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Gender Office Politics: “Who does the cleaning around here?”

Gender roles don’t stop at the home, but extend well into the work environment.  One of our readers, an HR Assistant, recently disclosed her disapproval at being treated as the “Office Mom” by fellow coworkers. Unfortunately, it’s quite common to delegate office-cleaning work to assistants in many organizations.  Does that mean an HR assistant or any other HR personnel should have the additional responsibility to clean up after everyone else in the office? The answer is no.  The best approach to tackling this lingering problem is to familiarize yourself with your job duties and expectations, help develop a sense of shared responsibility for office cleanliness, and to know when to say no.

HR’s Role

In many organizations, the HR department may be asked to plan the organization’s social events, including company parties and other office events.  Many HR directors or managers will have HR assistants or other lower ranking employees involved in planning the details. HR professionals should make their role clear to fellow employees in order to avoid any misunderstandings.  It’s ok to say no if this isn’t your direct responsibility.  Don’t feel obliged to volunteer unless you truly have extra time on your hands.  The HR department has evolved as a strategic business partner over the years, and should not be treated as the office mom.

Cleanliness is safety

Why is office cleanliness so important?  Employee absenteeism is a leading cause of decreased productivity in the workplace.  Many of these absentees are caused by injury and illness from office uncleanliness, including kitchen food spills and bacterial growths from dirty surfaces or rotten food in the refrigerator.  It’s important to keep the work environment clean and safe for all employees in order to avoid unnecessary absences and injury.

Today’s Gender Roles

Studies show that traditional gender roles are still prevalent even in the workplace.  A US News article on gender differences discusses the Labor Department’s 2011 American Time Use Survey determining that nearly 83% of today’s women still do the majority of the housework compared to 65% of men.

study preformed by APA further evaluates gender behavior.  The results showed that females were still expected to provide nurturing and caring duties even at the office, but when men provided the same duties they were viewed as heroic and chivalrous.  A NYTimes article on gender roles in the workplace revealed that these traditional roles are also present among professional women in business, law, and science. In the article, Joan C. Williams’, a professor at UC’s Hastings College of the Law, findings revealed that these women often missed key networking opportunities and career advancing impressions when performing office housekeeping duties.

What does the average employee think of the practice of traditional gender roles in the workplace?  The majority of men believe that it’s a practice that will continue and is only encouraged if women choose to volunteer for the work:

“If women want the top jobs, positions of real power, then they are simply going to have to take them…”

“Women are way too quick to do the coffee work. I resist, but often want to tell them that they shouldn’t (automatically volunteer)”

“The problem is the leadership paradigm in the workplace which follows outmoded individualistic success ideas from the last century.”

Many women believe females are too quick to take on the responsibility themselves, but overall they believe it’s more of an organizational problem:

“Just say NO. Or delegate. Point things out very clearly to men who overstep their boundaries… Saying nothing is being complicit with their sexist views.”

“Maybe it’s time to blame those organizational development consultants and members of the executive leadership teams for not noticing dynamics like these and bring them up for discussion?”

Promote a solution to the problem

Several organizations have been able to implement a plan that can tackle the politics of office cleaning.  A Monster.com article on office cleaning politics listed several organizations that successfully implemented an office-cleaning plan.  Among them is Resume Writer Direct, which established an employee cleanup rotation.  Each dirt offender pays a $1 fine that goes directly to the employee cleaner of the day. Another organization, APQC in Houston, ties cleaning with hurricane season.  Employees are asked to de-clutter and ensure that key items and files are organized and protected.

Be proactive and promote a good solution yourself to tackle the issue of office cleaning responsibilities.  Think about the following ideas when coming up with your solution:

  • Share responsibility to promote team participation – Present a plan to the office manager or your immediate supervisor that will involve shared responsibility.  A good example is a rotating schedule that involves all departments.
  • Help present a better image to clients – Be sure to emphasize the importance of maintaining a clean environment for external image reasons.
  • Increase respect among coworkers – Emphasize the idea of respect that teamwork builds when allowing all levels of employees to be in the same project together.
  • Tie cleaning to a rewards system – Employee rewards are great for morale and an incentive to accomplish company goals.  Bring up the idea of implementing a rewards system for employees who do their share of clean up. This will motivate employees to do their part.

The discussion of office clean up may be a dirty topic, but it’s something that should be addressed at every organization.  Although traditional gender roles often play a part in who does what, it’s an issue that needs to change.  Women and lower ranking should not be assigned these unnecessary duties just to meet these outdated expectations. The kitchen and office space are places that are shared by many and so should the cleanup.

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