Matt Paxton, who calls himself an “extreme cleaning specialist,” has witnessed a lot of bizarre behavior over the years. As the president of Clutter Cleaner, a Richmond, Va.-based business that’s frequently featured on the A&E reality show Hoarders, he’s cleaned homes littered with dead cats and human excrement. But one home that still sticks in his memory belonged to a 90 year old woman in Rochester, New York. Her house, says Paxton, was filled with office supplies from her former employer, Eastman Kodak Company.
She had dozens of staplers and staple removers (most still in the box), countless reams of carbon copy paper, and hundreds of boxes of typewriter erasers, all of it “perfectly stacked in her filing cabinet, like it was a storage shelf from the office,” recalls Paxton. Each box was unopened and had been gathering dust in her home for, by his estimation, almost a quarter of a century. She never told Paxton why she’d held onto these things for so long — especially the typewriter erasers, which technology had long since rendered obsolete. But it wasn’t difficult for Paxton to put together the pieces. The woman, he says, was a retired office assistant at Kodak, and was old enough that she’d likely worked there during the Great Depression of the 1930s and early 40s. Such extreme and instinctive saving was, as Paxton points out, “pretty typical for her generation.”
The hoarding philosophy of your grandparents seems to be making a come-back, and once again it’s being driven by economic instability. The “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” as U.S. President Obama once called it, has inspired another generation of workers to be more possessive with their office supplies. In a survey conducted last summer by OfficeMax, 59% of employees claimed they regularly hide their favorite pens, staplers or other office supplies from co-workers, and 56% admitted to taking those supplies home for their personal use.
Does it actually qualify as hoarding? It’s hard to say. Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States suffer from the clinical condition known as compulsive hoarding. It’s unclear exactly how many of them are also (or exclusively) hoarding at their jobs, especially since the behavior has become commonplace and even expected in many offices. When most employees stuff their pockets with company-supplied Post-It notes, paper clips or tape dispensers — and who among us hasn’t? — it seems like a victimless crime. In an increasingly unstable work environment, don’t you deserve a few freebies? But the psychological implications may be more damaging than anybody realizes.
Not all hoarding is created equal. In fact, according to Mike Nelson, the founder of Clutterless Recovery Groups Inc., a nonprofit support group in McAllen, Texas, the majority of what’s considered hoarding is actually just clutter. “Most people just have too much crap in their lives,” Nelson says. But even the most mildly messy cubicles can eventually become landfills, overflowing with random clutter and minutiae. Favorite pens and staplers take up permanent residence on a desk, printer cartridges pile up like canned food in a bunker, and paperwork that’s long since outlived its usefulness somehow doesn’t make it into the trash. It’s difficult to tell when a messy cubicle has crossed the line from merely disorganized into hoarding territory. The only real criterion is the Clutter-Hoarding Scale, developed in 2003 by the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (which now calls itself the Institute for Challenging Disorganization). With categories like “Household Functions” and “Pets and Rodents,” it doesn’t really apply to most office settings. But ICD president Katherine Trezise thinks it can still be useful.
“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 wreck havoc.” She recalls visiting one office that was so overrun with stacks of decaying paperwork that she “literally couldn’t breathe.”
Office clutter may be a very real problem, but it’s a problem that’s still mostly ignored. Mike Nelson wrote a book on the subject in 2002 called Clutter-Proof Your Business: Turn Your Mess into Success. The book failed to find an audience, and was quickly discontinued after only its first printing. (Although it continues to do well in Asian countries. The book has been translated into Japanese and Korean, and Nelson claims he continues to get royalties.) He had much better luck with his follow-up, Stop Clutter from Stealing Your Life, which is already in its fourth printing.
“People are fine with admitting to clutter on a personal level,” he says. “But on their office level? Not at all. They believe the solution is just to get a better organizing system.” This may help in the short-term, he says, but in the end it’s like putting a band-aid on a gapping wound. “It’s a psychological problem more than an organizational one,” he says. “And people didn’t want to hear that. They want a quick fix, but the problem goes deeper than that. The root cause of most office clutter is fear.”
