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Does Your Office Have a Dirty Dishes Problem?

I hope we say this enough: we love hearing from you! Some of our best articles have been sparked by your tweets, comments, and suggestions. And questions! We love questions. Especially when, in answering them, we are inspired to write.

Recently we heard from Will, a startup co-founder, who is seeking advice on how to keep the office kitchen tidy, a topic that we know plagues office ninjas everywhere.

Will wrote:

I’m working at a start-up and like many start-ups we have a fully stocked kitchen. Coming into my role the co-founder I was like “Yeah, it’s a problem that I haven’t figured out how to solve yet.” The problem being that the employees don’t always clean up after themselves in the kitchen. It is my job to keep the kitchen clean but at the same time I want to empower the other staff members to help keep it clean as well. We all use it! Do you have any advice on this?

Will, this is an age-old problem that we’re all very familiar with, and we have a few ideas to help. Keep in mind, the approaches work best when it involves the management team doing what they do best – leading by example. Ask your managers to pitch in and others will soon follow.

Ant Farm (Co-op) Approach

I once worked in an office that had voluntary “kitchen duty.” It was everyone’s responsibility to sign up for weekly kitchen duty every six to eight weeks. While all employees were expected to clean up after themselves, the kitchen monitor of the week would wipe down the counters and table, restock coffee and tea, and load/unload the dishwasher before leaving for the evening.

Everyone shared the responsibility and no one got stuck being housekeeper all the time. People were less likely to do things like leave globs of oatmeal in the sink or rings of coffee on the counter because they knew how annoying it was to clean up after others’ messes when it was their turn.

Reward Good Behavior

That’s right! Reward employees for keeping the office tidy and dishes cleaned. This pro tip came in from Meg Strauss, Operations Manager at University. In Meg’s kitchen she keeps a star board that allows staff to give themselves a star after they complete one of the following tasks; load dishes into the dishwasher, unload dishes from dishwasher, turn the dishwasher on (b/c we all know even this can be a struggle sometimes), clear dirty dishes from conference rooms/office common areas or cleaning out the coffee maker. At the end of each week, the employee with the most stars wins and Meg awards them with the “Golden Dish” and a gift card. Believe or not folks, Meg says this works. “Sometimes we have employees battling it out just so they can be awarded the infamous “Golden Dish” week after week. Side note: the Golden Dish is a plastic plate that Meg covered with gold glitter spray paint.

Call Out Bad Behavior

Another great tip from Meg Strauss is to call people out for bad kitchen behavior. And to encourage others to do so as well. “If you witness someone disrespecting the office tell them so”.

Example: If Meg watches someone leave a freshly licked peanut butter spoon on the counter you better believe she will tell them to pick it up and put it in the dishwasher…just like your mamma taught you.

All joking aside, Meg can attest to how valuable it is to be honest with your co workers; let them know it is not okay to leave messes all over the office.

Will, we hope we’ve given you some good ideas. Launching your own cleanliness program for keeping the kitchen/office clean is a tough task, but it is a great way to communicate the kind of culture and values you want for your company (no pressure!). Here’s to a future that’s free of oatmeal globs and crusty coffee cups!

How do you keep the office kitchen tidy? Have any good tips to share? Let us know! We love to hear from you.


  1. This pertains to the president of the company and the VPs

    I am new here but this is getting ridiculous (this referring to cleaning up after grown men/women) Everyone seems nice enough so i don’t know why they lack the decency of cleaning up after themselves. What can i do, besides put up passive aggressive laminated signs?

  2. Hi! IDK if this is recent or forgoten… but I’m a consultant on environmental best practices. I’m trying to set up a strategy for an office that will switch from disposable food containers, to glass containers. They are afraid of the washing problem since now the kitchen is already a problem.

    I got some good ideas from the previous post, but just wanted to chip in and propose / ask if someone did every tried a speed competition or something… does it make sense?

    Dividing the whole employee base in teams, assigning a week for each member of the team, making them compete between the team and among other teams… IDK… something with a reward after… What do you think?

  3. We have this problem where I work as well but it’s only the owner doing it. She will leave her dirty dishes in the sink with paper garbage and all. If nobody moves it, it will be there for weeks. I know she’s the boss but I’m not her personal maid nor her mother. So irritating!!!

  4. When I started working at this company, I started loading/unloading dishes in the dishwasher, cleaning the coffee spots, picking up paper towels from the floor…etc. thinking that I have to help and nobody is obligated to clean always after all people. However, after a while, I got tired of doing it and, in fact, some folks are behaving as they have maids or their mama work for the company. The worst thing is that people can change something don’t want to make the “babies” feel offended. Therefore, I decided that I will not clean and I will not empty the sink anymore.

