Cleaner-upper wants co-worker to do his part

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

Whose job is it to clean up a mess
when it’s nobody’s job to clean up?


From: The Fixer

I was taught that when you see a situation that needs to be remedied, you just fix it. My co-worker believes when he sees a problem, he tells somebody else to do it – even when it isn’t that person’s job.

The result is that because I’m willing to find a lost shipment, contact an unhappy customer, or clean up a spill – all of the clean-up jobs are left for me to do. My co-worker even points out messes to me, expecting me to do something about it. This gives him more time and leaves me with less time to work on the job that actually earns us money.

I consider problem-solving part of my value to the firm, but how can I get out of being responsible for everything without leaving problems that will make both of us look equally incompetent if left unsolved?


To: Fixer

What a fine mess this is – and you want somebody to clean it up for you? This is just another problem situation – and you’ll have to tidy it up yourself.

You know where the cleaning supplies are located – so get out the tools and get busy. You’ll need a ‘mop bucket’ full of clean communication, a ‘wet mop’ to spread fair distribution, a ‘scrub brush’ for scheduling, and a ‘feather duster’ of self-reporting.


There will be no clean communication as long as it’s muddied by resentment. When your colleague points out a mess in a way that you interpret as an attempt to assign it you, politely ask why he’s telling you about it. This mustn’t be a resentful objection, but a real question to gather information. If there’s no good reason, then you respond that your time is already committed.

The solution for inappropriate delegation is clear, non-argumentative communication about priorities.

Fair Distribution

Into that bucket of clear communication, swish the mop of equitable distribution. “I cleaned up the mess last week – this one’s your turn.” Again, your manner is low-key and matter-of-fact. Don’t try to make up for past unfairness; for best results, keep re-setting the scales of justice to zero. Any attempt to keep long-term score will only deepen your unhappiness.

When you use the “it’s your turn” response, your work-mate will try to guilt you back to your usual I’ll-take-care-of-it routine. Your cleaning tool for that is calm repetition of the fairness principle, expressed with a smile as you remain focused on what you should be doing.


Being focused on your real job is what makes the fair distribution standard work. That’s where the scheduling scrub brush comes in, because you must scrub away as many unnecessary tasks as you can when you organize your day.

Plans are inevitably disrupted by little emergencies. A schedule is just an invitation for interruptions – but you still create your ideal schedule at the start of each day, scrubbing away as many non-essential tasks as you can. That way, when you notice (or have pointed out to you) the little problems, you can ignore any that are less important than what you’ve already scheduled.

Some of the distractions will be important enough to stop what you’re doing and resolve immediately. When you do that, write the change into your schedule because it becomes your record of what you’ve taken care of if there’s any question about whose turn it is next time.


It’s also a record for you to use for that feather duster of self-reporting. An occasional light dusting of your accomplishments keeps your perception clean. At least once a month, give a little run-down to your boss on the highlights of projects you’ve completed and problems you’ve solved. It keeps the organization informed on what you’re doing for them and may be the basis for the support you need to maintain the fair distribution of tasks.

An important side-benefit is that sometimes people who tackle problems as they see them tend to tackle things that nobody else sees as a problem. By reporting what you’re doing, you make sure that others see your efforts as contributing to the overall good.

Define Your Value

So that’s your clean-up project to protect your time from the unwelcome delegations of your co-worker: 1. Work on clear, non-resentful communication; 2. Calmly insist on fair distribution; 3. Plan what’s important; and 4. Report on what takes up your time.

Your value isn’t defined by cleaning up little messes. Be sure your focus stays on the benefits of the important things you get done, not the less important things you don’t have time to do.

Memo from Emma Goldman: “When one has been threatened with a great injustice, one accepts a smaller one as a favor.”

JobWise: Social Media Niceties

There are myriad opportunities to express yourself in ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and hundreds of other social media outlets let us whisper into the ears of thousands of anonymous friends about our thoughts, opinions, and reactions.

When using these tools, hold to the wisdom that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Once your words have been dumped into the electronic world, they have the potential to reach far beyond any expectation you may have intended. If you’ve got an annoying itch you’re tempted to scratch on the great, wide internet – begin with the reasonable assumption that the people responsible for your paycheck will see every word you post – as well as people you haven’t met yet, but who you’d like to hire you in the future.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to