Managing Employees

There Is No Tidy Way to Deal With a Hoarder on Your Staff

Drawing the line between respecting someone's space and excessive clutter is extra hard when there are mental health considerations.
There Is No Tidy Way to Deal With a Hoarder on Your Staff
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You’ve likely seen the TV shows about people with extreme hoarding habits. You may even have this tendency yourself. A hoarder's home is stuffed with items ranging from old magazines to clothes to collectibles. The hoarder’s inability to part with items makes living conditions quite difficult. But as reality shows reveal, these folks can’t easily shake the compulsion.

Hoarding isn’t quite as entertaining when it’s happening in your own workplace.

Back in my TV days, the person in the cubicle next to me in the newsroom was a hoarder. She brought her own filing cabinet from home into the cubicle and her space was a sea of plants, books, office supplies, notes and other debris. When it overflowed onto my area I just placed those “overflow” items back into her area. It was distracting.

As a boss, this type of thing can put you in a precarious position. No matter how productive or talented your employee is, today’s office design makes it difficult to hide such an eyesore from visiting clients, not to mention the example it sets for any other workers on your team. Here are a few things you can do to manage the situation.

Understand the cause.

Chances are, you’re struggling to determine why your employee’s office or desk area is in the condition it is. This may be the first time you’ve seen this behavior up close and personal. It can help to understand that hoarding may not be a choice someone makes. Instead, it could be deeply rooted in a psychological condition that is difficult to overcome.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the exact cause of hoarding isn’t known. Hoarding has been found to be more common in people with relatives who have the disorder, and some cases have been connected to a brain injury.

Although in the past it has been considered an offshoot of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in recent years brain abnormalities have been identified in those with hoarding that aren’t present in OCD cases.

Sometimes, the cause of the “hoarding” may have nothing to do with mental health. At one of the Bay Area startups I worked at, one new employee had just moved from the East Coast. He was still getting his living situation figured out and kept most of his possessions at the office or in his car. He slept in the break room some nights. It took several months before he was able to get that all ironed out, with the support of his supervisor and the CEO.

Related: A Reformed Hoarder's Guide to Records Storage

Offer Resources

If the hoarding is a mental health issue, it’s important to deal with it in a responsible way. Keeping a healthy work culture is important to retaining and attracting employees, and dismissing workers dealing with serious issues can quickly damage your reputation (to say nothing of getting you sued). Instead, offer support, resources, and advocacy to the employee.

As an employer, you can't force team members to take advantage of opportunities but ensure they’re available and the employee knows about them. Health insurane plans are required to include mental health care, so look for local support groups that can help the employee. Have a talk with the worker about the behavior. Emphasize that you’re there to help, not criticize or condemn.

Related: How to Address Mental Health at Your Workplace

Accommodate

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for a disabled employee, which can include shifting work hours, allowing remote work or reassigning the worker to a more appropriate position. Assuming the employee is a productive team member who can help your business, do what you can to help them overcome their issues. If the worker has performance issues, that’s a different matter to deal with.

If a messy office is a concern, relocate the employee to an area less visible to visitors or find a way to partition the office from view. But for small businesses, office space usually is at a premium, and you may even be leasing in a coworking space, where you have to deal with complaints from other tenants. In that case, you’ll have no choice but to clear the clutter.

Related: 4 Reasons Your Messy Desk May Be a Sign of Genius

Set guidelines

Being supportive includes setting reasonable expectations for anyone within your employment. If you don’t already have a policies manual, start one, and include a policy on workplace cleanliness among them.

Whether you have one employee or 20, you should be prepared to enforce policies uniformly. Remind the hoarding worker of your policy and set a deadline for clearing up the clutter. Be willing to compromise and allow some messiness in exchange for improvement.

Once your business begins hiring employees, you’ll face numerous challenges. When those challenges involve a disorder like hoarding, you may find that you need to be a little lenient, while also ensuring that you’ve created an environment where everyone can work comfortably.

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