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I just started working at a newspaper publishing company. The office is old, with stains on the walls, badly peeling wallpaper, and giant holes in the carpets. Those are expensive renovations, I can live with those problems.

The thing that bothers me is that in the back of the office, where my desk faces, there is a giant pile of random boxes and junk.

So just talk to the boss and offer to clean it up, right? Well, a co-worker with 15 years of experience there seems to be the creator of this junk pile. In fact, his desk area is sort of a nest, piled high with junk maybe 4 feet tall closely surrounding his workspace.

He's pretty much the one that I go to before bothering the boss or the owner, though, so I asked him if I could clean the junk pile (the giant office-sized pile, not his personal junk nest) in my free time. He said "No." - I asked why and he responded with "Because I don't want you going through it." So, I said "Well, you aren't going to do it." And he looked at me like "That's right."

So anyway, the next step would be for me to go over him to the boss. I have a few concerns though:

  • he's a pretty big asset to the company. So keeping him happy is probably high on the manager's priority list.

  • The place has been like this for 10 years, and no one else seems to have cared enough to do something about it.

  • They might not have a place to put the stuff even if I get permission to clean up.

So anyway, I've been going above and beyond for the company with my design work, and have already seen some great responses from customers who I've designed ads for. I'm even programming a web application in my free time at work for the company to have a better e-reader edition.

My point is, I'm working hard to make the product that we produce better, and I think having a clean workplace is part of that process.

How should I proceed to approach this issue, or rather, should I push it further at all?

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    You need to define what the problem the pile of junk is causing. Is it smelly? Is it a fire hazard? Or does it just bug you? This will define the conversation about the junk, and possible solutions. – KatieK Jan 7 '15 at 17:59
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    Clearly it doesn't bother the boss - or your coworker - so you're going to have to get them to understand why it bugs you. If it's just that it's an eyesore, get a screen. – KatieK Jan 7 '15 at 18:04
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    Buy some mice and release them into the centre of the pile. – TheMathemagician Jan 7 '15 at 18:19
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    You can push for it, but are you perceptive and wise enough to know when to stop pushing? – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 7 '15 at 18:33
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    Would installing some shelves or a wardrobe and just straightening the boxes/junk help you? – mkennedy Jan 7 '15 at 18:53
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This is a very common problem in the newspaper publishing industry. (I've been in that industry for 30+ years) And there's not an easy resolution. Often senior, and valuable, employees become hoarders of sorts, hanging on to older technologies which enable them to retrieve information and sometimes avoiding new technologies in the process. There is a perception that "if I keep everything I'll always be able to find what I need."

Even though I believe you are correct that being surrounded by garbage (and most of it is garbage, never to be looked at or used again) degrades the workplace, this is an area to tread lightly.

I'd suggest working on using your job skills to improve your "cred" with both the hoarder and your bosses. You're going to need a lot of workplace respect to change you entrenched co-worker's habits and environment.

Once you've built up points in your favor, try picking really small battles and be nice about it. Its all about the people you work with gaining confidence in you and your judgement.

Sad to say, but I've made more progress in this area by waiting for people to pass on than I ever have while they were still in the workplace.

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    With some humor and light handed talk, I got a more positive response approaching the issue later in the day 1 on 1. He agreed to clean some of it up. – CuriousWebDeveloper Jan 8 '15 at 1:58
  • @curiouswebdeveloper Even though people may fight you on this issue, its amazing how much a difference it makes when you do clean things up. Wheel up the dumpsters! – BigScar Jan 8 '15 at 14:21
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If you don't want to rock the boat yet on pushing for the pile to be moved/removed/tidied up, could you change the way your desk faces so you're not looking at it? Or otherwise find a way to screen your desk off from the mess?

Different people have very different tolerances for mess and different preferences regarding ideal work spaces. A giant pile of junk in front of my desk wouldn't faze me in the least, unless I was worried about it toppling onto me or something. Many people can just tune out irrelevant details like a mess behind their desk; others absolutely cannot. You want to be careful about being too pushy about your preferences as a new and junior worker in the office, while trying to create a productive work space for yourself.

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I'm working hard to make the product that we produce better, and I think having a clean workplace is part of that process.

I think that you need to recognize that this is part of your work style and that other folks actually may work better and be more comfortable in the middle of a big chaotic pile of stuff. Obviously your senior co-worker prefers chaos based on your description, so by cleaning up all of the workplace you may not be making things better.

My approach when there is a conflict of style is to figure out what I can do to accommodate my style without infringing on my co-workers. I would focus on getting permission to control your immediate environment so that you can do your best work. That might involve screening your view of the pile, or re-orienting or moving your desk.

I would make sure that your boss understands that your goal is your own productivity and you aren't trying to "mother" the rest of the team to keep their work spaces tidy.

I think that you don't understand that what you perceived to be a helpful offer to tidy up was actually a criticism of your co-worker. If you put yourself in his shoes, and you were 15 years his senior on the job, and he wanted to pile up some junk next to your work space because he felt the whole team could be more productive if the area looked "lived-in" and less sterile, how would you react?

On the other hand, he may not really care about whether the pile is there or not and he's just being territorial. Regardless, it's best to focus on what you can do for yourself rather than start out butting heads. Once you get to know your co-worker better you might be able to find a way to organize that pile without making him feel like you're taking control of his stuff and/or area. If you can get him to see it as busy work that is beneath him as a senior employee instead of you trying to fix the things that he has done wrong, you might have a shot.

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How should I proceed to approach this issue, or rather, should I push it further at all?

I always advise people to talk to the person who can actually change things when they perceive a problem. Since you have already talked to your experienced co-worker, the next step is clear - if it bothers you enough, have a conversation with your boss.

Explain why it bothers you, and what you would like to do about it.

Be prepared if your boss tells you just to leave well enough alone.

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Continue with a dialog until you get details on why the mess is there. Offer alternatives. He doesn't want you to go through the items. Ask if you brought boxes would he put the papers in there. He may have a bad back. Offer to place small piles on his desk for him to sort and then you can box them.

Maybe you just need some type of curtain to block this from your view.

Whatever you do, don't give up, but eventually, you have have to ask your boss to be moved. Tell him why. He may be prepared to exert his authority on the situation instead of going through the trouble of finding you another place to work.

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I would escalate this to his boss. Things to be cautious of though:

  1. Ask his boss if there's a particular reason that the pile of stuff is there. Maybe there's a good reason for it (doubtful, but maybe).

  2. Keep a level head. Don't do anything to shed a negative light on your co-worker. Maybe something along the lines of what you said:

    I'm working hard to make the product that we produce better, and I think having a clean workplace is part of that process.

It's always tough when people have been around for a long time and are big assets to the company. Maybe involve your co-worker in the process so it doesn't seem like you're going over his head.

  • Involving my co-worker in the process sounds good on paper, but how would I actually go about doing it? I might try to talk the problem out with him one-on-one after-hours when we're alone there, but with such a straightforward "No. I don't want you going through it.", I'm not sure it'll work out well. – CuriousWebDeveloper Jan 7 '15 at 18:06
  • @CuriousWebDeveloper I mostly meant having him in the meeting with your boss. I agree, the very blunt "No. I don't want you going through it" is pretty plain – Brian Jan 7 '15 at 19:21

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