a dedicated time each day that was slated solely for cleaning, that might allow her to focus on her work tasks during the day. IOW, if 3:10 pm to 3:20 pm each afternoon was slated as her Cleaning Time, then maybe she would attend to her work tasks throughout the day, knowing that she could clean during that ten-minute period.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      It sounds like OP tried to limit the amount of time spent cleaning, but Carol has been ignoring them because “this wasn’t cleaned correctly/enough” etc.

      I’d probably approach this as a “you can have dessert after you’ve finished your vegetables” issue. Figure out a reasonable timeframe for completing those low-priority issues she’s been ignoring (depending on the number, it might not be reasonable to say she has to complete *all* of them), and make it clear that she cannot clean until the day’s tasks are finished. Then, as quickly as possible, shift that scheduling to her and do check-ins.

      That shifts the issue from “you spend too much time doing this part of your job” to “you aren’t completing required X in a reasonable timeframe”.

  11. Amber Rose*

    I wonder if you could set a standard for cleanliness. Like you say, clean means different things to different people. Could you define your standard and have her keep to it? “You wipe the counters only once a day unless someone has actually spilled something on it. You vacuum only on Tuesday and Thursday, and only in the morning. Kitchens are wiped down at 2 pm only.”

    Obviously tailored to your business since I dunno what she’s cleaning. But when you have specific guidelines, it’s easier to call people out on not following them.

    1. Pink Marbles*

      I like this idea a lot. OP could even have Carol write up the cleaning plan with days and times for cleaning tasks, and then sit down and revise it together. That would allow Carol to feel that she has a say in her responsibilities, while still setting firm expectations. Plus, as you mentioned, it would then be easy to point out when Carol is outside the guidelines. She might be more likely to follow them if she feels that she helped write them.

    2. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

      This is also what happens when you buy a cleaning service. You need to determine what you want cleaned and how often, and that’s what you get.

  12. Frank*

    She sounds like she’d be great at housecleaning rather than an office environment. Send her to my house for a trial run.

    1. TrixM*

      I know everyone’s joking about this, but as a former house cleaner, no, she would not be. You need to be in and done within a couple of hours in a regular-sized house. Not polishing the coffee table five times over till it’s “perfect” nor scrubbing between the tiles with a toothbrush every single week.

  13. Anonym*

    There seems to be a specific, repeated disconnect point where OP could push harder: when confronted, Carol comes up with excuses and seems to wave away OP’s feedback. This could be the opening to press harder. Don’t accept the excuse or let it go. Carol is winning those interactions.

    OP can say some version of “Carol, what you’ve said isn’t a good enough reason to [persist and ignore your other duties]. If that happens again, I need you to NOT go clean, but ignore it and prioritize your other work, which is more important to our organization than [cleaning off a fingerprint].”

    1. Olivia*

      Yeah, I thought that was a missed opportunity. Like, I don’t think setting a time limit would necessarily be ineffective–I think the OP just didn’t try it and stick to her guns with it yet.

      OP: Carol, we talked about spending too much time cleaning. You’ve already spent at least 15 minutes cleaning today, so what is happening right now?
      Carol: I know but there was this magazine that was out of place and I just realized that when I dusted the windowsill this morning, I missed a few specs of dust, so I have to dust that again, etc. etc.
      OP: When I said this should be done for no more than 15 minutes a day, I didn’t mean for there to be exceptions to that. If you’ve already done 15 minutes and you find other things that you want to clean or that you think weren’t cleaned well enough the first time, they will have to wait until the next day. Are we clear on this?

      The OP says that Carol keeps finding excuses, but it doesn’t sound like the OP has explicitly said yet that the excuses aren’t valid and she doesn’t want to hear them again.

  14. Plumcat*

    As someone who hates to clean and lives in squalor, I wish I were more like Carol. What are these podcasts she listens to??

    1. User 1234*

      I’ve recently become very soothed by decluttering podcasts. I’m naturally messy and I think the pandemic jolted something in me and I’m starting to organize my home and office desk so much all of a sudden.
      My favourite is The Declutter Hub podcast. It’s two charming women (Dutch and British) whittering on about the best way to organize your linen cupboard and debating the merits of packing cubes. It’s kind of (unintentionally?) hilarious, soothing and informative all at once so I’ve been bingeing them. So far they’ve saved me approx $3000 with all of the travel/cleaning tips in the past 3 months.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        The beginning of the pandemic flipped the switch in my brain the opposite direction. It was harder to get new-to-me stuff, and it was harder to get rid of stuff I had (since most thrift stores stopped taking donations). I got stuck in the scarcity mindset, and I’m still trying to get out of it enough to start giving stuff away again.

    2. GraceC*

      I find Aurikatariina’s videos (got famous on TikTok but I watch her on YouTube) to be good cleaning motivation, to the point of avoiding her videos in the late evening because I just KNOW that I’ll be motivated to deep-clean at midnight

      She really actively enjoys cleaning, and makes it look accessible to normal people, I guess? The homes she cleans are usually those of people dealing with a lot of mental or physical health issues and have got into a really bad state (she treats the whole situation with a great deal of respect), and I really benefit from the combination of A) hearing her talk about how easy it is to put off cleaning when you’re exhausted and how easily things can pile up, and finding it overwhelming and scary is normal, and B) seeing how places far worse than mine can be turned around in just a couple of hours making it feel less overwhelming.

