We share a kitchen with around 20 people on our office floor. The problem is that some people leave their dirty cups and plates in the sink and on the tables even though we have a dishwasher. Each week two people are in charge of cleaning the kitchen. However, this job is only to clean the surfaces, start the dishwasher. and then unload it. There have been several emails, but they have had no impact on the issue. What can be recommended to improve or correct the situation?


The problem at our kitchen is that there are a few people who cook and heat up food in the microwave, and the rest - including me - who would either never use it or only make coffee. Therefore, one plate would not work. As the frequent users would just use the plates of the people who don't use the kitchen. Also the surfaces and the microwave tend to get dirty quickly. Our boss does not use the kitchen, and I don't want to spend my time leading by example when I am hardly using the kitchen.

The main annoyance (for me) is, that it is our only social area and so you have to sit in this dirty kitchen when you want to have a chat.

  • 3
    Institute corporal punishment for the transgressors? It sound like they are acting like children after all Nov 2, 2012 at 17:27
  • 5
    What are "(some fee) people"?
    – Kaz
    Nov 2, 2012 at 23:56
  • 3
    Why dont hire a kitchen cleaner. we have one in our office. Nov 3, 2012 at 5:40
  • 1
    Shoot them all.! You cant really order a professional person(especially a programmer). Also the idea of one set of utensils per person is a good idea. Nov 3, 2012 at 5:46
  • 8
    I once got an email from a coworker who complained that none of us were cleaning the kitchen, and suggested we all pitch in for the effort. The thing was I was working 12-14 hour days getting a vital piece of code out the door, and he was in at 9 out at 5 and insinutating that we were lazy pigs. He meant well, but at the time he really pissed off our team. Given the sacrafices we were making, the shop could really contract out a cleaning company to do the job. Whatever you do, be aware of similar situations and don't make that guy's mistake.
    – MrFox
    Nov 5, 2012 at 21:58

11 Answers 11


One cup and one plate per person.

Seriously, nothing else works. Hide cups and plates (in case you need them, for a customer or something) and only leave one cup and one plate per person. People will either start cleaning up for themselves or for others if they want to use them.

I've done it twice, and it worked both times. The first time people started cleaning up for themselves, the second time they started bringing plastic cups and plates from home. In any case, the kitchen was clean.

  • 1
    +1 for this. It worked in my last workplace as well. If everyone is responsible for their own cutlery/plates/drinkware (and no one else's!) then they have no one to blame but themselves when it's dirty. And really, how long could it possibly take to clean one plate or mug? If you need some cups/plates for guests, cleaning those should be the responsibility of the person who invited the guests. Nov 2, 2012 at 17:35
  • 7
    How do you keep your microwave clean? (I know that's not what OP asked about, but it's a common failure mode -- people will use paper plates to avoid having to wash up, then not clean up their spatter/leaks/etc in the common microwave. Ew.) Nov 2, 2012 at 17:54
  • 2
    @MonicaCellio Likewise, fridges. And I swear I'd rip a dishwasher out of any office I was managing, cause that seems to be a prime excuse for leaving a mess lying around.
    – pdr
    Nov 2, 2012 at 20:35
  • 2
    This is exactly my idea when I was single! I figured I would have one plate, one cup, and one set of utensils and I would never have a build-up of dishes. And it worked! This is aside from the fact that any friends I had over were out of luck.
    – chembrad
    Nov 3, 2012 at 1:15
  • 1
    @Spoike Hide cups and plates (in case you need them, for a customer or something) I didn't remove the extra cups, glasses and plates, I just locked them in a cabinet.
    – yannis
    Nov 4, 2012 at 9:23

What do the people in your office do, and how much do they cost you on an hourly basis? What would it cost to get someone to come in every day at 5pm to handle this (or add this to the responsibilities of whomever already cleans your office, if you have someone like that)?

If you have 5 people taking 10 minutes a day, and each one costs you $100/hour or more in salary or expenses, having them clean up the kitchen is costing you roughly $80/day in productivity, plus whatever time you or someone is putting into trying to get them to keep the kitchen clean. And then there are tasks that are not going to get done if left to the staff as a whole, like cleaning the microwave (as mentioned above) or the toaster. So it might be cheaper to pay an unskilled laborer to do what is, frankly, unskilled labor.

