A no-phone zone

The office washroom is meant for doing one kind of business only
Barbara Righton

Syndicated columnist Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, recently answered an eye-popping question from a reader: what is the proper way to behave in the office washroom when a co-worker is in there at the same time talking on a cellphone? “I may make noise, especially if it is after a lunch of lentil soup,” he wrote. Not to mention, “May I flush?” Miss Manners sided with the reader, although she objected to the detail. “You are using the room for its correct purpose, even if you explained this more clearly than Miss Manners would have liked,” she sniffed. “Those who use it for other purposes must take their chances.”

Across corporate North America, there is a feeling that office washrooms are indeed being used for other purposes, specifically business-oriented business. Never mind the old complaints—leaving a cloud of hairspray in the air, for example, or flooding the sink. Now, not only are employees talking on their phones, they are messaging on their BlackBerries and working on their laptops. Perhaps people have deluded themselves into thinking that bathrooms offer more privacy than open-concept offices. “Some of us just don’t know the guidelines,” tuts Victoria’s Deborah Wakeham, an adviser with an etiquette consulting firm, the Civility Group. Vancouver protocol specialist Connie Sturgess adds that modern business people have become “very self-centred.” They put their own comfort and convenience ahead of their colleague’s. Bringing those “silly little devices,” as Sturgess calls them, into a shared washroom is only one symptom of a larger tendency to blur the line between workspace and private space.

Michael Sykes, president of the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette, has spent the past 13 years examining the ins and outs of bathroom behaviour on his website, The former Edmontonian, now a scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is fascinated by the cellphone conundrum, and other questions about bathroom behaviour. But gadgets are just a small part of his No. 1 rule—no business in the bathroom. Time was, private functions were private, he says. “Now you see two men having a workplace discussion and they go into the bathroom and keep on. One of them is an absent-minded superior who is just talking away and the subordinate has to follow him because he is too embarrassed to extricate himself.” That makes all the other bathroom denizens uncomfortable, he says.

No gossip in the potty is another rule, maybe one designed especially for women, who tend to “socialize” more, Sykes says, and stupidly get caught trashing the vice-president by the vice-president. It’s embarrassing, if not uncommon. According to Toronto etiquette specialist Adeodata Czink, “Most of us have said things to another woman in the next stall not realizing that the subject is standing right outside combing her hair.” Sturgess has a solution. “No cross-stall chatting,” she says, and don’t even think about peering under the stall wall to see if you recognize your co-worker’s shoes so you can initiate a conversation. “Give people their privacy.” Another don’t: no food preparation or consumption in the washroom, ever. And as for the office bully who pins you, hands dripping water, halfway between the sink and the paper towel dispenser, Sturgess advises people to lie: “Say, ‘I am expecting a call,’ and run.”

Experts report that bullying can also be a problem in the men’s washroom, but there it takes the form of crowding. Ian Gellatly, a business professor at the University of Alberta who teaches workplace motivation, says men should always maximize the distance between them. “If one man is at one end of the urinals, the next man goes to the other end and the third man goes to the middle,” he says. “It would be quite unnerving if you were standing in a long line of urinals and someone came in and stood right beside you.” However, Gellatly thinks reading the paper in a stall is okay, maybe even shrewd. “If you did that at your desk for 20 minutes, you might get fired; in the bathroom nobody says anything.” Adds Sykes, “I have no problem with reading, as long as it is not a shared book.”

Happily, few office bathroom faux pas are so egregious that they result in an oaf being fired, but Sykes wonders if cumulative bad behaviour—from cellphones to that absolute imperative, handwashing—might end up on a performance review. Says Sykes, “You don’t want to create a hostile work environment.” Especially in the loo.