      (As someone who uses a lot of ADHD-type coping mechanisms in her day-to-day life (suspected but undiagnosed) the body-mirroring aspect of watching someone enthusiastically clean is also very helpful! And most of what she uses for the smaller messes are things I already have out on the side, like washing-up liquid/dish soap, so when the motivation strikes I can just get up and do it without the intermediate steps of hunting through cupboards)

      1. Plumcat*

        I’ve never heard of her and am fascinated. Thanks for this suggestion (and thanks to User 1234 as well)!

  15. MechanicalPencil*

    Would it be possible to have a checklist of daily tasks done X times per day and then a once a week, deeper cleaning list? Once she’s marked it off the daily or weekly list, she cannot revisit that task.

    I doubt that would really work that well given her cleaning to procrastinate method, but it’s a thought.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      If nothing else that gives OP or other managers an opening to possibly use in meetings to look at workloads and priorities. So all the items on the cleaning lists have been completed, but I see that X and Y are very far behind – why is that?

  16. Sylvan*

    I think a direct approach is good, but I also think Alison’s suggested phrasing sounds like a somewhat passive threat to fire her immediately. So, I think you could start with something like “I appreciate your cleaning, but you don’t need to do this much of it. Could you spend more of your time on X, Y, and Z?” Get as specific as you can.

    If you haven’t already done this, you could describe the basic level of cleaning necessary, so she knows what to aim for. “Wipe the front desk every day, file papers as soon as you receive them, and clean the glass partition every week.”

    You could also tell her how much time you expect her to spend cleaning per week. Maybe she’ll think of it as something to look forward to instead of something to do whenever she has half a chance.

    I like cleaning, but I’ve set aside time for it. I don’t need to be spending time cleaning and reading sites like AAM at work, haha.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      I think it needs to be stronger than “you don’t need to” and “could you”.
      It sounds like this has progressed far enough that it needs to be “stop doing X and start doing Y”. Softening it gives the impression that continuing to do things her way is an acceptable option.

      1. Sylvan*

        Yeah, that’s totally fair. I’m softening it a bit so that it might land better, not to suggest that it’s negotiable.

        1. Clobberin’ Time*

          It doesn’t need to “land better”. Carol has been dodging work she needs to do and BSing her boss about that.

          1. Sylvan*

            Do you want Carol to get the slap on the hand you feel she deserves or do you want her to do what her boss says with minimal pushback?

      2. londonedit*

        Yeah, I think this is another one where phrases like ‘You don’t need to clean all the time’ aren’t going to work, because in her head she’ll just go ‘Oh I know, but I like cleaning and things are always getting dirty, I’m always spotting something else that needs doing so I might as well just wipe the door down as soon as I notice it…’. I think it needs to be something more like ‘I know that keeping the front desk clean is one of your jobs, but you can’t spend so much time cleaning during the day. It’s disruptive and it means your lower-priority tasks aren’t getting done. From now on please complete your filing/email replies/data entry first, and then if there’s any time left at the end of the day you can feel free to give the surfaces a quick wipe down before you leave’ or similar.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      “I appreciate that you enjoy cleaning, but you need to do way less of it. I need you to spend the majority of your time on other tasks such as X, Y, and Z. Cleaning is your lowest priority and, barring a spill that could result in someone slipping and injuring themselves, should be the absolute last thing you do outside of the last twenty minutes of your day.”

  17. hopeful ex librarian*

    “She’s got the latest news in cleaning technology from her favorite podcasts.”

    Off-topic but I would love to know what podcasts she listens to….

    1. former non-profit*

      I personally love Spotless, as a messy person who appreciates cleaning advice and details.

      1. hopeful ex librarian*

        thank you!!! their titles of episodes alone are enough to make me interested, I’ve already downloaded a couple to check out. :D

  18. Sh*tshow Master, PMP*

    Set aside specific windows for cleaning throughout the day (entryway between 9:30-10am, breakroom between 1-1:30pm, Carol’s desk/misc areas between 4:45-5pm – adjust to whatever suits the office needs). All other times of day, work tasks are higher priority than cleaning tasks and she can only clean if all other tasks are complete. Per Alison’s advice, get specific about consequences: if she’s cleaning outside designated times while work tasks aren’t complete, follow through with warnings/disciplinary action.

  19. Shindig Supervisor*

    I think there might be some other factors at play here that LW might not be considering. There is a love of cleaning and then there is compulsion to clean. Blowing past outlined time limits and recleaning areas that haven’t been touched sound to me like they are veering into that territory from the limited information here.

    I agree with Alison and think emphasizing tasks that need to be prioritized over cleaning is the way to go. I would be very hesitant to discipline an employee for displaying this kind of behavior without a clearer picture about what may be driving it.

    1. Susan Calvin*

      I see where you’re coming from, but if she regularly took hour-long breaks to satisfy the compulsion to check her gas stove at home, that wouldn’t fly either – it’s really not an employer’s job (and indeed would be inappropriate) to proactively manage someone’s mental health for them! Even if Carol requested accomodation, which she hasn’t, her actual job getting done would have to be part of the arrangement.

      1. Elle Kay*

        Sure, but if a manager makes space for someone to request an accommodation, i.e. including that in the conversation without being super personal. As someone said below “We have an EAP and other resources that may be of use to you; here is the information about that ” could be a valuable piece of the conversation. If someone has an obvious substance use disorder where they are engaging in the behavior at work (as was mentioned in a recent letter about someone getting high in a lab environment) the employer DOES have the grounds to bring it up. Here, the situation is less determinative but making sure there is a job-related conversation that still gives space to a *solution* can make it possible for Carol to recognize or disclose a condition that does require accommodation. Jumping to immediate punitive consequences rather than stepping through the situation is bad (I know nobody here said that, but stating the obvious)– I think the problem is the OP doesn’t know how to balance the two conversations they’re thinking they need to have.

