transcript of “Your Office is Filthy… and Jolie Kerr Can Help”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Your Office is Filthy… and Jolie Kerr can help”.

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

Today we’re going to talk about the intersection of work and cleaning and I’m so excited about the guest who’s here to do it. Jolie Kerr runs the cleaning advice column, Ask a Clean Person, and she’s the host of the Ask a Clean Person podcast as well as the author of the bestselling book, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (paid link), and she has made cleaning advice fun and fascinating. She answers questions from Airbnb hosts about how to clean up the blood their guests left all around their home, what to do if your Halloween wig leaves hair everywhere, how to clean up the beer you spilled all over your bed, and much more. She knows everything there is to know about cleaning and on a personal note, her advice once helped me save my favorite pair of sweatpants from a terrible olive oil stain, so I will always be forever in her debt. She’s here today to answer a whole slew of questions that listeners sent in that involve both work and cleanliness. Jolie, welcome to the show.

Jolie: Hi Alison.

Alison: I’m so excited to have you here.

Jolie: I’m excited to do this! This is a fun Red Rover for us since you did my show.

Alison: That’s right. I think people might think, “Cleaning and work — where’s the intersection there?” But actually I put out a call on Twitter and on the Ask a Manager website for people to send in their questions about cleanliness at work, and people have a ton of them so we have some really great ones to answer.

Jolie: Yeah, we do. I’m excited.

Alison: Before we do that though, I want to ask you about your work because I am obsessed with what you do. How did Ask a Clean Person get started?

Jolie: Ask a Clean Person got started really on a total lark. I was working as a marketing and business develop manager at a big law firm here in New York. That was my career, I had a very good career. As I like to tell people, I wore suits and pantyhose (laughs). But I had come out of a journalistic background and I missed the creative pursuits. And so I had been doing a little bit of writing on the side under a pen name — Kerr is actually a pen name, Jolie is my real nickname for my full name but Kerr isn’t my name. And at the time I was writing for a site called The All (RIP The All) and they were launching a sister site that was a women’s vertical called The Hairpin. And the editor of that site said, “I’d love for you to write for us.” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” And a friend of mine came up with the idea that I should write about cleaning, which I thought was a terrible idea, terrible idea. I didn’t think anyone would read it. And the only way that I could in my mind make sense of what a readable cleaning column might look like was to do it as a Q&A, as an advice column. Just let people tell me what they wanted to know, what problems they had, what questions they had. And so we came up with the idea of Ask a Clean Person. I truly thought it was going to die on the vine. I solicited questions from about 20 friends expecting that I would get maybe three pity replies. But no, actually I got a lot of replies just from my friends. And then once the column started, I would say within the first three weeks of the column, I didn’t need to rely on those replies from my friends at all — I had enough from our actual readers. And from there it was really off to the races.

I was also at the time just a person who knew a lot about cleaning, but by no means was I a cleaning expert. I learned on the job and ultimately I ended up getting a book deal and writing my book, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. And when I finished writing the book and handed in the manuscript, I had this lightbulb moment where I thought, “Well, girl, now you’re an expert because you really know the answers to this stuff.” I did so much research, and I talked to so many people, and I learned so much from my readers. And it’s a weird thing about cleaning — when you mention it to people, they actually want to talk about it and they want to tell you not only the horrible messes they’ve made in a disaster, like getting cooking oil on their favorite sweatpants, but they also want to tell you the stuff they know. And a lot of times it’s stuff that is common knowledge, but a lot of times it’s also very esoteric. And what I found was that the more that I talked to people and told them what I did, the more that hobbyists came out of the woodwork with tips for me. Like, this didn’t actually happen, but an example of the kind of thing that would happen is, I’d meet a cellist who would be like, “Oh yes, well this is how you clean a cello.” And then I know how to clean a cello, because an expert on that has just told me that. So that’s really how the job came about. And it’s been wonderful. It’s been a total trip, and a wild ride.