If you have enough people and/or they are relatively expensive, you may want to consider just hiring someone and not making an issue of it.

  • Frequently, chores like this, are done in off time -- the employer supplies the appliances, but staff that use it are expected to maintain it, and do so on their own time (after all, they are /using/ it on their breaks).
    – jmoreno
    Nov 3, 2012 at 7:01
  • 5
    ...and they're getting back to work later because of cleaning. Do you really want skilled staff to be cleaning rather than something that could improve productivity? I often read technical blogs during my lunch breaks (but I work from home :) Nov 3, 2012 at 13:33
  • This is called en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage
    – Chloe
    Nov 4, 2012 at 5:22
  • 1
    If you hire someone to do their dishes and save them the 10 minutes they'd end up doing it themselves, A/ be prepared to hire someone to clean their desks, check their emails and answer their phones too and B/ they will slack off for 10 more minutes on the internet, because the average worker does not spend 100% of his time grinding... the mind needs a break now and then.
    – Konerak
    Nov 27, 2012 at 19:23
  • This is basic education, you don't want people with good will and attitude to be pissed by the slackers.
    – Spidey
    Jun 7, 2014 at 12:59

This kind of issue can chew up a lot of time, act as a major distraction and allow people an outlet for all sorts of personal issues and angst between team members.

It can also be symptomatic of a deeper cultural issue in the team, which is festering away just below the surface.

My response on finding a messy kitchen is to clean it up - not just my stuff, and leave it as I would hope to find it. Every time.

Its easy for people to add to a mess someone else started.
Its much harder to leave the first plate.

Even if - at first - you are alone in doing this, over time, you won't be. People will see your actions, and copy them, just as they copy leaving messy plates.

And, its still only 5-10 minutes out of your day. I actually find this kind of activity is an excellent "mental reset" when I have been thrashing away at a tough problem, difficult e-mail or report.

About 70% of behaviours are reflected; this means that "workplace cultures" often become self-reinforcing; as one person leads, so the others follow.

  • If you put up passive/aggressive notices, expect passive/agressive responses

  • If you treat the team like children, expect childish actions to continue

  • If you organise a rota for duties, expect a team that needs micromanaging

  • If you only do your own cleaning up, expect a team that is selfish and unsupportive

  • If you e-mail round instructions, expect e-mail traffic over every minor issue

My advice : lead by example, exhibit the culture you want to work in, and above all else, don't sweat the small stuff.

  • I also strongly believe(d) in the broken window theory, leading by example, etc. I think it's a sign of a good software engineer to always leave anything as clean as you'd like to find it. So I've been filling/emptying the dishwasher and cleaning the kitchen every time I pass by. It only takes one or two minutes anyway, and it gives a good feeling. Much better than being frustrated about it. But... I've been doing that for about half a year now. I'm starting to lose my hope/faith. Plenty of people see me doing it, even mention it. I suppose they're like: well, he does it every time anyway. Feb 26, 2020 at 15:52

Interestingly, where I work now, they had a rota, where one person was responsible for keeping the kitchen clean each day. You got an email in the morning when your turn came up. While they had that rota, no one messed the kitchen up, and the rota seemed somewhat pointless.

Recently, they dropped the rota. Oddly, the condition of the kitchen has been dire since then, despite the fact that it's being used less (because the coffee machine is out of order).

I can't figure out for the life of me what the mental shift has been. Perhaps it's that no one wants the habitual mess when their turn comes up on the rota. Or perhaps it's merely given the message that cleanliness of the kitchen isn't that important.

But I'm pretty sure that if the rota is reinstated, the mess will suddenly clear itself up again.

