The cleaner and the manager: a cautionary tale

By Jill Segger
April 30, 2020

For several weeks now, we have been standing on our doorsteps applauding and banging on saucepans in communal displays of solidarity for the ‘key workers’ who are – often at immense personal cost – holding our society together in these difficult and distressing times.

ICU specialists, nurses and paramedics, care assistants, refuse collectors, delivery drivers, till operatives, shelf stackers, cleaners and hospital porters are all held up for our heartfelt gratitude. We are no longer dividing these workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ but recognising them as the connective tissue of of our common lives; the people from whom we can no longer feel disconnected or superior. We are learning our commonality, we tell ourselves.

But are we really understanding what this means? Strip away the feel-good terminology of heroes and angels, then look with honesty upon the temptation to turn a thoughtless response on the axle of ingrained superiority in order to raise a laugh.

Last week, something took place in the library of a small provincial town which was tweeted, went viral and was then picked up first by the BBC and later by the New York Post. The outcome was that an error made by a cleaner was turned into a global occasion of her humiliation and embarrassment.

The cleaner had used her initiative to carry out a deep clean of the locked-down library. Her mistake was to then re-shelve 18 bays of books in order of their size. Whilst entirely understanding the dismay of the library staff who discovered the scale of the remedial task which they now had on their hands, one has to question the impulse which led a manager to make a social media sensation out of a person whose skills did not include a specific knowledge of libraries nor of their cataloguing systems.

This was not improved when the manager, perhaps realising that she had not made the most tactful or kindly response to a genuine error, instead of deleting her tweet and apologising for a spur of the moment act of thoughtlessness, dug in deeper with protestations of how funny everyone had found the episode and tweeting a “quick update”. This consisted of describing the cleaner as a “lovely lady” who was “just doing her best” and that “I may have to buy her a bottle of wine”. The intention may have been sincere. But sometimes the spade simply needs to be laid down.

The real lesson from this sorry occurence is the painful inequality which remains at the heart of so many of our interactions. Its subtext is that a difference of experience between educated professionals and ‘unskilled’ workers can be exploited for social media hits. There is no inherent moral or intellectual superiority in being acquainted with Dewey Decimal Classification. Those of us who have had the privilege of an academic education might be seriously incompetent in the execution of deep cleansing. I know I would be.

When Jesus charged his followers with being salt to the world, he was surely thinking of the flavouring and preservative qualities of that substance. The grave responsibility thus laid upon us has been diminished by its having become a patronising observation on the tongues of many middle class people when they wish to praise their cleaners or gardeners. It is not the language of equality or respect. Nor does it build empathy: some of the pile-in responses made to the tweets mentioned above were distressingly cruel and contemptuous. I hope the cleaner did not see them.

The ethic of reciprocity found in the Golden Rule is well known. It asks us to understand the unique value of every person and their dignity. It is the true text of equality and in this instance, tellingly expressed in the words of Wendell Berry: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you”. We could all benefit from considering where we stand in relation to this sad little tale of the cleaner and the manager.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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