Alison: I think one reason people love it is because it’s this very modern twist. It’s not what people think about, I think, when they think about it. A cleaning advice column sounds like something your grandmother might read. But you deal with a lot of body fluid related questions, and you’re so non-judgmental about it. I think people love that.

Jolie: Yeah, I think that’s one of the benefits of doing it in the Q&A format is that people are coming to you with their real messes, and so that becomes very relatable for a reader. I often tell people that people aren’t really reading it for my advice, they’re reading it for the questions and the messes and the stories — there’s so much voyeurism that goes along with any kind of advice column really. And you certainly know that from your work. And so really that’s the human interest side: How did that tin of mackerel packed in oil come to be spilled on your favorite house pants? Which was a real question that I got that is, I know, how you ended up getting the advice you needed for your own oil on your favorite house pants situation that you had (laughs). And so I think there’s a human interest to it that the older style cleaning advice columns that you find don’t offer. And then yeah, there’s my voice in it too — which as you said, non-judgmental. And part of the reason I’m not judgmental quite frankly is because I’ve been a disaster in my life. I’ve made all kinds of embarrassing messes over the years. And so first of all, it would be totally out of character for me, just as a human to judge someone who has thrown up inside their pillow case, which is a thing that happened to one of my friends. Because, but for the grace of God go I, I once threw up on my own feet, you know?

Alison: Do you think that there is something generational to the response that you’ve gotten? That we haven’t been taught how to clean things in same way that our parents or our grandparents might have been, and we’re sort of stuck figuring it out for ourselves and so there’s this real hunger when there’s this expert source to go to? Or is that just me who doesn’t really know how to clean?

Jolie: No, it’s not just you. Don’t worry. Actually, the great thing about Ask a Clean Person also is that it’s just a great equalizer — that no one is in any kind of mess alone ever. I love telling people I’ve gotten three separate questions from three separate people who melted a pound of butter into their car seats. No mess is unique. But yeah, I do absolutely think that there is a generational component. And I think, frankly, you know, from the perspective of me — I am a feminist for sure, and went to a women’s college, I’ve got that whole thing about me. I actually think it’s kind of a good thing in a lot of ways that women in particular haven’t been like as trained in the domestic arts as maybe they were one or two generations back. But that also means that there is a dearth of knowledge and that we all as people need to know how to clean. Whether we do it or not, it’s a skill or a knowledge base that we should have. And one of the opportunities that I really had with doing this column was, once I identified that this generational learning gap really was going on, was that it let me level the playing field for both men and women and say, “Hey, yeah, I’m going to teach you how to clean — but I’m not just teaching the women how to clean. I’m teaching the men to. I’m here for everyone. This is not gendered.” And I know this sounds crazy and I hope I don’t get dragged for saying it, but that was maybe one of my biggest feminist moments and achievements when I had that light bulb go on and realize that I could do this thing. I could actually affect real change in terms of addressing the gender gap that still does exist with cleaning because I could exploit this hole in knowledge that an entire generation, not just of women but of men too, have.

Alison: I love that. I wanted to ask about that actually, because you started your column at The Hairpin, which was aimed at women, but then you started writing for a more male audience. Have you noticed differences in the type of questions that you get from men versus women?

Jolie: No. Great news — everyone is filthy. Equality reigns when it comes to how messy we are and the messes we make. I did notice an uptick in questions about cleaning couches when I started writing for men. That was curious for me. My takeaway from that is that men really love their couches and that’s great and I like that they love them so much they would write to a cleaning expert to know how to clean them up. But there was one big difference that I noticed, and this is a little dispiriting, and it is this: men and women ask questions in very different ways. Women tend to open their questions by apologizing for not knowing something, apologizing for being gross, just generally there’s a lot of self-flagellation that happens when women begin to address me before they even get into asking their questions. Whereas men tend to open their questions to me by stating their credentials, their smarts, their base of knowledge, and then they get to the question they have to ask.

Alison: That is dispiriting.

Jolie: I know it is.