        1. Pierrot*

          I think this comment conflates accommodations with reasonable accommodations. A reasonable accommodation supports the person who needs the accommodation, but not at the expense of the requirements of the job. For example, I have ADHD and I have a lot of trouble processing instructions unless they are also written out in steps.

          I feel like a reasonable accommodation would be to provide me with a list of the instructions during verbal trainings. Doesn’t require undue hardship to my employer and facilitates my ability to perform the requirements of my job better. It would not be been reasonable for me to ask to circumvent training all together.In this case, even if Carol has a medical diagnosis that explains her compulsive need to clean, it would not be reasonable to expect her employer to require them to let Carol spend half her day cleaning at the expense of the lower priority aspects of her job or to excuse her from doing any lower priority task. Who will end up having to do those tasks? They would probably get foisted onto another staff member or it would require the employer to hire a separate person at their own expense to do the tasks. Neither of those options seem reasonable or sustainable.

          I get it, I have several diagnoses including Bipolar Disorder and substance use disorder (in remission) which you mentioned in your comment. I also know that it’s not reasonable for me or anyone else in my shoes to ask an employer to unilaterally change a job so that we can do the tasks we prefer while paying the same salary. I think that when people conflate accommodating mental health diagnoses with coddling them at the expense of the work, it contributes to stigma about our capability/what proper support in the workplace looks like (not trying to sound overly harsh, it comes from a place of compassion but to me it’s a bit misguided).

          1. Elle Kay*

            It’s not a conflation. It’s a suggestion of approach for the conversation: rather than starting with an inherent assumption, being open to getting answers.

            I, too, have ADA supported reasonable accommodations at work (and they include “needs instructions written down” and “extra breaks” not “never has to respond to someone speaking to them”). If someone came to me and said “You need to respond to people at work and it’s clear you’re just avoiding doing that and not doing your job” it’s a very different statement than “This job requires you to respond to people. I’m having concerns that you are not doing that. Is there a reason why?” Making space to get the answers can lead to conversations with additional resources.

            In no way am I suggesting her job eliminates those tasks. It is about getting to a point where everyone is on the same page and can perhaps reach that point with different methods. Someone below posted a possible chart option. Others have suggested different check-in types. These are different methods of managing and making the job itself doable. (Potentially, anyway.) I myself noted elsewhere that there are two components to this conversation– that the manager would be sharing 1) Are there factors blocking you from accomplishing your job, and 2) How will we manage those factors? #2 still has to be reasonable, certainly, because if the associate’s only answer was “Pay me to do nothing” that’s not going to fly. If the management aspect of #2 is something like “Have weekly check-ins of 5 minutes” that seems rather reasonable. But you can’t get this information without a conversation.

            It should also be noted that accommodations can exist without formalization, such as change in managerial style. “I’d do better with two check-ins of 5 minutes each a week rather than 1 check-in of 10 minutes. What do you think?” versus the formalized ADA type plans where someone may get an additional adaptive device or additional time off for doctors’ appointments.

        2. Clobberin’ Time*

          No. There’s no need to balance here. Carol is procrastinating; it’s not the OP’s job to dance around carefully suggesting that Carol jump in and disclose a mental health diagnosis.

  20. Just Your Everyday Crone*

    “It’s clear to me that she avoids minor tasks she doesn’t want to do by turning to her favorite hobby,”
    This is an interpretation, which may or may not be reality. My mom was pretty obsessive about cleaning, because it was the way she tried to keep her father from getting angry when she was a kid. Dirt caused her distress. Carol’s level of engagement with cleaning sounds like it may be similar. So, when she said the cleaning was more important, it may have been because that fingerprint on the glass was really intolerable to her. It doesn’t change the fact that she needs to do the more important work (by the company’s definition of important), but it may not be mere slacking off.

    1. Elle Kay*

      I agree. I read this with a similar bent of wondering how the OP *knows* that this is a hobby and exactly what is driving it. I mean, possibly they do know but it’s not communicated in the letter. People who live with conditions that can impact work often have great coping mechanisms or skills that make those jobs easier to do, but I’d definitely not want to jump immediately to “You are doing a poor job because you’re just doing a fun hobby instead of your work” when there are so many red-flags for mental health concerns. (Plus, also I’m generally going to be the type to start with “What’s up?” rather than “YOU SUCK” no matter how much I *want* to say the latter rather than the former.)

    2. Hydrangea*

      “It’s clear to me that she avoids minor tasks she doesn’t want to do by turning to her favorite hobby,”
      This is an interpretation, which may or may not be reality.

      LW would definitely benefit from fewer mental narratives.

      1. JustaTech*

        Except that cleaning is a very common method of procrastination? Like, to the point that it is an accepted part of common culture and society?
        Cleaning also has the benefit of allowing the cleaner to be in motion rather than sitting still, and produces visible results (unlike a lot of other work of a similar caliber).

        The podcasts and YouTube also indicate that this is more of a hobby. As does the fact that Carol isn’t observed to stop her high-priority work to clean, but only cleans after the high-priority work is done.

        1. Hydrangea*

          Are you asking a question or stating a belief? Either way, cleaning is also a very common manifestation of OCD. However, both the hobby narrative and the OCD narrative are just that–narratives, which may or may not be reality.

        2. Olivia*

          This exactly. I don’t think it’s unfair at all for OP to label it as a hobby. Carol’s many different ways of engaging with cleaning look just like other hobbies and a lot different than most cleaning-obsessed presentations of mental illness. It’s also pretty obvious that Carol is able to control the cleaning impulse if she feels like she absolutely has to. It sure does look similar to other situations where workers are trying to get away with what they can, whether that’s avoiding work or just doing the fun parts of work. Just because we often associate “cleaning obsession” with mental illness doesn’t mean that every instance of it is likely to be mental illness, much less something that the person really can’t control. If this was anything besides cleaning or organizing, people wouldn’t have a problem with the “hobby” label.

