Personal items damaged at work…Recourse?
August 4, 2017 9:09 AM   Subscribe

While on vacation, one of my personal office decorations was damaged. How do I handle this, and what is the possibility of being reimbursed?

I work at a public college in the Midwest. I have been on vacation from work for several weeks.

Within our suite, I have a personal office, with a locking door. Not counting our campus security, the only people who have access to my office are my supervisor, my direct reports (one key for an emergency), and the custodial staff.

I visited the suite for a moment a few weeks ago, to show a friend/colleague the space, and my office was in the condition I left it upon leaving for vacation.

I stopped in after hours yesterday, and when I entered my office, I found one of my decorations, a statue, out of its place, and broken. There was no other damage to anything else in the office--I have other decorations I’m planning to remove this weekend. There was no note. I checked my emails, and there was no reference to the damaged property. I’ve received no phone calls or text messages.

I have an unrelated meeting on Monday that will bring me to campus. I should be sufficiently cooled off by then, and I am looking for some suggestions on how to handle this professionally. I also want to know if there is any chance I can at least recover the amount I paid for the statue. The cost to replace it is too high, as its value has apparently tripled since I bought it, unbeknownst to me.

Should I ask my supervisor and staff independently or in a quick group meeting/teleconference about their knowledge of this? (I don’t think this was caused by any of them. We all have very good working relationships, but I feel like I have to ask. Also, there is no need to enter my office while I’m away.)

Should I take this to Human Resources, RE: possibility of custodial staff damaging property? (Again, I’m not there to create any trash to be picked up, so I don’t know why they would be in my office...)

Do I have any way to be reimbursed for my property loss? How would I go about this?

You are not my lawyer, my insurance agent, etc. Thanks.
posted by Big Chief Little Pants to Work & Money (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Let's flip this around.

I'm your colleague and I have to go into your office for a legitimate reason while you're on vacation (need a file, need to empty your trash, etc.). In the process, I accidently break something of yours. What do I do? I'm not going to leave you a VM or send you an email. I'm going to wait until you're back from vacation and talk to you in person about it.

You seem more pissed that someone didn't leave you a message than the fact that the object is broken. You need to separate the two. Once you do - and realize that someone might be planning to talk to you once you're back, and to offer some remedy for the situation - then all this is is an honest accident that you're blowing way out of proportion.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:16 AM on August 4, 2017 [14 favorites]

If this were my office, I would contact the head of housekeeping and let them know what I found, without making accusations. See if they have any information (maybe the cleaning staff noticed it broken on the floor at a certain point and remembers picking it up). This allows the cleaning staff's supervisor to handle any direct questioning. It might not result in anything (ie even if the cleaning staff did break it, they might not own up to it) but that would be the proper thing to do first. Additionally, I would ask my staff if they had been in my office and/or noticed the broken statue. At the info gathering stage, I wouldn't mention price or replacement. If all of this leads no where you might be out of luck. I think someone has to cop to it or you have no case. After all, they might say, maybe your bag it it on the way out the door unbeknownst to you.
posted by LKWorking at 9:17 AM on August 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

My guess is that facilities management or janitorial staff had to enter your office due to some kind of ventilation or technology issue - that's pretty common and usually doesn't have a visible cause. Or else it was vacuum day for your area, if you have a carpet, or mop day if you have tiles. Or someone was inventorying phone jacks, or had to measure your office for some kind of space use report. (These are all things that happen to otherwise undisturbed offices at my university.) So there probably wasn't anything sinister or inappropriate about actual access to your office.

A question: what are the working conditions for support staff at your university? Do people have a union? Can you sincerely say with confidence that if you pressed your department to make a claim on the university's insurance (which may or may not cover this, but it's worth checking) that they wouldn't track down the poor hapless ventilation systems guy who knocked it over and fire him?

If you can with sincerity say that you're unlikely to get someone fired, why not bring this up with the department? It is possible that your property will be covered under a general insurance policy and you could get some kind of payment out of it.

If this were me - and I do work at a large university - I would be torn, because I would absolutely want to submit a claim if I could, and I would absolutely not want to get a worker fired in retaliation. "I brushed against an ornament while doing my job and accidentally broke it, and it turned out to be super expensive" shouldn't be a firing offence, but it often is.
posted by Frowner at 9:20 AM on August 4, 2017 [22 favorites]

Also, if I wanted to keep something expensive and fragile in my office as an ornament, I would start by talking to facilities staff about whether I could get a small vitrine and attach it to a shelf somehow - maybe that would be an option going forward if you decide you do want to have something nice like this at the office? The faculty I know who actually have eg fragile and rare minerals or artifacts tend to keep them in little cases for this reason.
posted by Frowner at 9:26 AM on August 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Just chiming in as someone who works late nights at a university, and sees the after hours activity. The janitorial staff certainly have keys to all of the offices, and enter to empty trash, vacuum, etc. Also the possibility of other facilities work. And finally, at least on our crew, different people do different steps, so it's possible that someone emptying the trash knocked it over, and someone later vacuuming picked it up without knowing whether you had knocked it over earlier or another member of the crew.