Alison: Okay, we have a bunch of questions that people sent in for you that I want us to tackle. Let’s get into questions that people sent in for you about the intersection of work and cleaning. This first one was sent in from someone on Twitter who asked: “If I spill HYPOTHETICALLY mustard or tomato soup on myself at lunch, what will take it out, aside from those portable Tide pens or Shout wipes, which stink? What do I need to keep in my desk?”

Jolie: I love this question and I have to say — I won’t out who it is, but it is actually someone I worked with at The Hairpin. It’s such a good question. I like also that she managed to pick two of the stainiest foods that you could pick — tomato soup and mustard are very, very, very stainy. But that’s great that you picked them. So first of all, I actually want to say — I really do like Shout wipes. I do not love Tide pens. If it’s all you’ve got and you’re in a pinch, they work great. I find that the delivery application of stain removing solution is just much better in a wipe form than it is in the pen form. And one caveat I want to give about both of those products is that they’re meant to be used on the go. You should use them on the go and they’re great to use, but when you get home it is not a bad idea to flush the area that you’ve stain treated with cool running water just to push out the detergent. Because what can happen is the detergent itself can leave a little ring that will create a stain of its own. But with that said, I think that Shout wipes are great and I really do recommend that people stash a little box of them in a desk drawer, or stick a few in a handbag or if you’re a man sick one in your wallet right next to your just in case condom. I really think they’re great. In fact, I used one just this past weekend — a friend had an old coffee stain on her favorite shirt and I was like, “Oh girl, get over here.” And scrubbed her bosom off and took the stain right out. And she was happy and so was I.

But I also want to help out this person who does not like Shout wipes because that’s also a fair stance. You don’t have to love the products that I love for sure. Here is a weird one that is great, especially in the workplace or just generally on the fly: hand sanitizer is an incredible stain remover. The reason for that is that it has a very high concentration of alcohol in it. Alcohol is a wonderful stain remover, which leads me to this next thing. I do not think it is a bad idea at all to keep either a bottle of rubbing alcohol or a packet of those alcohol impregnated wipes — they’re usually called prep pads, you find them at the drugstore. Those are excellent, not only for stain remover but also for cleaning telephone headsets and keyboards. And I know we’re going to talk about that stuff because we’ve got some more questions specifically about those. But rubbing alcohol is wonderful for all kinds of cleaning. And so if you do have space for it, just a little bottle of rubbing alcohol or those prep pads would be great. I have rubbing alcohol that comes in a spray bottle, which has been a total game changer for stain removal and I would say the spray bottle is particularly excellent.

The last thing to mention in most workplaces you will have it, is dish soap. Good old dish soap is great. Now it’s not always the most practical thing if you dribble on your shirt and you have to keep wearing it for the rest of the day. But if it’s on something like a cardigan that you can take off and flush with a little water, massage a small amount of dish soap into the stain using your fingers, and then flush again with cool water, repeating as necessary if it’s a particularly bad stain or a big stain, but dish soap takes a lot out.

Alison: Okay. You mentioned keyboards and we had a few people ask about about keyboards. One person asked, “How gross are keyboards?” And another person asked, “Please ask about the best way to keep your keyboard clean, especially if you eat at your desk and you’re not willing to change that habit.” And I’m going to sign on to this question to you because my keyboard is disgusting.

Jolie: Okay, fair enough. First of all, yeah, the keyboards are super gross, completely disgusting. Here’s the thing, I think people generally know this, your hands are the dirtiest part of your body, right? So anything that your hands are touching all the time, whether it’s a light switch, a door knob, a faucet on a sink, or your keyboard. Oh, also, your cell phones. Guys, your cell phones are disgusting. I’m weirdly not a germaphobe — this really surprises people to learn. But one thing I absolutely will not do is I will not touch other people’s phones, because I know how gross they are and I can’t bring myself to do it. So yeah, your keyboard is super gross, but you do not at all have to stop eating at your desk or any of that kind of stuff.

