One of the advantages of having a social media presence is that readers will tag me on interesting stories. One of the disadvantages is that sometimes this involves icky things, like a smell check for employees who spend too long in the bathroom.

Oh, how I wish I were joking. First, there's the company that wants to do a smell check if you're in the bathroom too long.

Who gets this job, I wonder? I'm guessing this would fall under HR's responsibilities, and it's a big pile of nope. 

Then there's this tilting toilet that is designed to make it uncomfortable to sit on the throne for more than five minutes.

Both of these are backdoor solutions to a stinky problem--low productivity.

It's not that this isn't a real problem--The Daily Mail, reporting on the tilting toilet, says that some people are spending 28 minutes on the toilet while at work. Assuming that these people aren't suffering from a medical condition that requires long stints on the toilet, it's an employee engagement issue.

I don't recommend either solution to your toilet troubles. Here's why.

It has an ADA violation written all over it

If you have 15 or more employees (or fewer in some states), you have to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with a disability. There are disabilities where allowing someone to spend a long time in the bathroom would be a reasonable accommodation. 

So, while--technically--your employee would need to ask for that accommodation, is this a path you want to go down? Do you want to embarrass yourself and your employees by stalking and smelling in the bathroom?

If you have a tilting toilet, do you want a court to tell you that allowing an employee a standard toilet is a reasonable accommodation? I don't know how that would work out, but it's not a court case you want to get involved in.

You're treating your employees like children

Monitoring potty breaks should end sometime between pre-school and first grade, depending on development. Your employees are, presumably, older than 7. Federal law requires that you pay for breaks less than 20 minutes in length, so you can't require people to clock in and clock out for regular bathroom breaks.

"OSHA requires employers to provide all workers with sanitary and immediately-available toilet facilities (restrooms)." So, again, making it difficult for employees to get to the bathroom when they need to opens you up to legal violations. You need to let employees go to the bathroom when they say they need to go to the bathroom.

Your problem is not phones in the bathroom, but employee engagement

Employees who are sitting on the toilet, texting their friends, and surfing the internet do so not because they love the restroom but because their job is not exciting or engaging, or they feel justified in sneaking away for whatever reason.

This is a hard problem to solve. Tilting toilets or smell tests won't solve this problem. Your employees will find other ways to waste time. 

You need to figure out why each slacking employee is slacking and work to solve that problem. The solution may be to warn and then fire the employee. It may be to deal with a problem in the office. I can't tell you what you need to do for each employee as their reasons vary.

In many retail, call center, or other customer-facing jobs, management bans employees from using personal phones during work. This is a reasonable thing--no one wants to wait in the checkout line while the cashier texts friends. In this case, rather than monitoring bathroom breaks, banning phones from the building might be more manageable.

In knowledge-based jobs, you need to look at productivity. If employees are doing their jobs well, 10 minutes on the phone here and there may not be a problem. Many knowledge jobs require brain breaks. That used to be accomplished by chatting with coworkers, and now it can be achieved by chatting with friends or looking at new memes.

Employees in these jobs shouldn't feel like they need to hide in the bathroom to take a brain break. Look at their performance--not what they are doing every minute.

I'm not arguing that this isn't a problem, just that the solution isn't punishment but finding the underlying issue and solving that. You may need to fire people. That's part of doing business.

But doing bathroom smell checks is not and should never be.

Published on: Dec 18, 2019
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