Which is to say: you are 100% overreacting if you call your colleagues or (even worse) call a meeting or a teleconference about this. If I was your colleague, I would think that behavior was bizarre and it would affect my opinion of you.

If you need to do anything, send a neutral note to facilities. However, if at all possible, accept that this is an imperfect world and repair or replace the statue.

[I know this sounds harsh, when you're upset, but I feel like some other emotional trigger might be coming up for you. This is normal office stuff. Your office is not your house or your bedroom. Other people can and will enter it.]
posted by mercredi at 9:27 AM on August 4, 2017 [34 favorites]

Let me reiterate the point about the possibility of cleaning staff being disciplined for what you have no reason to believe was anything other than an accident. Even in the best-run places, these are very vulnerable people. The harm you might cause could be way out of proportion to the fault involved (if any). Do you want a non-English-speaking single mom to lose her job over your action figure? Probably not, right?

(Cleaning staff aren't usually notified of your schedule. They will still come through to check trash cans, vacuum, and whatever other tasks are ordinarily performed in your office.)
posted by praemunire at 9:38 AM on August 4, 2017 [10 favorites]

To your point about there not being a reason for custodial staff to be in your office - people don't know if your office does or does not have trash without entering it. Staff may change or rotate, so it's unreasonable to assume they would know there's no need to go in during certain dates. I also agree that storing a valuable item, whether due to monetary cost or sentimental value, in your office doesn't make much sense. You can't expect the same standards of privacy and security as in your own home.
posted by handful of rain at 9:39 AM on August 4, 2017 [16 favorites]

(BTW, you should check your renter's or homeowner's policy to see if the statue might be covered.)
posted by praemunire at 9:54 AM on August 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

I would not expect a locked door to prevent anyone from getting in who needed to, and furthermore I would expect any number of people to need to. Custodial staff opens every door nightly to check for trash, and occasionally for vacuuming/mopping/waxing. HVAC folks check for blocked vents. IT staff need to update your antivirus software. The health and safety folks do fire checks a few times per year and go into every room in every building to do so. The building supervisor may go in to take inventory of the building-owned furniture or to confirm all the spaces are being used regularly. I've had footprints on my desk from maintenance folks replacing light bulbs. Any one of those people could have swung around and bumped something by accident. Some of them would have emailed, others would stop by in person to apologize.

If it's your personal property it should go on your homeowner's insurance. To me this is no different than a cleaning person bumping into something in your home. Just the idea of asking the university to compensate you for a personal item in your space that is not related to your work is very odd indeed.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:10 AM on August 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

(For future reference, museum wax for securing breakables, or a vitrine as suggested above.)
posted by gudrun at 10:17 AM on August 4, 2017

Calling a meeting or having a conference call about this would be totally bizarre. As in Captain Queeg-level wacko.

A few times a year, I find something broken or knocked out of place in my office or my boss's; my (cheap) speakers are constantly getting knocked off the shelf and replaced the wrong way, and the boss's plants have been broken off at the stems a few times, both which I take to happen from knocking a vacuum cleaner into the stuff. I accept this as a part of working in a semi-private space that has to be cleaned because if it's not cleaned, our facilities guy loses his shit (I have witnessed this).

You assume the risk of having stuff broken when you keep it in an office. If you have super expensive fragile stuff that you really care about, an office that's accessible to anyone but you (i.e., all non-home offices) is really not the place for it. As for why they're in your office after hours, I assume it's either to vacuum or sweep, or because they don't telepathically know that there's no trash in there without actually going in to look to see whether there's trash in there; probably failing to empty trash cans can get them fired, so they're going to look whether you think it's necessary or not.

tl; dr: Just let this go entirely, and keep your fragile valuable stuff at home or, as tchemgrrl suggests, on your homeowner's insurance.
posted by holborne at 10:34 AM on August 4, 2017 [12 favorites]

Check if it is covered under your homeowners insurance, but also check if it is covered under the universities insurance.
posted by Murderbot at 10:37 AM on August 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

You should be reimbursed via the facility's insurance!

Find out what you need to do to make a claim. Make the claim. Get reimbursed.

This is business, just be professional. Please do double check cleaning staff won't get fired if you report this, but seriously, THIS IS WHAT INSURANCE POLICIES ARE FOR. All businesses and institutions carry insurance for stuff like this. Replace your item and keep it at home thereafter. Done.
posted by jbenben at 10:40 AM on August 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

murderbot beat me to it!

I really think this is the way to go. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 10:41 AM on August 4, 2017

also check if it is covered under the universities insurance.