There are basically two different things you want to bear in mind when you’re cleaning a keyboard. For deep cleaning a keyboard, you want to start with canned air. Compressed air, canned air, is different terms for the same thing. That will help you remove any debris, whether it’s crumbs or dust or hair or whatever — I don’t even want to think what else could be going on inside your keyboard. It will help dislodge it from in between the keys. You want to start with that though, because it is going to blow up all of that stuff all over onto the top of the keyboard, the bezel, the screen, all of that. So that’s really what you want to start with if you’re going to do a deep cleaning. And then really all you need to clean a keyboard is rubbing alcohol. You do not need anything fancy at all. I use rubbing alcohol, like I said, I have this little spray bottle it actually sits at my desk and a microfiber cloth and I just spray some of the rubbing alcohol on the microfiber cloth and just wipe the keyboard down and that’s all. If there are really, really bad, stubborn stains or scuffs, a magic eraser is wonderful. Q-tips are also great tools for detailing keyboards.

You’re going to totally hate me for this and no one has to do this, I’m just telling you what I do because I’m me — every Monday morning I Q-tip my keyboard. I go over it with the rubbing alcohol and the Q-tip. It’s like my little Monday morning ritual, as I’m kind of getting going for the week. And it works great and it’s really also satisfying because then you can look at it and see the dirt that came out and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I cleaned that. That’s great.” So that’s really all. Nothing fancy.

Alison: I think I clean my keyboard once a quarter.

Jolie: That’s better than most, Alison! Honestly, that’s fine. I’m just me, I’m me, you know.

Alison: I’m looking at it right now, it’s so gross.

Jolie: Honestly, I am a clean freak. I live this.

Alison: That’s true.

Jolie: That’s the thing — no one else needs to, right?

Alison: I’m going to try to clean my keyboard more. I’m actually embarrassed when people see my laptop because it’s so gross.

Jolie: Yeah. I think most people probably don’t.

Alison: Okay. This next question I think is really interesting. It’s how much personal stuff should live in your workspace? The person who sent this in says: “I have the standard bits of paraphernalia, photos, calendars, etc., but I also have a coworker who has so much stuff in her cube that it’s expanding into the empty cube behind her. Her cube is crammed. If her apartment looked like her cube, I would call her a hoarder, but I’ve never been to her apartment. None of it is work related, but even if it were — in the digital age, is there really any acceptable reason behind someone’s space being crammed full of stuff?” Jolie, what do you think about that?

Jolie: Well, surprise Alison, I flagged this one because I actually wanted to hear your answer.

Alison: I think it’s interesting. I think if you go to either extreme on this, it’ll look a little bit off. If you have absolutely nothing personal in your office, you kind of look like you haven’t put down any roots and like maybe one day you’re just not going to come back from lunch. But then there are also people who go to the other extreme where they fill up their office or their cube like it’s their house — they’re bringing in couches and rugs and lamps and mini fridges. And when you do that, I think there is a point where it looks like your focus is on the wrong things. I mean, I am all for making your workspace more comfortable and cozy, I’m a big fan of that. But I do think you can take it too far where your priorities look off.

Jolie: Yeah, and that was pretty much what my initial response was — you do want to take into account the impression you’re creating at work. And the impression should be that you are there to do a job and that you are a professional, regardless of what that job is. I think it’s also tricky because so many jobs are so different and you know, if you work in a creative field, having a very riotous-looking cubicle might be a totally different thing from if you work say in banking. So the thing I would say is first of all, some people work better with stuff around them and some people work better with nothing around them, and some people work in all places in between that spectrum.

But one thing I’ll say about the abundance of stuff is that it does make it very difficult to keep your desk clean. If every surface is covered, then you can’t really easily wipe off a desktop. You can’t dust easily. If you spill something, like if you knock over a cup of coffee, then cleaning that up is going to become a much longer and more involved ordeal, and take much more time out of your work day when you should be actually working and not cleaning up the coffee that you spilled on the plush Garfield that you got at the state fair in 1983. So you do want to take into account that it will be very difficult to keep your space clean. I would say if it’s your coworker, it’s really on your boss or their manager, whoever that is, to address that. If it’s making you uncomfortable in some way, then perhaps you could speak to your manager about it, but if it just irritates you, then I think that’s something you’ve just got to get over. Because if it’s not affecting their performance or really affecting you other than you’re annoyed by it, then you got to get over it.

