The View from HR

View from HR: The problem with the corporate break room

CorrespondentJanuary 11, 2014 

Is the employee break room a dirty little secret at your company? Every HR professional has stories to tell about employees who mistreat the kitchen and supplies reserved for employee use.

They talk about it on our HR discussion forum. They send emails about lunch containers with mold. They ask each other how to deal with someone cooking smelly raw fish in the microwave. They marvel at the baked spaghetti and soup on the microwave’s interior.

I once sent an email to all staff saying that if the person who gets the last drink from a carton fails to restock the fridge, we will no longer order that brand of drink. It happened again (and again), so, to this day, we do not stock Diet Mountain Dew. I felt good taking action, but we would have no flavors in the fridge if I kept it up!

Why is the break room a near-universal problem, and what does it say about our people and our workplaces?

I believe it says something about personal responsibility, group behavior and employee engagement. Here are a few thoughts:

Some people are pigs. Yes, some people believe others will take care of their mess. This same me-first behavior works at home, too. A kitchen fairy cleans, stocks, tosses and organizes, while the pigs focus only on their needs. There is no shame, no recognition, no sense of a shared resource. Pigs with two legs. Oink.

The tipping point has passed. At some point, even well-adjusted, responsible adults do not care anymore. When a resource or situation is too far gone, what is the point in trying to help? The “broken windows” theory of urban policing says that if the little problems get fixed, the community takes care of the big issues. Let the windows stay broken, and crime increases. Is the break room at work so bad that no reasonable effort matters anymore?

Poor Break Room = Poor Engagement? When last night’s chili blows up in the microwave and I look around for witnesses rather than the paper towels, am I committed to this workplace and these people? Without stretching this argument too far, if I will avoid responsibility for my own mess, for taking the last drink, for leaving that dish in the sink, or for letting six drops of coffee cook on the hot plate, then what else am I avoiding?

Not every pig also dodges their work, but most of us are consistent in our core behaviors. If I fix my own kitchen messes, am I less likely to blame others for serious problems? If I care about the next co-worker to use the kitchen, will I take better care of customers I never meet?

I am not sure who caused us all to lose the Diet Mountain Dew at my office. But, I can tell you who I see picking up in the kitchen and re-stocking supplies. These same people give great service to the people we serve because they care all the time in all settings.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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