THIS IS WHAT INSURANCE POLICIES ARE FOR. All businesses and institutions carry insurance for stuff like this.

General advice on filing an insurance claim against your employer: I'd be fairly pissed if an employee filed an insurance claim as a first step in a situation like this, and I'd question their common sense. First, you're not giving your employer an opportunity to make the situation right, and they're due that opportunity. Second, most business insurance policies require the organization to pay a percentage of any claim, up to a certain dollar limit, so we're just going to end up paying for it out of pocket anyway. Third, there's a chance a claim like this would negatively impact us through raised rates later on down the line, or similar knock-ons.

I'm not saying a claim isn't an eventual step in the process, but for your sake, please don't make it your first one.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:03 AM on August 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Also, summer is the DO ALL THE MAINTENANCE THINGS time for many universities. We've had carpet cleaning and fire alarm testing this week alone.
posted by mercredi at 11:11 AM on August 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Perhaps there was a miscommunication? Sorry!

I assume when notifying the facility about the breakage and double checking no one will be fired, that the facility will respond appropriately if they have a way to reimburse without filing an insurance claim. My intention was to let the OP know that businesses cover themselves against loss because this is A Thing, and worse case there will be insurance in place if the item's value was excessive. The breakage occurred during regular course of business, not a personal friendship. There is no need to handle it otherwise.

It never occurred to me the OP might contact the insurance company directly! I mean, that's something you do if you have proof someone hit & run your car or whatever. Surely the business has a protocol in place for stuff like this, the OP needs to contact the right office and find out what the protocol is, then use it. Simple.
posted by jbenben at 11:21 AM on August 4, 2017

You will have to check with your facilities manager. But based on my knowledge personal artifacts are not covered by the university's insurance policy. They explicitly tell us not to bring any personal items to work, and if we do they do not assume responsibility if it gets damaged or stolen.
posted by WizKid at 11:37 AM on August 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

"Hi, boss, looks like the statue in my office broke while I was gone -- did we have an earthquake or something? Any chance that it's covered by our insurance?"
posted by empath at 11:46 AM on August 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

Before I said anything to anyone, I'd check the employee handbook to see if there's any escape clauses for personal property stored onsite. I have worked places where Not Bringing Things was such a big deal that a CEO wasn't allowed to hang art he owned in his office (the company offered to buy something comparable if he felt hanging a piece of art worth $XXXX was important to the position's image, seriously) and someone who preferred a specific ergonomic chair couldn't bring their own and instead had to jump through a dozen ridiculous hoops to provide proof they needed accommodation and the company would buy one for them. It's liability, it's the potential for abuse, it's the security risk, some places end up with serous Cover Your Ass clauses because of it.

It would just be unnecessarily uncomfortable to start this complaint process only to be handed a copy plus the sheet you probably signed when you were hired saying you read it. If there's nothing in the handbook, or it's ambiguous, you should then start with either your manager or the facilities department probably.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:28 PM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

My intention was to let the OP know that businesses cover themselves against loss because this is A Thing, and worse case there will be insurance in place if the item's value was excessive.

While correct that businesses insure themselves for potential losses, it's incredibly unlikely that it covers the personal property of employees as opposed to the business's property. This is why it's the business's insurance.

It would strike me as completely unhinged for one of my employees to file an insurance claim for valuable personal property, unrelated to work, that they kept in their office. Sure if their company laptop is stolen, yes I'll file an insurance claim on it. But why in the world would I want my business insurance premiums to go up because they decided keep their Venus de milo in their office?
posted by Karaage at 3:10 PM on August 4, 2017 [11 favorites]

I work at a public university, too, and we are reminded every so often not to bring in objects of value, nor to have mail order stuff delivered there, because the university is not responsible for loss of or damage to personal items.

As to whodunnit, the custodial staff and security at where I work have a well-deserved reputation for being untrustworthy. Student employees are also known to give their friends access to the secured areas. They use the area for study space, but sometimes party while waiting for their buddy to finish his/her night shift.

And that is why we're told to keep nothing of value at work.
posted by Lunaloon at 1:48 PM on August 5, 2017

Update: TL;DR - I was reimbursed for the purchase price.

Long version:

I did not call a meeting.

My staff went into my office for an unrelated reason, and upon seeing the damage, called me to inform me. (I appreciated this, as this is how I would behave in a such a situation, and I'm glad our office culture/communication is consistent.)

I checked to see if there were any rules against bringing personal property in the employee handbook, and there were none.

I contacted facilities; it turns out that a sub had damaged the property, and reported it. The administration in facilities did not contact me. If I hadn't asked, I never would have found out the truth.

Human Resources was not pleased with the way the administration in facilities handled the breakage or communication, was apologetic, and worked to get my reimbursement processed.
posted by Big Chief Little Pants at 6:28 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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