Alison: Agreed.

Jolie: Does that sound right, Alison?

Alison: It does. The one thing I would add is if it’s an issue where you have to go into that person’s office to get something when they’re out and there’s no way that you’re going to find it without digging through pounds and pounds of stuff, that’s a reasonable work issue to bring up. I wouldn’t take it straight to the manager. I’d talk to the person and say, “Hey, when you were out last week and I had to find the X form, I had a lot of trouble finding it.” And even then I wouldn’t say, “Can you clean your entire office for me?” I would say, “Can you maybe better mark the things that people might need access to?”

Jolie: Yeah. Love that.

Alison: I get a lot of questions at Ask a Manager from people who are having physical reactions to the air freshener that their coworkers are spraying around. They’re getting migraines or respiratory issues and sometimes people even have little mini-wars in their office about scented products that some people want to use and some people don’t. And indeed, we got a question about this on Twitter. Someone wrote: “Is there such a thing as an inoffensively scented air freshener? I’ve lost track of how many employee arguments start over the odor of one of these things.”

Jolie: Yeah, I mean I can totally feel that one. So here’s the thing. There are inoffensively scented or basically unscented odor removals, but air fresheners are a different category. Those are those scented things. And the problem that happens with scented things is first of all, you do have people who are highly sensitive to them, whether they cause respiratory issues or allergies or migraines. But also then even if they’re not causing physical problems, they can be irritating to people to have to smell something that they don’t like smelling. The issue is, is that smells and what we do in general are so personal. I love the smell of ammonia, but I recognize that most people do not like the smell of ammonia.

Alison: You might be the only one.

Jolie: No I’m not! (Laughs) Other people do too, I promise. Alison, just like the pound of butter in the car.

Alison: (Laughs) All right, fair enough.

Jolie: I am not the only person who loves the smell of ammonia. You know, the people who love the smell of ammonia, we’re all the same cohort of people who love the smell of gasoline.

Alison: Oh yeah.

Jolie: It’s just all that same odor family that we love. Don’t come for my people (laughs). The problem is, is that if to you a pine-scented plug in air freshener smells wonderful, to the person next to you it might smell horrible. And that person next to you might love the smell of a lavender scented plug in air freshener or spray air freshener or whatever it is, and you might hate that because lavender to you might smell like your great aunt’s house and you hated going over there and she’d pinch your cheeks and make you eat food you didn’t like — all that stuff. So scents and how we react to them are really so personal. So what I would advise for people in office settings is first of all, just to stay away from anything scented, and if there’s someone in HR or an office manager or someone who can just make a policy of that so that it’s not, “Bob hates lavender, Bob’s ruining the fun for all of us.” Just make it a policy that nothing scented. And this isn’t directly cleaning related, but it may also extend to things like wearing perfume, because they’re really flip sides of the same coin. But there are some odor neutralizers.

So should you need a product in the office — maybe because it’s a small office and there’s an office kitchen where people cook and you want something — here are a few things that I can suggest. First of all, gel odor absorbers are great. You can find those at any hardware or home improvement store. Sometimes they’re scented, but I find that it’s such a light scent that you don’t really notice them unless you’re really right above them. There’s also, a totally unscented odor absorber is active charcoal and you can buy active charcoal either in bricks that you can just set out in a discreet spot and will absorb odors that are in the air, or sold loose. You can find all these things on Amazon, but if you want to go to a brick and mortar, if you go to a pet supply store, active charcoal is sold loose in the aquarium section, because they’re often used in fish tanks. And then the last product to mention is, there is a spray odor eliminator called Ozium. Ozium does have a scent to it, but it dissipates very, very quickly. It is excellent if you have the dreaded someone microwaved fish situation, Ozium will kill that in a minute.

Alison: Oh, wow.

Jolie: And the scent of the Ozium itself, when you spray it, you’ll smell it. But that scent also dissipates very, very quickly.

Alison: Interesting. Okay. Our next question, also from someone on Twitter, I believe, is: “The work microwave is a crime scene. Do we have to take it outside and burn it to ash, or…?”

