I work beside a pig and it's making me sick. I can't even see my neighbour for the garbage overflowing her desk – apple cores, stale coffee, papers, old food, books, junk and garbage. It smells.
I have tried to gently ask her to clean up, and even offered to help, to no avail. Who do I talk to? My boss sees what is going on, but she doesn't want to get involved and turns a blind eye.
THE FIRST ANSWER:
Former deputy prime minister
This smelly problem is more common than you think. I once had a wonderful employee who performed incredibly well in his job but popped raw garlic on a regular basis to ward off office colds. No one would, or could, go near him because his pores poured human aoli!
As his boss, it was my job to sit him down and explain the raw truth about odour. Surprisingly, he was unaware of the office cloud hanging over his head. As a garlic eater, he could not smell himself. Once informed of the problem, he was mortified and moved quickly to resolve it. (He switched to garlic pills.)
My point is, it is your boss's responsibility to guarantee a smoke- and smell-free, environment. You have obviously worked unsuccessfully to solve this problem at the source. Now is the time to up the ante.
Enlist the support of a couple of co-workers. Ask them whether they would be willing to join together to visit your boss about this office eyesore. With the strength of numbers, your concern will carry much more weight. Explain calmly and succinctly to your manager how this mess is affecting your productivity.
Chances are, your boss will welcome an opportunity to clean house. If your manager doesn't, continue up the food chain – no pun intended. You have the right to a stink-free work environment and your employer has a responsibility to guarantee it. As the old saying goes, one rotten apple can spoil the barrel and the workplace.
THE SECOND ANSWER:
Founder, Made You Think Coaching, Toronto
In your mission to make your colleague's work space look more like an office and less like an orifice, you could start by asking her less "gently." Sometimes we think we have been clear but we haven't, because we're afraid of confrontation; so we sugar coat our concerns.
Make it crystal clear (politely) that her mess is affecting you. However, remember that everyone's definition of "messy" is different. Be ready to compromise and meet her half-way.
Do other co-workers feel the same as you? Your boss may be more inclined to intervene if more than one person is negatively affected.
If your neighbour still doesn't respond, you might just have to grow a thicker skin. Do you prefer a messy co-worker who likes you, or an orderly neighbour who adds a voodoo doll of you to her desk because you got her in trouble?
(Frustrations at work are sometimes a sign of frustrations in your personal life. Is your roommate or partner disrespectful of your space at home? That might make you want to be Captain Tidy at work.)
If you're not willing to bend on this, you could try elevating the problem to the human resources department. But if your neighbour is highly valued and well-liked, there's less chance the powers above will care about her mess.
On a positive note, keep in mind that her messy desk is making you look more organized and efficient. Maybe she's a blessing in disguise.
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