          Carol spends lots of her free time not just cleaning but researching cleaning products, watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc. This really makes it sound like something she enjoys spending time on. “Hobby” is a pretty fair descriptor because that’s how we talk about things that people choose to spend lots of their free time on and talk about obsessively. Sure, it could have started with some trauma response, but that’s probably not the most likely explanation given the details of this particular situation, and when it’s not cleaning we don’t generally go around assuming that this type of behavior is rooted in a trauma and therefore it’s not slacking to neglect the stuff we’re being paid to do. Regardless of where this obsession came from, Carol is literally doing something that is more satisfying to her instead of other work that she knows is supposed to be done, and we know she could behave differently if she tried because she does with the more important stuff. I generally don’t like to proactively use the label “slacking”, but to say that this isn’t slacking, I mean it literally is. The key thing is that she has already shown that she could help it if she wanted to.

          If Carol was a zoo employee who never stopped talking about bears and watching bear videos and telling everyone bear facts, and she was constantly tending to the bears to the point that she was neglecting the tigers and zebras, I don’t think that anyone would be saying “Maybe Carol saw someone mauled by a bear as a child and now she’s obsessed with learning everything she can about bears because it helps her feel like she’s in control.” It seems like people are going “cleaning obsession = OCD/mental illness = don’t be so hard on her.” Carol has shown that she is definitely capable of doing other things that need to be done, tasks that she knows she can’t get away with not completing. She is an adult making a choice even though all indications suggest that she knows her boss wants her to be doing things differently. I don’t see her as helpless or pitiable here.

          OP also admitted that Carol talking about it all the time (to the point that it’s probably annoying her coworkers) or watching videos on her lunch break or whatever is not the problem that she’s trying to fix. And she mentioned that she tries to step back and make sure that her growing frustration with Carol isn’t coloring her judgement of Carol’s behavior. So OP does seem to be going above and beyond in trying to make sure she isn’t being unfair to Carol. But it’s okay to call it a duck if it walks and talks and look like a duck.

    3. Esmeralda*

      It doesn’t matter WHY Carol is cleaning instead of doing the other tasks she’s supposed to be doing.

      The “what” is more important than the “why” — Carol is not doing required tasks and they are piling up, while she does another task that the OP had told her to limit. She’s not doing required work.

      Carol’s reasons for cleaning instead of doing her required work may affect how the OP feels about it (if it’s OCD, then compassion), but Carol still needs to do her required work. And if she can’t or won’t, even when she’s explicitly directed to, then OP has to figure out, is it time to put carol on a PIP? Is it time to manage her out?

        1. Bells*

          ?? Are you saying no one should ever be fired? That’s unrealistic and not good for other employees who count on her.

          1. Elle Kay*

            Allison actually covered the two different meanings of the term “manage out” in the August speed round.

  21. JSPA*

    NOT by way of diagnosis, but when someone has a compulsion (if any sort) that’s not adequately treated, the options are

    a. hide it
    b. have a plausible non-compulsive reason.

    We’re treating this as a quirk because that’s how the employee is presenting it.


    Alcohol, food, cleaning, grooming, power / control issues, disaster prep (etc etc) are all on the long list of things that people can present as “just a funky thing about me!” while struggling.

    That’s not to say they ARE struggling; just to say, don’t rule it out, on the grounds of it also being a hobby. (Someone can be a huge and overt fan of vinyards, craft beers, or single malts, and also quietly have a drinking problem.)

    That isn’t something OP can address up front! But it’s something OP needs to be prepared for if the “what’s up with all this” turns confessional or anguished (or bizarrely combative, or oddly dissociative).

    If you have a support system / EAP, have the info ready. “This seems like something private or higher-stakes than I’d realized. Let me grab our EAP information for you–I’ll be right back. They’re excellent at being the person in the middle, and helping to come up with mutually- workable strategies for all sorts of situations.”

    It’s also possible that one of the minor tasks is something she’s anxious about or doesn’t understand, and she’s cleaning by way of avoiding that one. It’s useful to ask if there’s any one task she feels inadequately trained on, or has difficulty doing. (I once had someone who was unable, for whatever reason, to make himself put paper towels in the dispenser.)

    If it’s nothing like that, “mondays and wednesdays, secondary priority is X and Y; tuesday it’s Z and Q; Thursday, it’s L and M; friday, any loose ends and an hour’s thorough cleaning at the end of the day” might do the trick.

    1. lobsterbot*

      Came here to mention/wonder if the low priority tasks are things she doesn’t feel prepared to do, are too vague to start, or she’s otherwise uncomfortable with.

      1. Pierrot*

        Ultimately in those scenarios, the ball would be in Carol’s court in terms of getting clarification on the tasks. Some people struggle with self advocacy or feel embarrassed about asking for more direction, but the LW would have no way of knowing if Carol’s confused unless she informs the LW. In saying that these other tasks take precedent over cleaning all the time, the LW has given Carol opportunities to say “You know what, I’m honestly a bit confused about where to start with X and Y tasks. Would you mind clarifying?”
        Regardless, the LW could probe a bit more by saying “I’ve noticed you spend a lot of time cleaning instead of doing X and Y tasks that I’ve asked you to prioritize. Is there a reason that you’re having trouble completing those tasks? It’s important that you complete those tasks, so if you need further guidance to do so, I can help.”

