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Why dirty dishes might be an indicator as to the health of your veterinary practice culture

Posted in Management @ May 25th 2016 - By Judy Gillespie, Vetanswers
Why Dirty Dishes Can Be An Indicator As To The Health Of Your Veterinary Practice Culture

Can't get people to wash their own dishes in your veterinary practice? Maybe it's a sign of a bigger problem..

This week a question from a practice manager on a veterinary Facebook group sparked my interest. She asked the Group for some suggestions for a ‘..non-passive aggressive / non-patronizing sign they (have) put by their sink to make sure staff do their dishes?’. She had gone into her clinic to take care of their boarding clients on a public holiday and discovered a sink full of dirty dishes.

Within 24 hours there were over 40 responses – many from others who were also annoyed at the same lack of consideration from others in their team. Responses ranged from “….just throw them all out if people don’t wash their dishes” to a range of suggested signs such as:

  • Wash it, dry it
  • Your mother doesn’t work here, do your own dishes
  • The dish fairy is on vacation this week!!
  • Every time you don’t wash your dishes, god kills a kitten (she then handed out a picture of a cartoon dead cat when she found dirty dishes in the sink – apparently it worked quite quickly!)
  • Please clean up after yourself, we don’t have a maid

There were also a number of comments that the worst offender was often the practice owner.

Why do dirty dishes get us so annoyed?

All the responses got me thinking about why the topic of dirty dishes elicited such passionate responses.

And I think it might be because it comes down to simple respect – or lack thereof!

Laziness or something more?

Leaving a dirty mug or plate on a bench isn’t just about being lazy – although that’s certainly part of it – it also says “My time is far more important than yours so I’ll leave my dirty dishes here for someone else (less important than me) to deal with”

Now I know there are occasions when an emergency arrives or a situation occurs that IS more important than washing up a cup or plate. But in general that’s just not the case.

You might also be thinking “Well I am the practice owner; I do pay the wages of my team so I don’t think it’s asking too much for them to wash up my cup.” But is that really the culture you want to encourage in your practice?

Firstly, what is culture?

“Culture consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.”  Source: The Key to Changing Organizational Culture (Forbes)

Or my favourite definition…

“It’s the way we do things around here”

Why should you care about culture?

A positive, strong workplace culture offers a supporting workplace environment and can go a long way to alleviating stress. Working in the veterinary industry is already stressful enough without doing it in a workplace that adds stress. A positive culture can help to sustain employee enthusiasm for their jobs and happy employees mean better productivity and less problems. Happy employees also tend to stay longer in their jobs.

Where does your workplace culture come from?

Culture comes from the top. (That means you Practice Owner!) So when the boss is seen to leave their dirty cup and plate in the sink, they are effectively saying that it’s ok for everyone else to do the same because if they’re doing it, it must be ok.

And it’s not ok. It’s being disrespectful to the rest of the team who also use the break room.

So what can you do to fix the situation?

If you’re a practice owner or manager – you can start by making sure you always wash your own dishes and put them away. And then discuss it with the rest of the team. Explain why leaving dirty dishes shows a lack of respect to each other and then ask them for their solutions.

If you’re an employee, bring it up at the next staff meeting and explain how it makes you feel. You might also want to ask the question“What would our clients think if they walked in here and saw a sink full of dirty dishes? Would it reflect on the care we provide to their pets?”

Why can’t I just put up a sign?

I’m not a fan of signs in the workplace as I think they can be condescending and passive aggressive so I’d much rather discuss the situation face to face. Signs also become ‘invisible’ very quickly and for some people (cough, males, cough) they’re never noticed in the first place!

Instead of using increasingly snarky signs you could consider:

  • Supplying dish brushes that contain detergent – they make it very quick to effectively clean cups & plates
  • Dishwasher – install a small dishwasher that gets turned on every afternoon (I know, I know…then people have to actually put their dishes into the dishwasher & then someone has to empty it in the morning!)
  • Week about cleaning rosters – set up a weekly roster so everyone (including the boss!) has a turn at washing the dishes and putting them away or emptying the dishwasher
  • Add washing the dishes to one of your cleaning checklists that are completed every afternoon – this means it effectively becomes part of someone’s everyday duties

I must admit the last option above is my least favourite on the list as it still infers that washing your own dishes is either beneath you or your time is far too valuable to waste on such trivial duties as cleaning up after yourself!

Or…. Buy everyone their own colour coordinated cup and plate so it becomes obvious who in your team is too lazy (or think they’re too important) to do their own dishes!


Whichever option you choose consider the message you’re sending to the rest of your team regarding the culture in your workplace. Your aim is to develop a culture that encourages the concept of ‘team’ rather than just a bunch of individuals that happen to work at the same address. Teams work together to achieve a common goal and support each other while they’re doing it – and if there’s one industry where the importance of working together as a team is essential, it would have to be the veterinary industry.

Who knew not washing your coffee mug could have such an impact?

So what have I missed? How do you ensure your team wash their own cups and plates? Share your suggestions in the comments section below.



Karen @ May 30th 2016 11:51am
I love this article! I'm a vet nurse and was discussing this with a vet a couple of years ago, trying to explain how it was almost demoralising to be doing all the left-over coffee cups, especially the mouldy ones! That it really upsets people, but I just couldn't put it as beautifully as your article. Thank you!!
lisa blair @ Jul 4th 2016 9:47am
Judy, truly, every day, in every way, leaders lead 24/7.....It is so true that "from little things big things grow" - and we impact the team even when we're not playing the "big game" don't THINK about leadership. You're doing it right now. What you need to think about is whether or not you're being the leader you imagined you were
Judy @ Jul 4th 2016 5:56pm
Hi Karen, sorry I took so long to respond to your comment! Thank you & you're exactly right - washing up someone else's dishes when it's not part of your job can definitely be demoralising. Maybe you can print this up and show everyone you work with! :)
Judy @ Jul 4th 2016 5:59pm
Hi Lisa, that's really well said - "You're doing leadership right now" - whether you're thinking about it or not! Great advice - maybe you could write the next blog post on leadership for me?!

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