There I was cleaning out every nook and cranny of a large apartment no one had lived in for several years. I started in the bedroom filled to capacity with large, old, stately pieces of furniture. Each piece of furniture had many drawers. Each drawer was filled with clothes, scarves, small boxes and envelopes. Papers seemed to spill out from the desk and night tables. I very deliberately examined all envelopes on the lookout for cash, checks or vital documents. It was not surprising that while working through these drawers, I found documents from Ellis Island, and hundreds of dollars. I was as excited for my client as if I had found money for my own sister! “When I see you at the end of the day, I will give you quite a stash. Take no chances. Plan to go straight home afterwards,” I joked in the text I sent her. When I handed her the envelope full of cash, her mouth opened in great surprise. It seems that over the years her family had hired various people who stole cash and other items. Her surprise was threefold: the fact that there was so much money in her relative’s home, that it had not been pilfered by previous workers and that she had finally found a tradesperson who wouldn’t steal from her.
Not every client I work with knows that I am a Torah-observant Jew. Not every client I work with knows what the Torah is. So, I do occasionally have important interactions with clients that involve an exploration of the concept of honesty. While on my hands and knees cleaning the floor of a bedroom closet with a client last summer, I found small change in random places. I gathered the change up and poured the coins into a small cup to give to my client. She was totally surprised and said, “Oh you can keep it. After all, finders keepers.” I told her this was her money that I found in her house, in her own room. In my world, I continued, there is no such thing as finders keepers. She shrugged and took the cup. The next week we were working in her den. Again, I found spare change and again I gathered it into a cup for her. She noticed and began to say “finders, keepers” and stopped. Instead, she said, “I remember. You don’t believe in finders keepers.” I told her I believe in something deeper than an old adage, because I am a halachically observant Jew and live according to Jewish law. If that isn’t enough, which it is, I am a member of NAPO, the National Association of Productivity and Professional Organizers. Professional organizers who belong to NAPO follow a prescribed code of ethics. We don’t take from our clients’ possessions. I asked her, if I agreed to take this cup of coins that totals such a small amount, how could she ever believe that I would not be likely to take a $20 bill here or a gold necklace there? I don’t remember her exact response, but I must have made an impact. The next time she saw me putting change in a cup, she didn’t say anything.
A friend of mine who is an organizer in a completely different part of New Jersey shared one of her experiences with me. She had some neighbors who were intrigued that she was a professional organizer. This friend, we will call her Christine, frequently ran into the couple on the street while walking their dogs. Every time they saw Christine, they would have a different question to ask her about how a professional organizer might help them. Finally, the couple took the plunge and asked her what she charges. No good organizer ever says, “I charge x dollars” and goes silent. An organizer will first explain all the services she/he offers, how she/he will guide the client to define a set of goals and define a budget. The organizer’s fees are discussed after the potential clients understand all the services offered and the quality of the service. People who immediately ask, “How much do you charge?” and “When can you start?” are looking for a bargain-basement outfit and not a well-run service. Christine explained all of this and even threw in that she is a member of NAPO whose members follow a code of ethics. She noticed her neighbors’ eyes were glazing over and gathered they were probably looking for that “sweet deal” and did not expect they would be hiring her. After that, when Christine saw these neighbors, they made small talk but never brought up the subject of organizing until one day about three months later. The man said, “Christine, now we understand about your association’s code of ethics and why it’s important to hire someone you can trust. We hired someone who advertised in one of our local social media boards. Her price was low, but she also helped herself to several of our belongings. Now we can’t reach her and we don’t have solid proof that she took anything. But really who else? Our dog?!”
There is another type of honesty that anyone in business is aware of: Honest communication. For instance, when a job is too extensive for a company or when the business person has no experience in what the client needs, a savvy organizer would tell the client. An organizer who lacks experience could express that up to now they have no experience in a certain type of organizing, but they want to learn how to do it so they can offer it in the future. In such a case, an organizer may even reduce the price for this service. When someone is working to get good at a new skill, they will be extra motivated. Or the organizer could call in another organizer who has been offering this service for a while to take on the job. On the other hand, an organizer who makes their client think they have experience and knowledge in something they do not can make wild mistakes and it can blow up on them. Therefore, not informing a client she/he is missing a certain skill set is a form of dishonesty.
Although Professional Organizers who are members of NAPO will observe a code of ethics that includes respect for clients’ privacy and property, and that is wonderful. I consider that secondary to the code of ethics I live by daily. Our Torah demands that our own business practices are 100% fair and honest. Really, how can we behave any other way when we know it will help us get a seat in the world to come?!
Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s kosher organizer and tzniut wardrobe stylist. For over 14 years, Ellen has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. Ellen believes “Clutter Clogs, but Harmony Heals.” See Ellen’s work on Instagram @ideclutterbyEllen. Contact Ellen for a complimentary phone consultation at [email protected].