Earlier this month, the then-Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, got the official news that he was fired while sitting on the toilet, a detail that White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, "accidentally leaked" to a "handful of reporters." 

Most people probably "get" that Tillerson was being intentionally humiliated, but I'll bet many people don't know the full implication of the firing and how it was, as the situation relates to the weird role that men's restrooms play in the world of office politics.

And that's too bad because, as with all office politics, what you don't understand can come back to bite you.

For decades, men have used the men's restroom to play dirty office politics. 

Probably the most common manifestation of this is using the men's restroom to exclude women from a conversation. 

For example, I worked in an organization where the Director was a woman and whose staff were all men. Just to be clear, during staff meetings, this woman was easily the smartest person in the room.

Anyway, whenever her meetings had a bio-break, the male staffers would continue the discussion as they walked the men's room, thereby cutting her out of the conversation.

She made it clear to her staff that she did not appreciate this.

While discussing her objections privately (i.e. behind her back) one staffer expressed his opinion that this was HER problem because she was being unnecessarily timid. His exact words: "if she had any balls, she would have followed us into the restroom."

Please note that this guy wasn't trying to be funny or ironic; he was just using the expression that immediately came to mind. 

Men's restroom are also sometimes used, among men, to establish dominance. 

I once had a boss who continued conversations with his (male) underlings while he visited the facilities, holding court on various topics, giving direction, and so forth, not just while urinating but while taking care of serious business.

He wasn't just being gross. Forcing his staff to tolerate the sound (and smell) of his restroom activity was a way to establish his dominance, much like a dog might use urine and feces mark off its territory.

Lest you think that behavior unique, I know of one boss who interrupted a conversation in an underlings' office, chewed everyone out, gave them an order, and then, before leaving, stopped in the doorway, lifted his leg, farted, laughed, and then departed.

The meaning of his actions was clear: he was the boss and could do what he liked.

Which brings me to Donald Trump, who will be a "rest stop," as it were, on our voyage back to Rex Tillerson.

Do you remember in the Trump/Clinton debates when Trump got all bent out of shape when Hillary Clinton was late to the podium because she'd been using the ladies' room? Trump absolutely flipped out, calling her "disgusting" and so forth.

While it's possible Trump might be pee-squeamish, it's far more likely he was insulted because, in the language of office politics, making somebody wait while YOU use the toilet is a power move.

By making Trump wait, Clinton was communicating (at least in Trump's mind) that she considered him inferior. While I think it highly unlikely Clinton was playing restroom politics, the specter of being "restroomed" is exactly the sort of thing that seems likely to get under Trumps rather thin skin.

So, now, with all that in mind, segue to Tillerson.

When Kelly called to officially fire Tillerson, Kelly must have been told that Tillerson was "occupied." However, Kelly insisted on deliver the message immediately. Assuming that Kelly wasn't already planning to leak the circumstances, why wouldn't Kelly wait?

Simple, waiting for Tillerson to finish up would have allowed Tillerson to end his stint as Secretary of State with a power move. (i.e. Tillerson could have said to himself: "Yes, I got fired, but at least I made him wait while I finished up in the restroom.")

A small victory, perhaps, but a parting shot, all the same.

The way it played out, though, Tillerson was even more humiliated--especially after Kelly leaked the details--because Kelly (i.e. Trump) interrupted Tillerson while he was on the throne, as it were. 

So there you have it. For some men, the men's restrooms (and what happens in them) are fodder for a particularly crude variety of office politics. Sad but true. 

Published on: Mar 28, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.