  • 2
    Your problem seems to be that the is no one responsible for making sure the kitchen is clean so no one cares. Its the broken window effect if no one replaces it people just keep breaking more windows Nov 2, 2012 at 17:39
  • @Chad: The point is that the person responsible for replacing the broken window never actually had to ... until no one was responsible.
    – pdr
    Nov 2, 2012 at 17:54
  • and that is because the person who would have to replace them brought out the buckshot(metaphorically) when ever anyone grabbed a rock and looked up! Nov 2, 2012 at 20:04
  • 5
    The rotation worked because there is an assigned responsibility and the incentive was psychosociologically enforced. Put bluntly; some poor bloke has to clean the kitchen, so other people tend to help him or her out (either by altruistic reasons or as a "favor"). When the rotation was removed it broke the responsibility and the collective incentive: nobody is responsible for cleaning the kitchen and there is no incentive to keep it clean either.
    – Spoike
    Nov 3, 2012 at 17:43

We dealt with this all the time at a place I worked at, we sort of solved this issue adding a dirty rack right above the dishwasher, with a sign above it, saying:

Your Mom/Wife/Husband doesn't live here to pick up after you.

If they aren't in the dishwasher they don't get cleaned, please put your own dishes in the dishwasher.

We placed the offending dishes, utensils, and cups in there, and kept putting them back there till they got the hint.

Another place I worked at closed and locked the kitchen with a sign on the door saying:

If you want to act like children, you need to ask an adult to use the kitchen.

Signed: The Owner

It all depends on how stringent or easy going you wish to be.

  • 9
    Your Mom/Wife/Husband doesn't live... The one time I saw such a sign, I was actually working with my mother ;)
    – yannis
    Nov 2, 2012 at 16:14
  • @YannisRizos Worked there, didn't live there ;)
    – Matt Ridge
    Nov 2, 2012 at 17:10
  • 2
    @JeffO no, because I use to work in a restaurant, and what they don't tell you is that the majority of things that happen in the back of the kitchen would make you scream the other way in fear, or at least repulsion, because what happens in the kitchen, is like Vegas. What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen, at least you hope it does.
    – Matt Ridge
    Nov 5, 2012 at 19:09
  • 1
    @JeffO I don't know about you but most professional places I've interviewed or had a meeting in, I never get to see the break room. So if it is that blatantly obvious there is a problem, it will be obvious elsewhere as well, like at people’s desks, etc.
    – Matt Ridge
    Nov 6, 2012 at 13:01
  • 1
    @JeffO I always assumed that reminder was a legal/paranoid lawyer required notice. May 3, 2013 at 14:37

I have yet to work at a place that has completely solved this, but common elements of the "best" (least-bad) practices are: reminders, peer pressure, and chore rotation.

Reminders: like MattRidge, we have the "your mom doesn't work here" signs over the sink and coffee maker. Instructions for using the dishwasher are displayed on the dishwasher.

Peer pressure: pointing out to people you see leaving things around that it's really not fair to so-and-so, who'll have to clean that up. It's very important that so-and-so be well-liked in the office. (And, of course, there has to be someone who'll be stuck with the job if you don't clean up yourself.)

Chore rotation: every week the "clean up the kitchen" job passes to a new person. It may not solve the problem (though it may raise awareness), but at least it spreads the burdern. During your week you're responsible for making several sweeps through the area (morning, lunch, end of day at least).


I'm not sure if the people at your company bring their own dishes and utensils. At my company, a notice was posted on the wall, right where you use the sink so you can't miss it, which clearly says: "Any dishes left in or around the sink will be thrown away."

It did rub some people the wrong way, as someone did take the sign down (it went right back up). It's actually helped, though, as now people don't leave them lying around (unless they're actually being thrown out!).


Use paper plates and cups. They're only ~$.08-12 cents each. You save money by not making your $50/hr employees wash dishes. The sink will also be cleaner. Put a recycling bin by the door to make it easier for people to throw their trash away.

Use a tablecloth for the table. They’re ~$10 each. You can wash them or replace them every month if they get too funky.

If the microwave users want a real plate, they can bring one from home and wash it themselves. Eventually, if the microwave gets dirty enough, one of them will wash it.