    2. Mr. Too Clean*

      OP here. Carol 100% understands the minor tasks she is avoiding and has commented before about how they’re boring to do and how she’s happy when she has more complex things to do, etc. She’s definitely not anxious about them or having trouble understanding them!

      I have my suspicions about how Carol’s compulsion may have more serious mental health implications or origins, but it’s not my place to make any judgment about that or let it affect how I handle the situation unless she’s the one to bring it up.

  22. introverted af*

    Another option for trying to limit cleaning might be to tell her to clean only in a specific window of time *or if she gets a complaint about something.* You could also go further to say only a complaint from a customer/non-employee.

    It may be too far gone for Carol to get this, but it could work with future employees.

  23. Hydrangea*

    “I think she’s smart enough to realize”

    Stop thinking this way. Carol’s cleaning is not related to how smart she is. You are creating a narrative where she is calculating and manipulative so that she can neglect her work to get back to that sweet, sweet cleaning. That narrative is not going to help you redirect her energy to her other tasks.

  24. HIPAA-Potamus*

    Because, inevitably, many of you are diving into mental health territory here, what exactly do you suggest as a plausible solution? What would be a “reasonable accommodation” for this compulsion? To let her clean obsessively? The OPs bottom line is to do her job, not play detective and guess what may be “driving” this behavior. OP should be upfront if this is a mental health issue, and maybe some general office education around mental health support services for all would help, but I don’t see OP being able to easily confront this person about an EAP because that’s very presumptive.

    This person needs to do their job.

    1. Hydrangea*

      Once OP stops regarding Carol as someone who intentionally disregards her job and/or procrastinates on low priority tasks by doing things she prefers, a whole host of coaching solutions arise. Coaching is harder than directing, though, so I can see how low-key threatening to fire Carol is preferable.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Like WHAT, exactly? What specific, actionable things would you do given the type of work that Carol is leaving undone while cleaning something that a reasonable person would consider clean? All through this thread you’re saying there are so many other things if only OP would stop thinking that Carol is purposefully avoiding the low-priority tasks to clean…but providing zero specifics.

        1. yala*

          I would say providing very *specific* expectations (as in numbers) for how much of the low-priority work should be completed each day, or when it should be completed by, and that cleaning doesn’t happen until *all* of that does. It may make it more concrete in Carol’s mind that those tasks need seeing to first.

          Speaking of first, a simple thing would be to swap Carol’s allowed cleaning time to the afternoon rather than the morning. If it’s the morning and she doesn’t “finish up” she’ll likely try to sneak bits of it in all day. If it’s at the end of the day, then she has a concrete “this is over” time. It would also (hopefully) increase the likelihood that Carol finished the low-priority-but-still necessary work before she starts cleaning.

    2. Elle Kay*

      Typically (at least in most organizations that have it) HR would be responsible for managing reasonable accommodations with the associate and their manager.

      I think what most people are saying is that the OP should tread lightly in having the conversation, not that they should say “Oh you poor dear, you never have to do those tasks.”

      I do not believe it is out of line for a manager to say that the associate can seek additional counsel from HR/Benefits groups if needed in order to perform their job. The way they say it matters, but if you’re having a conversation with someone around their job performance already, and indicating what the expectations of the job are, you’re essentially asking two questions 1) Are there factors blocking you from accomplishing your job, and 2) How will we manage those factors? The solutions to #2 are still the important part in terms of seeing a changed outcome in job performance, but #1 could also even be based on something else in this case, such as the associate not recognizing that the “low priority” tasks actually ARE things that need to get done. Hence the conversations.

      The manager would ultimately, in no way, be responsible for managing someone’s mental health condition or treatment, nor for accepting work that is not up-to-par (this separate from accounting for ADA reasonable accommodations that are settled) but the conversation is beginning from a fact-gathering perspective rather than a condemnation one in this case.

    3. JSPA*

      If there’s a medical issue, accommodations are for the employee and her doctor to propose, perhaps in conjuction with the EAP. Then the manager must decide whether that interferes prohibitively with core functions of the job. It isn’t the manager’s job to be proactive on the details.

      FWIW, we’ve had plenty of people post here too day that they have compulsions, and their doctors and their own experience all day that “no pushback and no rules” is destabilizing and unhelpful. So that’s almost certainly not what would be proposed.

  25. Kwsni*

    I would return her focus to the tasks that are not getting done. You could say something like, “task Y has not been done in a month, and it needs to happen every week.” Come up with a realistic schedule on concrete things that you can follow up on, and use your passive observation skills. If, say, filing is something she avoids by cleaning, make it a priority to eyeball the stack of files on her desk every once in a while, and find out if things are piling up.

    1. Peonies*

      I agree. Does it really matter how much time she spends cleaning or does it matter whether her other work is getting done? It sounds like the problem is other work that isn’t getting done so I would focus on that.

      And when all the other work is done, she can clean more than needed if that’s what she wants to do rather than play solitaire or chat with co-workers.

  26. Felicity Flowers*

    Does Carol work in a role such as reception where she can’t leave her work station/area for long periods of time?

    I ask because in most roles if you need a break to reset your brain you can take 15 minutes to walk around, go get your 12th cup of coffee you don’t really want, take 10 minutes to talk to a coworker whatever it may be that relaxes you then get back to work. Jobs like receptionist don’t offer as much freedom of movement so maybe cleaning is how she resets and relaxes herself and she’s just not good at timing it out as a normal break? Maybe you can compromise and say if it helps you re-set and focus set a timer for 5-10 minutes then get back to work.