  5. I’ve gone to more extreme measures at our office. If you leave a dish in the sink, with the DW less than 2 ft away, it will be in the trash can and considered “done”. Food in the fridge…container and all goes in the trash. This issue we are having as of late…We like serving leftover food from meetings to the company or providing lunch on certain days of the month, however, it never fails that people will take the last piece and NEVER throw away a container. It will literally sit on the counter till the next day and sometimes over the weekend! What do we do???

  6. So right now we currently have disposable utensils and plates etc and part of this is probably for this reason.

    Our President is trying to move the company into being more environmentally friendly. We started having mugs available but no one uses they. “Then I’d have to wash it.”

    Even if we did get people to do this, we only have paper towels to dry the dishes with–still not very environmentally friendly. But I just can’t see having towels; who would wash *those*?

    Anyone have any ideas on this?

  7. I’d just be happy if my coworkers wouldn’t put their dirty dishes back in the cupboard. They lightly rinse and put away every time.

    1. That is absolutely revolting and i would lose my shit

  8. I’m currently devising a way to have the rest of the employees to clean up after themselves. My immediate supervisor wants the message to be gentle.

    On another note, a recruiter sent over a job description the other day. Not joking, but “clean up common places” is one of the responsibilities. In fact, many companies still hire office managers to do the cleaning up.

  9. I have tried , deferent signs in front of the sink it din,t work.
    so end up just throwing away everytime i see a dirty dishes left
    in the sink. if asked me where all their dishes are, Im just going to ask them .. did you leave it in the sink?

  10. WOW Katherine.
    Your executives don’t dirty dishes!

  11. I have tried funny emails and ‘I am not your mother’ emails. I’ve tried stealing and hiding anything left in the sink until we had no cutlery left. At my wits end (the dishwasher is RIGHT NEXT TO the sink), I have just left a stapler in the sink next to the dirty mugs and used teabags with a note on it saying ‘Do I belong in the sink? Or is there a better place for me? What about your dirty dishes?’ – hopefully this will send the message…

  12. We order food for the office, as the Team Coordinator, I threatened to stop food deliveries. The kitchen was perfectly clean within the hour. Some people also use a fake nanny cam (this depends on a manager’s buy-in/organization’s legal liabilities).

  13. a couple things:
    2 Dishwashers!
    At 20+ employees we evolved to having a dishwasher (there was literally a fundraising candy sale to buy our own before the company got one). But when it was running, folks still left dirty dishes. Two dishwashers allows for one to run while the other can be loaded. I was actually pleasantly surprised that this worked.

    Messages to the office:
    #1: Picture of a cute kitten with subtext, “Every time a dirty dish is left, a kitten dies.”
    -obviously your office has to have the right sense of humor, and the right person to send it once they’ve gotten fed up enough.
    #2: the message about how it’s disrespectful to your coworkers (not just the admin) to leave a dirty area, so please show respect by leaving common areas available for common usef
    #3: Your mama doesn’t work here
    #4 (most effective) picture of the sink full of dirty dishes.

    1. Two dishwashers is definitely one of those things you only learn from experience, ha! Your message suggestions are also perfect (and hilarious).

    2. Klobba, if #4 was the most effective, how did #2 or #1 work? We have less than 25 people in the office. Most cleans after themselves except for a few. The most guilty party is actually a pseudo office admin lady. She always leaves coffee mugs, cups, and glasses in the sink and around the common office areas! I used to clean some of her dirty dishes if I happened to be at the sink cleaning my dishes. But I stopped since she’d never know I cleaned them, and it doesn’t seem that she realizes that one should clean after oneself! I desperately need effective strategy to get her clean her dishes.

  14. About 6 months go, my office started a mandatory kitchen rotation. There are about 35 people who work in my office and I used to be responsible for tidying up the kitchen every day. People were horribly lazy about it and it was really frustrating! This shift made an immediate and noticeable difference in the culture. No one, including the President & CEO is exempt. If a business trip or something comes up during your week, it’s your responsibility to find a replacement or swap your weeks. So far, only one mid-level manager has complained, and then was peer-pressured to “suck it up.”
    We also use reward system. Every 6 weeks 2 people tag-team a fridge clean out. They take everything out, wipe it down inside and out, and throw away any forgotten left overs before they turn into science projects. We reward these volunteers with libations of their choice.

  15. While many of our staff do place their dirty dishes in the DW, they don’t always wipe them clean of scraps. Since the DW does not have a garbage disposal, the food scraps fly around and the ‘clean’ coffee mugs come out with a bonus onion bit stuck in it. I don’t see the Ant Farm approach working here. I may try the Reward system for wiping food scraps off before placing into DW.

  16. We don’t take volunteers we put everyone on the schedule. Each person in the office covers a week with the exception of the executives. If the scheduled person doesn’t want kitchen duty then they can pay another employee to do so. Running rate is $20 for the week.

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