It’s a theory also shared by Peter Walsh, a clutter expert and host of Enough Already! on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. “Fear is almost always the motivating factor for clutter,” he says. He describes it as the “I might need it someday” clutter, which explains everything from the stapler hidden in a secret drawer to the toilet paper stuffed into backpacks to the old files that never seem to get thrown out. He believes office hoarders cling to it all “in anticipation of a whole lot of imagined futures.”
It’s not always fear driving office workers to stock their cubicles like bomb shelters. Vicki Donlan, a business coach in Boston, Massachusetts, believes that the impulse sometimes stems from insecurity. “Not insecurity in their personal life,” she says. “Insecurity about their position in the company.” She’s seen the behavior in everyone from interns to senior executives, and it usually begins with small things, like pens, pencils, and Post-It notes. But, says Donlan, it’s always something that connects them to the company, and makes them feel a part of something bigger. “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.”
Fear and insecurity isn’t an emotion exclusive to the hoarding employee. Their employers may be feeling just as vulnerable, especially with so much of their property walking out the door. In 2007, NASA reported that they’d lost almost $94 million in equipment, everything from computers to printers, and their staff, the primary suspects, offered only ridiculous explanations. (At least one NASA employee claimed that his missing laptop had been “tossed overboard to be burned up in the atmosphere when it failed.”) Every year, there are more examples of employees who blatantly steal from their workplace, and not always deftly. Last September, Lois McClachlan of Rochester Hills was prosecuted for stealing thousands of dollars in computer equipment from her employer, General Motors, and selling it on eBay. In early 2010, an employee for a Head Start Program in Hidalgo County, Texas was arrested for stealing 400 rolls of toilet paper, 160 bundles of paper towels and 12 soap dispensers.
But the paranoia isn’t always justified. There’s a big difference, says Matt Paxton, between employees who steal from work and those who hoard. “Somebody who takes stuff from the office intending to sell it, that’s just a strategic decision to make a profit,” he says. “But a hoarder is trying to feel better about themselves. They don’t need to sell it, or even use it for that matter. Just taking it out of the supply closet and putting it in their pocket, it gives them a sense of self-worth.”
That’s certainly the case with David Fairchild. For three years, he was employed as a “reptile specialist” by a PETCO branch in Prescott, Arizona. Sometime around 2009, he says, he began taking advantage of the employee discount, buying as much of the company’s reptile supplies as he could get his hands on. He spent thousands on everything from lizard housing and lighting to countless boxes of forest tile and crates of bagged sand. He brought it all to his home, which quickly began to resemble a warehouse. “In my mind, I had a store,” he says. “I would sit in the room and look at what I had in both value and accomplishment.”
In late October of last year, the 28 year-old Fairchild was fired, accused of violating a company policy that forbids PETCO employees from purchasing store items in bulk with intent to sell. Fairchild insists that he never considered selling any of his “collection.” (He also never intended to use any of it, as he’d been forced to give away most of his reptile pets because of the dwindling income caused by his spending sprees.) Every single item, he says, is still in its original packaging, unopened and untouched, and he was willing to provide his manager with photos to prove it. He also tried to explain that he has, in his words, a “mental illness,” for which he’s now seeking treatment. But in the end, it made no difference. “Losing my job has made me feel useless,” he admits, “and I scream and scream and no one at PETCO listens.” Brooke Simon, a spokesperson for PETCO, would not respond to Fairchild’s accusations, saying only “We do not comment on personnel issues.”
Fairchild may have a long therapeutic struggle ahead of him, but he’s far alone. “There’s at least one hoarder in every family,” says Matt Paxton, “and there’s one in every office.” Even the hoarding professionals sometimes have to battle with temptation. Peter Walsh, as a spokesperson for Office Max, is regularly provided with enough swag to make an average office hoarder drool. “I get boxes of free stuff every day,” he says, including pens, endless reams of paper and the dry erase boards he often uses on his TV show. But he keeps very little of it. “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 shit I give away.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)