  27. kiki*

    Has LW tried making a printed list of the prioritization of the most common tasks of the job? And maybe moving more low priority tasks into the medium priority category? I feel like Carol does likely understand deep down that other tasks should take priority over some of her cleaning, but it never hurts to make things extra explicit. This way, when Carol’s cleaning a dish for the second time, LW can say, “hey, you’ve already finished tasks C & D, right?

    High Priority:
    – X
    – Y
    – Z
    Medium Priority:
    – A
    – B
    – C
    – D
    – Once Daily Cleaning: includes a daily sweep, dusting, counter-clean, etc
    – Weekly Deep Cleaning Tasks: includes Q, R, S one time per week
    Low Priority:
    – 1
    – 2
    – 3
    – Spot Cleaning

  28. ExecAsst*

    Cleaning is an immediate result self-gratification. Filing is boring and no one sees it. Yeah, needs to be done, but no one really cares until its needed. “Low priority” tasks are just that. Low priority, no one sees, no one cares.

    A sparkling clean lobby/reception area is immediately obvious.

    Does OP ever check on or praise those “low priority” tasks like “I’m so glad you had John Doe’s employee file up to date for me when I needed it. Thanks.” Or is it all just do it and no one cares about the time and effort the employee put in to it? I’m not saying it’s hard or it’s complex, but if it’s necessary maybe an “atta girl” wouldn’t hurt.

    I temped at a place where every discipline letter/notice was just in one stupid big file. I separated them all out by employee and date ordered each file. Low priority, no gratitude, but they liked getting hands on a file for the one person they needed.

    Think about your priority system and what you value and what you TELL your employee you value.

  29. acl*

    Remove the cleaning duties from Carol’s main job description.

    Then “hire” her to clean at/after certain times of the day.

    Right now she sees something that she, subjectively, thinks needs cleaning. Make the cleaning task objective – cleaning is done after 4:30, or 5:00 or whatever time management chooses, and not before.

    If she can’t handle that, then she needs some professional assistance with her cleaning obsession.

    1. acl*

      If this is stacked under someone else’s comment, I apologize. I thought I was creating a new thread.

  30. Ellis Bell*

    This seems more like a prioritisation problem than a cleaning problem. If a low priority task hasn’t been done in X hours/days/whatever, then it should be upgraded to a high priority task. Currently Carol’s process is doing the high priority tasks first, cleaning second, then low priority tasks in third place. But because she’s a cleaning perfectionist, she never gets past the cleaning stage. Her new to do list should be changed to put cleaning in third place, or alternatively she could be expected to upgrade a low priority task to high after its been a while. One thing OP could say to Carol is “low priority tasks X, y and z need to be (somewhat) done every (day/week), if you don’t do one of them on the first (day/week), make them a high priority on the second (day/week) Another thing OP could ask her for, is a list of daily tasks, including cleaning but prioritised in order, until she gets the hang of prioritisation. I would certainly ban the “drop everything and clean because I noticed a smudge” behaviour. She should be cleaning when it’s time to, according to the order on her list, unless there’s actual spillage or something.

  31. I should really pick a name*

    There’s definitely a pattern of people saying that “maybe she has X condition”.
    The thing is, this doesn’t change what should be done:

    Name the problem.
    Ask why it is still occurring after it’s been discussed.
    Ask is there’s anything you can do to help prevent the problem from occurring again.
    If they need accommodations, this approach leaves room for that. If they don’t, then you should still get better insight into the problem.

    1. Elle Kay*

      Yeah, I mean, this is sort of my point about all of this too. I read a thing, I had a reaction, and my suggestion is to tread lightly by starting with conversations that can allow for several other outcomes. I’m honestly not sure how this has devolved into questions of whether those subsequent concerns (accommodations) are okay or not, because this isn’t about that. It’s about how to get to the point of having the conversation with the right tone that allows for communicating the problem yet not being… you know, a jerk as manager. You’re totally right about what you’re saying.

      1. Hydrangea*

        “It’s about how to get to the point of having the conversation with the right tone that allows for communicating the problem yet not being… you know, a jerk as manager.”

        Yep. Going in assuming that Carol is deliberately neglecting low priority job duties bc she prefers cleaning over filing is not going to get LW to that point, nor is telling Carol that she is in the wrong job. There are tons of constructive suggestions for how to approach a prioritization conversation. I hope LW skips Alison’s suggested scripts and and tries some of those other approaches.

  32. Pyjamas*

    Tangent: What IS the great new sponge that we should all start using? :)

    And can you ask her if she’s found dishwashing gloves that don’t spring a leak in the fore-finger?

    This employee needs to start a substack as a side gig and take a break from cleaning at work

  33. AMW*

    I struggle(d) with germaphobic type OCD and although it is mostly under control now, that compulsion is so, so strong. I obviously won’t speculate what drives Carol’s compulsion, but she has one, and coming from a place of being unfortunately extremely familiar with it, I wanted to mention that a firm stance is probably the best one here. When left to my own devices I would follow my compulsions to the ends of the earth, until and long after my hands bled. Compassion is very important, but she is probably not going to stop unless forced. That could mean reassigning her cleaning tasks completely, which creates a much more solid line for her manager between cleaning she should and shouldn’t be doing. Maybe she could benefit from therapy or some other personal help on her own time (we all could tbh) and often there’s only so much you can or should “manage out” of someone, but I really think you may have to totally eliminate the temptation.