Jolie: I love that question. You know, I love that so much because I think it speaks to the relatability and the humor that I talked about when we were talking about the genesis of Ask a Clean Person and kind of why it works is: we all have been there. We all have had that work microwave where we’re like, “Should we just sacrifice it to the gods, it’s such a disaster?” The good news is no, you do not need to sacrifice it to the gods. Only once have I encountered a microwave that I truly said had to be sacrificed to the gods, and that was a microwave that was infested by roaches that somehow and for some reason its owner felt she needed to resolve and keep using the microwave. And I was like, “No, no, no. The microwave is gone. Get a new microwave. I could tell you what to do, but no, get a new microwave.”

So anyway, here’s the good thing about microwaves — they actually are really, really easy to clean. There are tons of ways to clean a microwave, so if you don’t hear your favorite microwave cleaning trick in this, please know that it’s not because I don’t know it, it’s just because I’m picking the easiest one to take into account that this is an office microwave. So here’s really what you want to do. You want to microwave a small bowl or a mug or whatever of just plain water. Do be careful when you open the microwave and take it out because obviously it will be very hot, you want to be careful not to hurt yourself with that. But what that will do is it will create a tremendous amount of steam inside the microwave, which will loosen up all of that stuff that is splattered all over the walls and so on and so forth, and it’ll just make it a lot easier to clean out. You do always want to take the turn tray out. You can wash that just like you would a dish, in the sink with a sponge and soapy hot water, or even in the dishwasher if you have one of those. For the interior of the microwave, once you’ve created that steam in there, you want to just go and basically with a sponge — or even better, there’s a type of sponge called the dobie pad. It’s a non-scratch scouring sponge. It’s particularly great for small appliances because it will help you really scrub things away without scratching the interior or exterior, and it’ll just add a lot of extra scouring power to the job of getting the splatters of tomato soup and so on and so forth out of there. It may take a little time and a little elbow grease, but really it’s a pretty easy and straightforward job and you don’t need anything particularly fancy for it.

One other thing to mention is that if there are really egregious stains, a magic eraser is wonderful. I love magic erasers. I do know what they’re made of, but I don’t even like telling people because I like to live in a world where they’re just made of magic. That’s what I choose to live in, and I want all of you to live in that world with me, so I’m not going to tell you what they’re made of (laughs).

Alison: All right, let’s do another one.

Jolie: Okay.

Alison: This person says, “We do not have a real sink or dish area in our office. So a lot of us rinse our coffee cups in the bathroom sink and sometimes even use hand soap. Is that an adequate substitute for dish soap?”

Jolie: Yes, and I’m so happy that you’re even just rinsing them because so many people just leave their dirty coffee mugs out and never rinse them and then reuse them and it’s gross! So yes, that is totally acceptable. Really the biggest difference between hand and dish soap is just that dish soap was probably a bit more effective when you were talking about grease cutting. But if you need to wash a mug, I mean, unless you’re drinking chicken soup out of a mug, which is greasy and will leave that oily residue behind, hand soap is a perfectly fine substitute for dish soap, absolutely. In a lot of ways, soap is soap is soap, and something is better than nothing. And so yeah, totally acceptable. I would say try to use the hottest water you can. That’s always great to do. And do make sure that you rinse them out very well after you use the soap. This is a funny little sidebar — ingesting soap can lead to GI distress. It can upset your stomach. I won’t get super graphic when I go into it, but I’ll just leave it at that. So you don’t want to — well, you don’t want to have soapy coffee because that tastes gross, but also just because it might upset your stomach to be drinking soap.

Alison: Okay. Sorry, I feel like I need a reaction to that, and I’m just stunned into silence.

Jolie: To put this nicely, the soap will have a similar effect that the coffee will. Read between the lines and you know what I’m talking about.

Alison: (Laughs) Very subtly put, thank you.

Jolie: (Laughs) I’m trying to be gracious.

