Our developmentally challenged cleaning men are annoying

I work in a social service agency and am as sensitive as you can get, but there should be some rules. These guys disrupt our work.

Published September 24, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

You are probably reading this on Wednesday, but as I write, it is Friday, Sept. 19, and I am preparing to leave for the Creative Getaway at the Marconi Conference Center on Tomales Bay. It is the first of what I hope will be a series of Creative Getaways, both here in Northern California and around the world. The idea is for people from all walks of life to come together for a few days to write and tap into their creativity, following the Amherst writers and artists method. I'll let you know how it goes.

Dear Cary,

I work with about 10 other individuals at a local nonprofit social service organization. We are housed within a community center, all of us basically working to serve the members of the community for the greater good.

We are so busy we rarely find time to clean. One day a community center employee discovered that to clean our offices we could engage the services of a work-placement center that employs individuals who have developmental challenges. These two men appear to be quite capable, and are able to get to their jobs on their own.

Our cleaning services happen while we are open. This includes vacuuming when we are trying to speak to people on the telephone. We have endured personal items broken with no responsibility taken. I understand this is a job over which they have no control, but they are often intrusive and disruptive. Often they do not clean well. Pictures are left smeary, items are often not placed back as found. They do not seem to be trained to stay out of people's space -- they have even lifted people's elbows to wipe under them, and have replaced papers on a damp surface. When using paper towels, they leave shreds of the towel about, not cleaning them up. Moreover, the odor of the cleaning solutions has bothered many of us. Not only is it unnecessary for our office to be cleaned daily, I have concerns about everyone's exposure to the chemicals they are using.

They have established friendly relationships with some staff on a limited basis. They clean by doing a particular task in each room (all connected) one at a time, i.e., all the wastebaskets are emptied, then they come back to vacuum, then to dust/wipe, etc., so they are constantly being disruptive or distracting. When they leave they come back to say goodbye. They do not understand the meaning of a shut door. They will knock, and knock again, and even when there is no acknowledgment from the person involved in a private phone call from the other side, they will still push the door open to wave goodbye.

None of us would have gone into the business if we did not care about people, so this a very delicate matter. We do not want to hurt these guys, nor do we want them to lose the work placement. I do not think there is any way for them to have access to the building when it is not open with staff, so night cleaning is not feasible. Their supervisor is rarely there, and as it was not our office that made the arrangements, but the community center, with which we do not want to create any friction, we feel unable to complain.

We have brought the matter up at a staff meeting. Our director is very compassionate, as are we, and has much on her plate. So nothing, aside from an occasional assertive comment when someone is especially frustrated, is done. I must admit to being weak on this as well, because I don't want to make problems for my boss, nor for the people involved. Everyone seems rather spineless when it comes to discussing this with the director of the community center, who inherited the situation. The men also clean the rest of the building, which she is responsible for.

I would appreciate a fresh perspective.

Annoyed but Guilty

Dear Annoyed,

My fresh perspective is as follows: This is a situation in which you might need to exercise more hands-on control than the "rules" call for. This is a situation in which it might be a good idea to just act, in a practical, firm manner, without regard for the perceived ethos about how developmentally challenged people are supposed to be treated. Just treat them like human beings, and if they need extra guidance, give it to them. In other words, try getting real with the two workers. Treat them like "regular people." Stop tiptoeing around. Try to see them not as representatives of a protected category of developmentally challenged person but as individuals. Speak to them by name and develop relationships with them. Ask them questions. Have some courage and do what seems natural.

If your actions cause your boss, or the other boss, or your co-workers, to tell you that you are doing something wrong, then deal with that when it happens. If someone tells you, for instance, that you spoke to one of the workers in the incorrect fashion, or that you are not allowed to give them certain directions, then deal with that when it happens. In second-guessing what you think you are supposed to be doing, you are short-circuiting your own natural, creative, problem-solving response. My hunch is that if you can model direct, compassionate, easygoing, problem-solving behavior about this issue, others will pick up on it and things will improve.

It sounds like certain rules and certain authorities are vague, so that people are put in a position of guessing what is the right thing to do. When the rules are vague and people are guessing about what to do, someone has to step up and model a way of behaving that takes into account actual on-the-job conditions. This is what happens in shops and offices and government agencies everywhere. When the top-down leadership is absent, or the rules are too vague, workers start dealing with what is in front of them in the way that seems most appropriate, until they are told to stop. Often, the person who steps forward and begins dealing with reality is the person who becomes the informal leader of the group. Others are generally relieved that someone is stepping up to the plate. Of course, this is also the person who will get blamed if things go bad. That's the price you pay for taking personal responsibility in a situation.

But I think it's better to step in and do what's right and take the blame than to watch a situation deteriorate because of a general feeling of fear and uncertainty.

So that's my fresh perspective, for what it's worth: Take the actions that seem sensible, and wait to see if anyone in a position of authority tells you to stop. You might get in trouble, but if you do, maybe you're better off working somewhere else where you have some control over your own work and your own space.

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