  34. Sabina*

    Carol reminds me of a guy I worked with who would find “make work” kinds of projects to avoid actually useful work that he found boring or annoying. For example, he would spend two or three hours redesigning the form used for taking inventory rather than actually taking inventory, a job that could normally be completed in 30 minutes but that he didn’t like. Then if confronted, he would act offended, “I just spent 3 hours and a lot of mental energy on making this form so much better!” This was a sign, as far as I could tell, that he was becoming more and more disengaged from his job as he eventually was blowing off tasks that were high priority to work on self-assigned, more “creative” projects. He ended up retiring early to avoid being fired.

  35. English Rose*

    I wonder if Carol is actually getting everything done, including the low priority stuff. If so, she must actually have spare capacity.
    Can LW not give her additional duties that will crowd out the cleaning?
    If LW’s office is anything like mine, there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done, and a spare pair of (sparkling clean!) hands to help out with some of those tasks could solve several issues.

  36. Mr. Too Clean*

    I’m the OP, thank you to Alison & all for your feedback! I will definitely try some of the suggestions from the comments as well and will be way more firm and explicit in enforcing boundaries, focus more on reminders and encouragement for the things that are being neglected, and get updated priorities in writing.

    On reassigning cleaning duties to someone else: I don’t think this would be fair to the other employees who’d end up with those duties, and I’d be redirecting or avoiding the problem rather than dealing with it directly. Not gonna be that kind of manager!

    Mental health: I have questions about the compulsiveness, but it’s not my place to make a formal assumption or judgment about that and change how I address the situation based on my own personal “what if”s. If Carol were to bring it up, that’d be one thing, but I have to approach it like any other work situation unless I have other information from her directly.

    Low priority tasks: They’re all simple tasks that can be done indefinitely with no deadline, like updating records, scanning documents, fixing formatting on client files, etc. These are ongoing tasks that pile up, and there’s more of this stuff to do than there is leftover time in the day, so even if she focused on these it’s not like she’d finish and then have time for extra cleaning.

    Carol should be a cleaner: Joke’s on you, Carol was in fact a professional cleaner at some point in the past and frequently reminisces fondly about those days.

    1. Hydrangea*

      “but it’s not my place to make a formal assumption or judgment about that and change how I address the situation based on my own personal “what if”s.”

      You are already making formal assumptions and judgements. While you are not at the addressing stage yet, you are evaluating the situation based on your own personal “what ifs.”

      What if you approached this with no narrative at all? What if you went into the conversation with absolutely no assumption about how smart she is, what her hobbies are, whether she likes certain tasks, or whether she is intentionally disregarding certain tasks? What would the conversation look like? That’s the conversation you need to have.

      1. Mr. Too Clean*

        I’m not evaluating or addressing the situation based on any assumptions or “what ifs” as far as mental health or health issues go. I am not bringing any assumptions about anyone’s mental health or mental illnesses into how I am approaching the problem. You’re taking my statement much more broadly when I said that I’m not making judgements about Carol’s mental health or bringing that into the situation.

        I have had the exact conversation with her that I’d have if I didn’t have any narrative. I tried to specify in my letter that I am always working to set aside any personal feelings when it comes to how I’m addressing the employee or the issue, and I have had multiple conversations with her coming from the objective standpoint of “these tasks aren’t getting done that need to get done, and this amount of cleaning needs to go down.”

        1. Hydrangea*

          You are right that I am taking your statement about judgement broadly! You’re patting yourself on the back for not making mental health judgements, and you are giving yourself a pass for all the other judgements you make. What if you just stopped making judgements?

          1. Mr. Too Clean*

            I appreciate you taking the time to comment, and I’m sure you have the best of intentions, but your comments throughout this post are rather antagonistic toward me and not open to communication, so I will have to respectfully disengage.

      2. Myrin*

        Why so adversarial towards an OP who seems like a very conscientious, patient, and open-minded manager?

        (Also, I don’t think it’s particularly realistic to expect people to encounter something outstanding and to not have any thoughts about it, which OP seems very aware of given that he says “it’s not my place to make a formal assumption”. One can have thoughts on things and still approach them as if one didn’t have any thoughts.)

        1. Hydrangea*

          I would not call someone who displays his level of judgement either conscientious or open-minded. It does take work to get to a less judgmental and more open place, but it’s work that is worth doing if you want to get to constructive problem solving. Telling someone, “Tasks x and y have to be done by the end of today” isn’t really constructive problem solving if you are finishing the statement in your head with, “So don’t intentionally disregard my instructions to focus on your hobby bc I know you are smart enough to realize what you can procrastinate on.”

          When you craft a narrative in your head, all you can see is that narrative. The narrative actively blocks you from active listening with intent to understand. True conscientiousness requires elimination of narratives.

          1. metadata minion*

            What changes would you anticipate this sort of perfectly open-minded viewpoint would make to the conversation?

            It sounds like so far the LW is having a pretty reasonable conversation, and I don’t see any reason to assume that he would ignore Carol if she brought up mental health issues or other complex reasons for her cleaning.

          2. Myrin*

            You are very focused on this whole “narrative” idea (which, on its own, I don’t disagree with) and don’t seem to be willing to accept that someone can absolutely put the narrative they’ve got in their head aside to have a conversation independent of it.

            But quite apart from that and in addition to what metadata already said in terms of practicality, OP’s comments don’t indicate that “all [he] can see is that narrative”. Ironically, you seem to be stuck on that point without actually taking in what he’s been contributing to this comment section.

    2. Someday I'll pick a name and stick with it. That day is not today.*

      Is the problem really that she’s spending too much time cleaning, or that she’s not getting her low-priority tasks done? If she could magically finish all her tasks and still do the same amount of cleaning she’s doing now, would there be a problem? You’ve gotten lots of advice about approaching her in terms of getting more of her low-priority tasks done, but it might help to reframe the issue that way in your own mind as well.

