non-profit

Pooper-scooping in the Workplace: A Tactic for Maintaining Morale

We all have our heroes. Mine is Brooke Miller of Anaheim, California, who holds the patent on that underappreciated wonder of technology and social cohesion which we colloquially refer to as “the pooper-scooper” i.e. a device for picking up animal feces (particularly urban dogs, pampered creatures that they tend to be), also used to refer to the wielder of this magnificent tool. The reasons a lot of our Neanderthal ancestors didn’t pick up after pooches are (1) dogs were considered a food group, so the issue never arose (2) low population density that allowed a domesticated pup to relieve himself at will without much danger of someone else unwittingly stepping in it, and (3) picking up animal droppings is kind of icky. When you live in a tightly packed city like New York, there are sound public health, not to mention neighborly, reasons to enforce the necessity of cleaning up after one’s pet.

The French call it a canipoche. Perhaps a canipoche royale (Pulp Fiction reference, for the uninitiated). Informally, in Spanish, a pooper-scooper is called the alliterative, and frankly much more accurately descriptive caca-can. Our cultural differences are enormous, but no matter where you go, we all share a common desire as human beings to pick up our dog’s poop without getting our hands dirty. Before I entered the non-profit world, how could I imagine that there are people that serve this same role in the workplace, that is, cleaning up other people’s messes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to rather unpleasant clean-up jobs for other creatures. I have a toddler, and for a few years had to learn the hard way just how imperfect a device a diaper actually is. I’ve wiped my share of baby-butts. Until recently, I had the most awesome and uppity Pekingese on the planet, a fussy and demanding creature who was offended if you didn’t pick up after him, that being the privilege of aristocracy, which he considered himself. I did not shirk my duty in either case. Somehow, when I got a PhD in social psychology a decade ago, I was under the mistaken assumption that my professional work would be the one place where I was not responsible for cleaning up after others. After eight years in non-profits, I can confidently state that PhD, contrary to popular belief, does not stand for Philosophiae Doctor, rather is an acronym for Pooper-scooper, Henchman (in this case woman) and Diagnostician (sort of like House). My job description, currently up to six pages, is easily encapsulated in these three terms, yet it isn’t on my business cards, and while it is an undeniably valuable skill set (being a workplace pooper-scooper, henchman, and diagnostician, that is), it’s not the sort of thing you can put down on a resume or talk about in a job interview.

In case dear reader you are imagining that I’m only talking about being a workplace pooper-scooper figuratively, do not be fooled. I have literally had to clean up fecal matter in the workplace restroom, and while sanitary bathroom etiquette seems to have fallen out of favor these days, it’s not my main focus. Disgusting, yes, subject to further discussion here? No. If your narrative predilections lean in that direction feel free to take a look at my previous blog on restroom sense and sensibilities. I try to have a little something for everyone. Alternatively, I can tell you that in all my cross-country travelling, meeting with community based organizations, I have met countless others that boast impressive titles such as director of programs, counselor, or accountant, who appear to have the same requisite skills (and often experience) to serve as a professional pooper-scooper. I like to think of them as “Caca-Can” consultants.

Being a pooper-scooper entails cleaning up after another’s minor and major screw-ups. Perhaps management is perceived as indifferent to the emotional minefield that is the modern workplace. The pooper-scooper steps in to smooth over the hurt, and let people know that regardless of the content of a disturbing interaction, that someone cares about their feelings. When someone ignores logical protocols and signs off on certain items even though they aren’t in the budget, it becomes the pooper-scooper’s task to figure out how things can actually get implemented and guide people to new, viable, and cost-effective solutions. When someone allows bad habits to grow like weeds, it becomes the pooper-scooper’s task to cut those down and instill a new sense of professional decorum. By now, perhaps you realize that the unspecified someone I am referring to is more often than not, one’s boss. Oddly, with Vice President Biden and President Obama, the pooper-scooping roles appear to be reversed with Obama oftentimes having to clean up after yet another one of Biden’s gaffes.

An essential element of pooper-scooping is also acting as a henchman. While there are similarities in function when compared with the more, traditional pejorative sense of the henchman’s role (the underling who does the dirty work or heavy lifting for the evil genius), that is not the sense in which I use the word. That said, where would Dr. Frankenstein be without Igor, Dracula without Renfield, Goldfinger without Oddjob, or The Brain without Pinky? The evil genius sits on high and issues overly complicated orders, contradictory directives, and sometimes crazy ones, and it falls to the henchman to actualize those mad dreams. The henchman steps up and has the balls to do whatever is practical and necessary within reason for the good of the company (or to further the goal of world domination if you happen to work for, let’s say, Lex Luthor or his equivalent). I think the role of henchman has been unfairly stigmatized and maybe we should come up with a more neutral term, such as “Dastardly Plan Implementer”. Regardless, the point is that the henchman, who is just trying to keep things together, working smoothly, and maintain the integrity of the operation invariably gets a bum rap and the bad end of the deal. The evil genius gets to swagger around and say the witty rejoinders, while the henchman is seen as the especially bad apple, even when they’re acting in the interest of the greater good. It’s like a never-ending game of good cop-bad cop where you always have to be the bad cop. The good cop (the one with no spine) when forced to make a decision does so with a great deal of randomness, seeing as they know they won’t be responsible for actually executing that decision, or doing the hard work of making a decision viable (by which I mean operationalizable). The good cop is concerned with projecting his image of goodness (and if not goodness, then sometimes an aura of leadership), despite an underlying evil or indecisive nature. Decisions that don’t affect a leader’s image are of little consequence to the good cop. The unfortunate henchman, force to play the bad-cop in this little drama, has to continually pivot, trying to find solutions when every avenue forward is blocked. At this point, some of you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about with this abstract nonsense. Those of you in this position, and I know you are out there, are probably nodding your heads.

Lastly, an important habit for a highly successful henchman and pooper-scooper is to be an effective diagnostician (like House, except without all that pesky medical stuff). The workplace has a lot in common with the reality show “Survivor”. People will purposefully be mysterious and obfuscate like boxers, bobbing and weaving, faking a jab with the left, while hitting you in the jaw with a right hook. Just like House M.D. tries to figure out what the underlying medical problem is, management diagnostics in non-profits are about figuring out what really happened and why. At the end of the day you will realize that all along the person you have been pooper-scooping for continues to be the one that throws things your way. Having a true diagnostic team made up of pooper-scoopers and henchmen is a survival tactic in the jungle of the CBO-world.

Lest you think I joke, pooper-scooping can play a major role in keeping our economy functional. Just as dog droppings are one of the leading sources of E. coli (fecal coliforms), Toxocara canis and Neospora caninumm helminth parasites (in some places such as France and Germany the situation is cause for serious alarm); workplace droppings are just as toxic to the emotional environment and if not addressed adequately can lead to disillusionment, feelings of apathy and eventual feelings of burnout. All of which will lead to staff turnover-especially turnover of good staff –which is what you truly care about. Thus, pooper-scooping keeps the economy going, the employees from becoming jaded and listless and gives you something to write home about-or at least blog about!

P.S. In Vermont there is a “Scoop the Poop” Campaign that tries to raise awareness about how poop effects lakes in the state. (see the campaign here: http://www.uvm.edu/~empact/water/scoop_poop.php3). Perhaps we need a workplace day, like Administrative Assistants Day, that celebrates the contributions of the “Caca-can”. Or at the very least, a National Brooke Miller Day.

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