Alison: (Laughs) Very well done. So before we wrap up, someone sent us an all staff email that was sent out in their office about a pretty gross cleaning issue. Do you want to do the honors and read it?

Jolie: I do. I love these. We should say that when you came and guested on Ask a Clean Person The Podcast, we had one of these great interoffice emails about someone just doing something super disgusting and I loved it. I really hoped that we would get more of them and indeed we did get one, so I was super excited that we could read this one. It’s on the short side. We’re not going to say the name of the company because we promised that we would keep it anonymous, but here’s what the note said: “Hi all. Can we please be more considerate of tidiness in the suites? I saw A LOT of nail clippings over the floor of one of the rooms this weekend. This isn’t acceptable. Don’t do it and be clean!”

Alison: (Laughs) This is gross, right? People should not be leaving nail clippings on the floor at work.

Jolie: You shouldn’t be leaving nail clippings on the floor anywhere! It’s the most universally accepted thing in the world that the sound of nail clipping is disgusting, the clippings themselves are disgusting. Also I have to say, I’m Italian and I’m superstitious — there’s a whole thing about not letting anybody come into possession of your nail clippings because they could use it to curse you and so on and so forth. So just out of that self preservation, if someone left nail clippings around the office, you bet your bottom dollar I would don a rubber glove, pick them up and go lay some curses.

Alison: Yes. In the very early years of Ask a Manager, I had a letter from someone who kept finding — this is so gross — she kept finding nail clippings in her desk drawer and on her chair. And she said she had been keeping a little mini nail kit in her desk and clearly she was just keeping it there in case she had like one broken nail that she needed to fix, but clearly someone was using it, borrowing it the way they would borrow a stapler I guess, and she was of course grossed out and ended up throwing the nail kit away, after which the problem stopped. But I remember there was an update to it. She had taken it to HR and they had had this very strange reaction. They thought someone was doing it to intentionally harass her, like it was an act of aggression, which I didn’t necessarily buy into. It turned out that there were nighttime cleaning people who were coming through. And I guess at one point someone had discovered, “Oh, here’s this nail care kit. I’m going to take this opportunity to deal with my nails.” And they were just doing it into her drawer.

Jolie: Oh my God.

Alison: Yes! And I’ve also had more than one letter complaining about being able to hear coworkers clipping their nails in the next cubicle. I mean, I really do think that quickly fixing a broken nail at work is totally fine, but I don’t know what’s going on with people who are regularly trimming their entire set of nails at work.

Jolie: Yeah. No no no no, that’s private behavior. No, no, no, no, no. You can’t be clipping nails in public, that’s private behavior. Even if you live with other people, you should be in the bathroom with the door closed so they don’t have to hear it. No, no, no. It’s horrible. Horrible. Bad.

Alison: I love this memo that went out about it, and I have to say I love the whole genre of slightly outraged and disgusted memos that get sent to all staff about cleaning issues. Every single one, I think, is a magnificent work of beauty.

Jolie: I do too. I’m with you on that. And so we should say that if you guys have any that you want to share with us, you can and we will love it and we will not make them public if you don’t want us to. And we will make them public anonymously if you’re cool with sharing, but obviously you don’t want your company name attached. We just love getting these.

Alison: Yes. Send them on.

Jolie: I hope we get more.

Alison: Yes, the world needs more of these. Well Jolie, it’s been so wonderful to have you here today.

Jolie: This has been so great. Thank you so much for having me. This was really, really fun. I got to get you back on Ask a Clean Person the podcast though.

Alison: I will come back any time.

Jolie: Because we still have so much to cover.

Alison: We do.

Jolie: There really is so much intersection of what we both do. I love the Ask a Ask a episodes.

Alison: Yes, me too! Will you tell people where they can find you if they want to learn more about what you do?

Jolie: Sure thing. You can find my podcast, Ask a Clean Person Podcast in any place that you listen to podcasts: iTunes, Stitcher, all those good places. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @joliekerr. I’m also on Facebook, Most of my writing is at the New York Times, so you can find me there, and you can email me if you have cleaning questions:

Alison: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Jolie: Thank you, Alison!

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.