      On the other hand, if aspects of the cleaning itself are problematic, you could address that with her separately (“I need you to spend an hour a day updating records, and please stop vacuuming people’s offices while they’re in them. Also, it makes people uncomfortable when you follow them into the supply room and wipe off every surface they’ve touched.”).

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Can’t you reframe the low-priority tasks as cleaning? There’s a heap of documents messing up my desk, please take them and scan them and file them so my desk is clean again. Thank you Carol!

    4. miss chevious*

      I agree with some of the other commenters in an earlier thread — can you set limits on those “infinite” tasks that would help her prioritize them, but allow her to clean if she reaches a quota? I don’t know about volume or time involved in those tasks, but something reasonable to accomplish over a period of a day, like “update 10 records, format 8 client files, scan documents within 48 hours” would have her make continuing progress on those items and also permit her some flexibility to make your office the Cleanest Place In The World.

      In addition, that would give you measurable targets to hold her to on that other work, and would allow for corrective action if she isn’t meeting those targets.

  37. Banana*

    You said the problem perfectly – clean means different things to different people. So remove that ambiguity and define what clean means. The easiest way to do that is to define the scope of the tasks and how often they are to be done. E.g. keeping reception clean means wiping down the counters with a damp paper towel every morning, running the vacuum one time at the end of the day for 5 minutes, replenishing brochures every Friday, and wiping down the windows with a paper towel and cleaner once a month. If she straightens the kitchen too, have set times for her to do that when people typically will be done making messes (9 am and 2 pm?) and define what that task means. Then have her do exactly what you outline. Clarify when to check in about exceptions (when clients are scheduled to visit?) and make it clear that not overdoing the job is an expectation.

    I tell my people to aim for the bronze Olympic medal on things instead of gold, when I’m trying to convey that they should do a good job but should not expend a ton of effort on doing the absolute best job anyone can possibly do.

  38. Spoo*

    Maybe just say “x and y” need to be completed before any cleaning tasks. While cleaning is your responsibility it is a lower priority than x and y. Or really it’s time to tell her you know she’s using cleaning to avoid other tasks and that needs to stop

  39. just me*

    What if you changed the time she is allowed to clean to the end of her work day? Say she works 8am to 5pm. She is only allowed to begin cleaning at 4:30. And must end her cleaning at 5pm. I think the off-and-on cleaning throughout the day may be making it harder on her. This will mean that if another employee makes a mess in the kitchen, then they clean it up themselves. It also means that everyone will have to live with any messes they make until the end of the day. In fact, maybe other employees need to be cleaning up after themselves more.

    1. Mr. Too Clean*

      OP here. I’ve actually tried this restriction but at the start of the day, saying she was only allowed to clean during the first 30 minutes of her shift and that any cleaning she wanted to do was to be done during that time only. It didn’t work, as you can see from the examples in my letter. :(

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        A few people have mentioned allowing the cleaning only at the end of the day, maybe as a reward for getting more accomplished on the lower priority lists she is not as fond of?

      2. yala*

        I feel like that’s the opposite way to go about it. If she enjoys it, it should be at the end of the day, almost as a reward. It would also be easier to keep it to a specific time, since she would have a very definite cut-off.

        Is there a way you could re-prioritize her tasks, or give quotas? Like: “The records must all be filed before cleaning” or “You need to file at least X records per day” or something like that?

        Putting a definite expectation on the amount of low-priority work may be helpful. If Carol is able to work with “I can’t clean until I get [High Priority Tasks] done”–and complete HP tasks satisfactorily –then she should be able to also add the perimeter of “I can’t clean until X amount of [Low Priority Work] is done.” If the issue is that the tasks pile up, or that the work gets shifted onto other people, then *that’s* the issue that needs to be addressed, not the cleaning.

  40. Luna*

    I have cleaned or dusted surfaces that were actually just fine in terms of cleanliness, but that was usually during downtimes at work, where I really had nothing to do. And cleaning is one of those busy things to keep you from going crazy, so you don’t just sit or stand there and wish to be anywhere else out of boredom.

    But if she is refusing to do work that has to be done at that point, due to the opportunity being there because the important stuff has been taken care of, I do think you need to put your foot down and bluntly tell her that cleaning to avoid doing Menial Task X is not alright.

  41. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    Just thinking of all the letters here about people complaining that the fridge/toilets/whatever have been left filthy, again…
    At last, Teapots Inc have a staff member who won’t mind being asked to clean stuff. Put her in charge of cleaning the entire building, and if she finishes early, she can make a start on my home!

  42. CommanderBanana*

    Carol sounds very frustrating to work with, but also please ask her to come to my house??

  43. Ari*

    I wonder if Carol has other likes you could utilize. For example, I love to check items off a to do list,
    so I make them for myself all the time—at work and in my personal life. She might benefit from a weekly or monthly to do list with deadlines. That also gives you a way to hold her accountable and document what hasn’t been completed on time. I’ve had direct reports on coaching plans in the past (our predecessor to a PIP), and I had to write out a clear list of my expectations, their tasks and deadlines, and so on. Every task/goal had to be measurable in order to show progress (or lack thereof) and determine whether the problems were resolved or the employee needed to move into a formal PIP. Having all of that in writing may help Carol stay focused on what needs to be done. But you do need to figure out what the consequences are if she fails to show any progress, because that will guide how you frame the conversation. For me, with the blessing of my director, I told them that we were doing the coaching plan for X weeks, and if they didn’t show progress by the end of that time, then they would be put on a PIP. Those go through HR and are a Big Deal, so it was enough for them to work harder and make the necessary changes. Wishing you the best!

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