I have a colleague who works with his hands on our product testing; however, his lack of workspace organization and a clean up protocol leaves much to be desired. Most of what I'm talking about is tools not being put back, wires all over the place, etc. Both of these are within view of the meeting table where we have important guests and shareholders.

Our boss comes by every once in awhile and complains about the mess this colleague leaves behind - I'm assuming because it doesn't give off the impression he wants to make to our guests. Our boss told me to take care of it. I have no intention of following my colleague around and telling him to clean up, because:

A. That's not my job (or apparently it is now?)

B. He's an adult and should take care of it himself

I talked to him about it today with the perspective of trying not blame him and have him come up with his own solution: "Look, our boss is embarrassed about the state of our workspace, and he told me that he wants us to figure something out. What would work best for you?" We talked about getting some extra shelving and drawers, but he didn't seem too enthused - his first remark was "what mess?"

I'm not his boss and can't tell him what to do, but if he doesn't do it, then it will become my problem. How can I convince my colleague that he needs to step up his game in terms of his organization/cleanliness without the superiority dynamic of a boss/employee?

  • Yeah he did, so I guess I could just flex that point and have him talk to our boss if he disagrees. It's quite a lot of shit though, it'll take a day or two to organize into a dresser. I'm asking more about a habitual problem that I want to convince him he needs to solve on his own
    – cbcoutinho
    Apr 21, 2016 at 15:58
  • I zapped my comment and made an answer.
    – Xavier J
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:05
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    You have just discovered one of intractable problems for first-level supervisors: you have responsibility, but no authority - there is nothing much you can do that will actually hurt the guy enough to change his behaviour. Unfortunately, I don't know any solution, except to get promoted to a level where you can delegate the problem to your own subordinates.
    – alephzero
    Apr 21, 2016 at 22:49
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    "Hey, the boss is giving me grief about your desk since it's visible from the conference room. That isn't fair to either of us. Could you go and work this out with him directly? Thanks." Key word for the day: disintermediation. Unless you particularly want to put yourself on a management track...
    – keshlam
    Apr 21, 2016 at 23:29
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    This is the bosses problem, he's probably telling you that you have to keep it clean. I'd just tell him that I do keep it clean, he needs to talk to the other chap, not me. And I'd tell him that every single time he complained about it until he does his own job and approaches your coworker.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 22, 2016 at 5:51

4 Answers 4


Personally as a messy person, I would move him out of sight of the conference table if possible. You cannot change a naturally messy person, they literally do not see the mess that clean freaks see and find them really weird for caring about something so ridiculous. It is nonexistent to them so they can't clean it up.

I feel uncomfortable working or being in a straightened up space, it make me far less productive because I can't find things and it depresses me to not be surrounded by my stuff, so if you continue to try to get this guy to meet your standards, then you may lose a lot of productivity from him or he may quit because you are making his work life hell when you do this. I file visually, Once something is no longer in sight, I can't find it again. Your coworker may be the same way.

I am telling this because you need to understand his perspective and he likely won't tell you. But his first comment of "What mess?" should be a clue that he doesn't see the mess! Clean is not the only way or the best way. It has been proven to reduce creativity. You didn't seem to think there was a problem with his work, just the way he organizes his workspace. Well what works best for you will not ever work well for him. So the best choice is to make everyone happy and move him to somewhere that guests won't see him.

Alternatively, you could ask him to clean up when a guest is coming. Have a cabinet where he can put his stuff and then bring it out after they are gone. This will reduce his productively as well but not as much as making him keep his workplace cleaned up to your standards.

Since you don't supervise him, I am not sure how you are going to get his cooperation. Your boss can tell him he will get fired if he doesn't change, but you can't and, really, there is no way any messy person is going to change over the long run. Their brains simply don't operate that way. You could of course clean up his space daily, but that will annoy both of you.

  • 4
    +1 for pointing out an alternate solution. I have worked with several very smart and very unorderly people. For these people, it was a package deal and I think the fact that their mind works a little differently is the basis for both. I'd rather have them stay smart/productive and relocate them to a place that clients don't see. Can't speak for all of them, but the people I worked with like this also cared much less about where their desk was and having visibility to clients.
    – cdkMoose
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:19
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    Some people's minds are organized as sorted lists, some as hashtables....
    – keshlam
    Apr 21, 2016 at 17:03
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    @keshlam: And some of us do random access :-)
    – jamesqf
    Apr 21, 2016 at 18:05
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    And frankly if the boss told me that I had to be neat or be fired, I would grudgingly do it for just long enough to find another job. Asking a messy person to work this way is like asking an introvert to be extroverted or a short person to be taller. I feel bad for the OP though because he doesn't have the authority to take any personnel actions on this person and it is not going to go away. Oh the messy guy may try to be cooperative, but the first time he gets really into something, his workspace is going to look like that again.
    – HLGEM
    Apr 21, 2016 at 18:09
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    As a "messy person" myself, I can confirm that I can look at the exact same room as someone else and not see a mess while they do. And that's not just a married thing, the disparity I have crosses genders. It's astounding when they go "what about this" and I realize I never saw that there. Folks will be like "How can you know that I used the same coffee cup three days in a row but not see that there's twelve dirty dishes on the coffee table?" Then I feel guilty that my brain works different than others. :-( So try not to be too hard on the guy, because he might not be "a slob" or anything.
    – corsiKa
    Apr 21, 2016 at 20:43

You started on a good trajectory in talking about needing a solution to a shared problem. The problem is the boss is going to be upset if cleanliness standards don't improve in that area. Sell him on the idea that a problem exists as you will get no buy in for a solution if he doesn't agree there is a problem.

Once he is on board look at workstation design to make clean up an intuitive step. Things that help are peg boards with tool outlines drawn on and a garbage can at the edge of the surface so wire bits can be swept away in one step.

  • I need to work more on convincing him that he needs to pick up his standards, without bringing it up in front of an entire group and embarrassing him into to doing something - I want him to believe it was his idea..
    – cbcoutinho
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:01
  • No messy person would actually use such a thing if you put it on his work table.
    – HLGEM
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:11
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    I'm super messy and have found outlining tools on a pegboard helpful in my basement workspace. The only catch was finding pegboard hangers that work for each of my tools.
    – Myles
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:42

Your boss gave you authority to take care of it. Inform your colleague that when it happens and a client visit is to occur, then your colleague can expect all of the stray belongings on his desk to be tossed into a box and tucked away on a shelf someplace. At the end of the day, you still have a job and you don't have to kiss this irresponsible person's behind by behaving as his mother would. Toss it in a box and keep it moving.

I'm not at all suggesting you become an enabler by accommodating him. When I said throw it in a box, I meant that - literally. If you do all this organizing, and make it easy for him to find his stuff in a drawer, then you take on a role you don't want long-term. Throw it in a box and let him figure out it. At some point, he'll become frustrated at not finding his materials and at that point either he'll shape up or ship out. This is not about being "nice", because if your boss was "nice", the boss would have done the cleanup personally. Stand your ground. Set good boundaries.

  • 10
    I am going to assume that you are a naturally neat person, but the idea that cleaning and organizing his desk for him would make his things easier to find for him is pretty far off base. If you clean a messy person's desk they are going to go nuts trying to find things. It's organized chaos for those kind of people, they know where everything is.
    – LindsayMac
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:27
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    Again, that's why I said "toss" vs "clean and organize".
    – Xavier J
    Apr 21, 2016 at 16:29
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    And if you were my colleague, we would not be on very good terms after that. Apr 21, 2016 at 20:30
  • this is no different than your neighbor parking on your lawn. The first time, give a warning. The second time, have it towed. Boundaries.
    – Xavier J
    Apr 21, 2016 at 20:35
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    @StephanBijzitter: If you were my messy colleague, do you honestly think we would be on good terms considering that the boss gives out shit to me about your "decor" and I've talked to you about it? No one will like it (except the boss), but that's how you know you've reached a compromise at work. If you just pretended to be a "clean freak" and put your stuff away when he's around in the first place, we wouldn't be in this position.
    – coblr
    Apr 21, 2016 at 22:45

The two best options appear to be to move him to a new location, or to give him a specific set of requirements, perhaps in checklist format, that provide exactly what the space has to look like when clients come over.

Such a list won't be easy to put together, though, given his particular style of workspace management. Perhaps something similar to:

When the conference room is in use with attendees you do not recognize, or when notified prior to such a meeting, the following steps must be taken for this customer-facing work area:

  • Worktop must be clear of everything except for one workpiece being worked on at the time, and up to 5 tools.
  • All other tools must be out of sight - in drawers, toolboxes, cabinets, etc.
  • Cabinets, toolboxes, drawers and other containers must be closed.
  • No other boxes or storage items may be in, on, under, or around the work area. (use the storage closet or [specific] workspace.

Add any other items as needed - test equipment, trash, wire, parts & materials, etc may need special attention depending on the tasks this person is tackling.

Honestly moving them seems to be the better option - or moving the conference room - but if that's not possible and the work area must be clean, this type of system might communicate the objective requirements well enough that "Please clean this work area" has real meaning, vs the current situation where it doesn't translate for him.

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