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White-collar hoarders: One lurks in every office

Telltale signs of hoarding— cluttering, stockpiling and even petty larceny — can result in cubicles that border on landfills and in extreme cases can cost workers their jobs.
According to two recent surveys, 59 percent of employees admitted they hide office supplies from co-workers.
According to two recent surveys, 59 percent of employees admitted they hide office supplies from co-workers. / Bloomberg Businessweek
/ Source: Bloomberg

Matt Paxton likes to refer to himself as an "extreme cleaning specialist." Over the years, the president of Clutter Cleaner — a Richmond, Va., business that's often featured on the A&E reality show "Hoarders"— has witnessed a lot of bizarre behavior. He's cleaned homes littered with, among other things, dead cats and human excrement. Yet one Rochester, N.Y., house sticks out most. It belonged to a retired office assistant from Eastman Kodak — and it was filled with office supplies.

This feverish collector of workplace ephemera had compiled dozens of Eastman Kodak staplers and staple removers, countless reams of carbon paper and hundreds of typewriter erasers. They were all "stacked in her filing cabinet, like it was a storage shelf from the office," recalls Paxton. He estimates that unopened boxes had been gathering dust in her home for at least 20 years. "They had about as much value as a jar of Confederate money," he says. Although the woman never told Paxton why she'd held onto these office supplies — or why she'd taken them in the first place — Paxton believes this case study is a severe example of an ordinary phenomenon.

"There's at least one hoarder in every family," he says, "and there's one in every office."

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There's probably more than one. According to two recent OfficeMax surveys, 46 percent of employees said they have trouble prioritizing what they should throw away; 59 percent admitted they hide office supplies from co-workers; and 56 percent confessed to taking supplies home for personal use. Whether or not these compulsions — cluttering, stockpiling and petty larceny — result in cubicles that border on landfills or secret stashes of break-room sugar packets, they are telltale signs of hoarding, the psychic office ailment du jour.

Mental health aside, the only real criterion to determine when cluttering crosses into bona fide hoarding territory is the Clutter-Hoarding Scale. Developed in 2003 by the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (which has now taken on the more politically correct name, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization), the scale has categories such as "Household Functions" and "Pets and Rodents." ICD President Kathy Trezise believes it also applies to office behavior.

"One of the categories on the scale is health and safety," she says. "That's a major concern, or it should be, with office hoarding. There are piles, there are fire hazards, there are tripping hazards." And, she says, clutter can attract unwelcome animal life. "Mice and bugs like to make nests in papers," she says. "And dust mites can wreak havoc." She recalls visiting one office that was so overrun with stacks of decaying paperwork that she "literally couldn't breathe."

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However, the rise of a hoarding-obsessed culture teeming with topical reality TV shows (TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive") and books ("Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things") has helped call attention to the malady. It's also facilitated a deeper corporate understanding. According to experts, employees' impulses to stockpile their workstations like bomb shelters often stem from "insecurity about their position in the company," says Vicki Donlan, a Boston-based business coach who has seen problematic office hoarding behavior in everyone from interns to senior executives.

"Most of the things they take have the name of their company somewhere on it," she says. "In some cases, they start to identify with their company name more than their own name."

Mike Nelson, founder of Clutterless Recovery Groups in McAllen, Tex., also believes that anxiety is the central factor. Clutter is "a psychological problem more than an organizational one," he explains. "The root cause of most office clutter is fear." And in recent years, that fear has been compounded by heightened job insecurity.

"The recession has an effect here," says Peter Walsh, host of clutter show "Enough Already!"  on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. "So much of holding on to stuff is about fear: fear of being left without, fear of being poor, fear of not being able to afford something, fear of not finding something when you need it."

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Some companies have a different name for it: stealing. And they aren't always sympathetic. In 2006, Allure magazine fired an editor for selling freebie beauty samples on eBay. In 2010 a Head Start employee in Hidalgo County, Texas, was arrested after he admitted to pilfering 400 rolls of toilet paper, 160 bundles of paper towels and 12 soap dispensers.

Yet extreme cleaner Paxton insists there's a difference between hoarding and minor theft. "Somebody who takes stuff from the office intending to sell it, that's just a strategic decision to make a profit," he says. "Hoarders are trying to feel better about themselves. It gives them a sense of self-worth."

That can be a tricky nuance to explain to management. For three years David Fairchild worked as a "reptile specialist" at a Petco branch in Prescott, Ariz. In 2009, he says, he began taking advantage of the employee discount in order to buy as much of the company's reptile supplies as he could get his hands on. He spent thousands of dollars on everything from lizard housing and lighting to countless boxes of forest tile and crates of bagged sand. Soon enough, his house began to resemble an amphibian Neverland Ranch. "I would sit in the room and look at what I had in both value and accomplishment," he says.

Last October the 28-year-old Fairchild was accused of violating a company policy that forbids employees from purchasing store items in bulk with intent to sell. Yet Fairchild insists he never actually considered selling any of his "collection." In fact, he'd been forced to give away most of his pets on account of his spending sprees. In the end, it made no difference: He was fired. "I got a call from Sally Logan (Petco's employee relations specialist)," recalls Fairchild, "and she told me that it didn't matter if I was selling it or not. The fact was that I purchased too much stuff." Petco declined to comment.

Fairchild can take some comfort in knowing that many professionals have learned how to fight hoarding temptations. Peter Walsh, a spokesman for OfficeMax, is regularly provided with enough swag to make an office hoarder drool. "I get boxes of free stuff every day," he says, including countless pens, reams of paper, and dry-erase boards. He also uses it to promote self-worth, but in a different way. "I donate it, I give it to charities," he says. "My friends love me because I always have lots of office supplies to give them. You can't believe the amount of s--t I give away!"