  • I agree 100%. If there's no dishes to put in the dishwasher then there won't be anything to leave in the sink unless it is somebody's personal stuff. If it is somebody's personal stuff then worst case scenario is it gets tossed in the garbage if they leave it behind. You also should have a policy of throwing away "spoilables" from the fridge every Friday. Drinks and condiments are ok to leave in the fridge but leftovers tend to be left for months on end. I wouldn't bother with tablecloths, they get dirty faster than tables and make it harder to clean spills.
    – Dunk
    Dec 2, 2013 at 17:26

I thought about it a little bit more and had following idea: It is known in the office who the heavy users of the kitchen are. These are the people that should have the highest interest in a clean kitchen. I will ask them how they feel about the whole situation and if they don't want to lead by example. Or maybe they know, who is messing up the kitchen so we can talk to these people.


We use a tool called Harmonia to manage things like this. It assigns responsibility for tasks and chores that need to happen regularly (like "ensure kitchen is tidy") around the whole team.

What we've found is that the people who tend to be messier soon realise that they want to make the chore easier when it is assigned to them, so they naturally start getting tidier as time goes on.

Disclaimer: I am affiliated with and involved in the development of this tool.

  • 1
    Hey James, and welcome to The Workplace. Since you're familiar with the network, I assume you're familiar with our help center on self-promotion. Are you associated with Harmonia? If so, could you put that disclaimer there? And either way, could you please explain what Harmonia does in a more general sense to explain how a certain type of tool works, and how that functionality helps solve the problem? Thanks in advance!
    – jmac
    Jun 6, 2014 at 8:14
  • @jmac if you follow the site shown in user profile (lazyatom), you'll see that "Harmonia" listed as their projects. So, yes, this is spam, unsolicited promotion of one's stuff without properly disclosing the affiliation
    – gnat
    Jun 6, 2014 at 22:38
  • 2
    Hey James, I added in the disclaimer as per our site's help center guidelines about self-promotion. Not promising this won't still get removed, but on the Stack Exchange network anytime you're promoting something you're affiliated with (which is hopefully rare) you must add a disclaimer.
    – jmort253
    Jun 7, 2014 at 1:44
  • Apologies for not making that clearer; I wasn't aware that I needed to specifically add a disclaimer but I'm totally happy to (and thanks for already doing so).
    – James Adam
    Jun 14, 2014 at 15:26
  • To answer your question about what Harmonia does: it captures tasks and chores that need to happen on a regular schedule, and then manages assigning responsibility for instance of those tasks around the whole team, in a fair way. So you might have a task due every week to make sure the kitchen is clear, with some very clear and unambiguous instructions about what that means. Then, every week one member of the team is assigned responsibility for completing that task, and the whole team is notified (via email) so that everyone knows who is responsible.
    – James Adam
    Jun 14, 2014 at 15:29

Since you rotate the task of kitchen cleaning among everyone (right?) then at some point, every one of those people who leave cups on the tables and in the sink has been an appointed cleaner.

One problem is that the appointed cleaners have an incomplete, lenient task description. They should take care of everything, including all the dirty kitchenware. Not only wiping surfaces and un-loading the dishwasher, but cleaning the sink, and wiping the floor.

When everyone has had a chance to deal with the collection of cups from all over the kitchen, perhaps the lesson will stick. "When I was on clean-up duty, I remember that I hated it when I had to collect cups all over the place and stack them into the dishwasher. I know, maybe I should just put my empty cup into the dishwasher now. If everyone has the same idea, we will have an easier time on clean-up duty."

Here is another idea. Simply do away with office-supplied kitchenware. Everyone should bring their own. (Though everyone is free to use the dishwasher, make it clear that people are not to "borrow" other people's clean wares out of the washer.) Furthermore, a rule is imposed that all dirty kitchenware left in the kitchen is removed and impounded. A small fee can be collected for releasing each confiscated item from the impound lot (a locked cabinet), and this goes straight into the pockets of whoever is on cleaning duty. Items not claimed for a week are thrown away.

The problem will then take care of itself. The worst thing that will happen is that people keep dirty dishes at their desk. Then they still have to clean them before use, or else use dirty dishes. The confiscation could be extended to desks: dirty dishes left anywhere, not only in the kitchen, are impounded.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .