Our team lead put up a big bucket for us to put moist waste coffee into (She uses it as fertilizer). She didn't ask first and probably assumed nobody would mind.

I am very sensitive to smells and this bucket gives off a smell that sickens me. Once she forgot to take it home on Friday evening and on Monday it was molding, making the whole room smell like mold.

Lately, whenever I walked past it I put a plate on it to stop the smell, which works perfectly. Now the "escalation" went one step further with her putting a tissues between the plate and the bucket (probably to keep in from molding quickly), making the plate completely ineffective while the room smells like moist coffee again. (She has her own office in another room.)

I removed the tissue and left a passive aggressive note for her to find, which I later replaced with a much friendlier German poem that goes like this:

The content of this buckets smells a lot don't put it here anymore

A lid would make me happy So my nose won't shy away anymore

Coffee is an addiction I don't want to be involved with it

What do I want to achieve: I want to get across that I refuse to sit in a room with that disgusting bucket without making too much of a fuss. Going to her office and telling her, telling her in front of my colleagues (5 colleagues) or sending an email feels like making too much of a fuss, that's why I placed the lighthearted poem.

Is that ok?
What else would you recommend?

  • 3
    @JoeStrazzere Not exactly the same, it's his leader here, and it's not about food. But some answers might serve him, I agree.
    – Gautier C
    Jun 21, 2016 at 10:12
  • 7
    All, please bear in mind this is Germany. The ways of communicating around those issues is different than in the US (assuming most of the people here work in the US). In my experience (working in Germany), passive-agressive notes like what the OP did are not as badly seen as in the US. However it always depends on the people. Bear also in mind that in Germany you cannot legally be fired for complaining about a bad smell.
    – Puzzled
    Jun 21, 2016 at 12:41
  • Here in Ontario, an employee has the right to request a scent-free workplace. If the source of smell has not been removed, it can been deemed an unsafe working environment. This link may be of help: ohrc.on.ca/en/about-us/scent-sensitive-workplace
    – R Star
    Jun 21, 2016 at 14:09
  • 2
    I personally would be concerned about my health in a situation like this. It's unlikely that you know what kind of mold is growing on that coffee and it's possible that long-term exposure to the mold, or even the gas that causes the smell, could lead to health issues. In addition, if any outside visitors like customers or suppliers visit this room, they might be put off by the smell as well.
    – Nzall
    Jun 21, 2016 at 14:39
  • 4
    Why don't you just talk about it with her? I'm surprised that talking isn't the first thing you would do. Is it because speaking up really isn't appropriate or is it because you're shy?
    – Ivo
    Jun 21, 2016 at 15:40

6 Answers 6


Is that ok?

Well, no. No it's not. Sealing of the container and leaving of that poem are textbook examples of passive aggressive behaviour. Responding like that is virtually never a good idea, particularly in the workplace where people are expected to be functioning and professional adults. Playground tactics don't belong there.

There are plenty of problems with passive aggressive behaviour but you've encountered the two main ones: it's incredibly vague and indirect which means it often doesn't have the intended effect. And it's very hostile and usually condescending, which won't incline people to see things from your point of view.

What else would you recommend?

Talk to her. Explain that the smell bothers you to the point of disrupting your focus and work. Acknowledge that everyone has different tolerances for smells but that you're sensitive to the smell and find it nauseating. Then ask her if she can remove the container from the room. You could suggest alternative solutions if you know of good ones (like moving it to her office, outside the building or to some other location like the kitchen or closet) but you don't want to be seen as telling her what to do so it may be best to leave this to her.

It would help to ask your colleagues for their thoughts first. I would assume that they aren't fans of the Old Coffee smell either and it's always preferable and more effective to raise issues like this as a team instead of just one person.

Because of what you've already done, this conversation is going to be very awkward, because she's immediately going to realise that you were the Moist Coffee Vigilante. It's up to her whether she comments on that at all, but if she does, you need to apologise. Say something to the effect that you were trying to signal that the smell is a problem without making a big thing of it, but that you realise now that you should have just talked to her directly. If you're comfortable with doing so and a confident speaker, I'd actually open the conversation by acknowledging this.

Note that it's entirely reasonable to want to work in an office that doesn't smell of coffee-turned-fertilizer. Your actions so far were unfortunate but don't detract from the problem. If your team lead refuses to resolve the issue, I would actually go over her head if there's an HR rep or other manager who's judgement you trust.

  • 7
    Maturity has taught me that passive-aggressive is usually the worst option. It is usually not passive enough not to risk causing resentment, it is usually not "aggressive" enough to let people know there is a problem. A friendly open talk before getting angry is usually the most direct, quickest and best way to solve differences. That said, starting a conversation with "I'm the poet" and apologizing may be a good way to salvage the situation. But have (neutral, cooperative) suggestions ready, as given by other answers ("Can't we rather...?")
    – frIT
    Jun 21, 2016 at 15:07
  • I will talk to her the next time the bucket is left open.
    – ASA
    Jun 21, 2016 at 17:14
  • 1
    The workplace has taught me that adults aren't more mature than children, passive aggressive behavior runs rampant.
    – user41891
    Jun 21, 2016 at 19:13

I always think being direct and polite is the best way to deal with the majority of the situations. I'd talk to her in private and let her know that the smell is bothering you, and if there's something you guys could do to avoid this. Suggest a few solutions (maybe moving this bucket somewhere else, or cover it, like you did). This approach, unlike a poem or a passive-aggressive note, won't lead to any misunderstandings. I know you said you don't want to make "much of a fuss", but at the same time you are saying you refuse to sit in a room with the smelly bucket.

  • I will talk to her the next time the bucket is left open.
    – ASA
    Jun 21, 2016 at 17:14

Perhaps you could meet her halfway? You could offer to buy a kitchen compost bin like this (http://heavy.com/garden/2015/02/best-small-indoor-kitchen-countertop-compost-bin-pail-bucket-collector/) which should keep the smell in and prevent mould. Or you could make something similar.

However, first I would let her know your plans. Otherwise she might see the new bin and think someone else has "claimed" this batch of coffee grounds. And she may offer to purchase it herself.

  • This is a great idea, I will recommend this to her if my enchanting poem won't work.
    – ASA
    Jun 21, 2016 at 11:50
  • 13
    I don't see why the OP should have to pay for anything. Jun 21, 2016 at 13:56
  • 2
    The OP shouldn't have to pay, but the OP is looking for a solution that avoids anything resembling a confrontation and doesn't "make too much of a fuss". I gather that the OP doesn't want to ask the team lead to pay. At least this way there's a chance the team lead will do the right thing and offer to pay.
    – mhwombat
    Jun 21, 2016 at 14:39
  • 2
    Maybe just send her a link to the compost bin and say "would this work for what you are trying to do? I'd appreciate it if you could take steps to fix the smell." Jun 21, 2016 at 15:15
  • Most of them are under $30, I think working comfortably and solving a potential conflict before it scales (specially with your team leader) is worth more than that. Jun 21, 2016 at 15:24

You could suggest that the schedule for the team lead to move the waste should be modified.

Most places will throw the grounds into a trashcan which is then collected every day, though sometimes the Friday trash isn't collected until Monday morning. Your team lead could make it their job to remove the grounds at the end of the day. They may either take them home or store them in the their office.

Tell them that the smell is getting too much, and the risk of mold growth doesn't help the smell.


If the smell was too much for me because she couldn't look after her bucket, I'd take the bucket and put it in her office. If asked why I'd just say "It stinks".

Worrying about being passive aggressive and all that is beyond me, all it does is drag an easily solved issue and turn it into a long running and frustrating one. Getting coffee grounds is her problem, it's not related to your work, fine if she wants to do it, but it's up to her to make sure it's not disruptive to others.

If it is disruptive to others then it's best to nip it in the bud. So pick up the bucket, put it in her office and say you can't handle the smell.


Pour some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in the bottom of the bucket. Add a bit on top when coffee is added. Problem solved.

Compared to coffee, baking soda is cheap. This should be an easily negotiated compromise.

I'm assuming this is a proper compost bin(**) and not just some bucket without a lid. If the latter, get a real compost bin with a carbon odour filter on top - the baking soda really helps but so does using the right kind of bin.

compost bin

(**) I'm not recommending this particular bin, specifically, I'm just using it as an example.

  • 2
    This will help with the odor, not necessarily the problem though. Jun 21, 2016 at 14:30
  • What's that supposed to do? Will it blow up the bucket?
    – ASA
    Jun 21, 2016 at 17:04
  • @Chad It sounds like the odour is the problem. Unless I'm reading OP wrong.
    – J...
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:32
  • @Traubenfuchs Sodium bicarbonate is a pretty effective odour absorber. I've often seen it used in coffee compost bins in offices and it works well to stop the bin from smelling.
    – J...
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:34
  • It might stop the coffee from smelling, but what about using it as a fertilizer afterwards? Can you still do that when it is mixed with baking soda? If not, it might also make her angry.
    – Chris
    Jun 21, 2016 at 20:55

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