Stall tactics: Tips on office bathrooms

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Every office has a bathroom, every non-robot worker has to use the bathroom and sharing a bathroom with co-workers seems to be an almost universally unpleasant experience.

A slew of readers have written asking how to handle everything from male co-workers who leave droplets on the toilet seat in a unisex bathroom to the unnerving discovery of cracker crumbs in the stall.

This column is devoted to examining this turbulent confluence of work and human necessity.

I'll go first.

My workplace bathroom advice, from a decidedly male perspective, is simple: Stop behaving like monsters.

Don't stand 2 feet away from the urinal while doing what you're doing. Are those grunting sounds really necessary? And for the love of whoever invented running water, FLUSH THE TOILET!!

(It feels good to get that off my chest.)

For more cogent advice, I turned to some experts.

Peter Post, co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business," said bathroom manners have long been a nettlesome workplace issue.

"I think people assume people are just going to be reasonably clean when using the bathroom," he said. "But then you invariably get in a situation where it's being left a mess, and then it becomes a company problem, and some poor manager has to have a meeting with the staff saying, 'We need to fix this.'"

Post said one of the hot-button items on any restroom complaint list involves the toilet seat, particularly in unisex bathrooms. The assumption would be that female workers are annoyed that male co-workers are leaving the toilet seat up.

Not so, Post said. Men have apparently proven themselves so wholly incapable of proper aiming that most women have thrown in the toilet paper and would prefer that the seat be left up.

"There are a lot of women now who are asking the men to leave the seat up and just let them put it down when they come in," Post said. "They do that to be sure that the seat is up when the men use the bathroom. That way, they hope, the seat will be clean when the women come in."

He said in any office with a unisex bathroom, female employees should decide which they would prefer — seat left up or down — and the men should politely comply and still try to work on their aim.

Ray from Plano, Texas, concisely illuminated another loathsome loo habit that has come about in recent years: "This is my quiet time and a place for me to hone my solitaire skills. Co-workers are now beginning to break my concentration by bringing in a conference call and squatting next door. How do I let them know this is no place for a phone conversation?"

For some, it seems, technology has battered down the doors of human decency and made it acceptable to carry on a phone call while tending to other bodily business.

I have no problem with people toting a smartphone into the can and checking Twitter or browsing the Web. Heck, you can wheel your PC into the stall for all I care. But to hold a conversation amid the sounds of flushing … and other things?

Horrifying.

From nowhere near the bathroom, I called Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work." She said the phone-in-the-bathroom issue is one she gets asked all the time.

"My answer to that is, if it's a public restroom, it's probably not the best place to carry on a phone conversation, especially if it's with a client," she said. "My advice is, 'Text, yes. Talk, no.'"

Aside from bothering others who are in the restroom, Whitmore pointed out that a person could unwittingly reveal confidential client information: "I think people forget that other people listen."

If you're dealing with a chronic bathroom phone caller, Whitmore suggests bringing it up, without identifying the perpetrator, to a supervisor or during a staff meeting, suggesting a company policy against talking on phones in the restrooms.

Or: "You can always just start flushing away and singing a song, and then maybe they'll get the message."

There are endless co-worker quirks that make bathroom visits uncomfortable: someone who biked to work taking a towel-bath in the sink, and that one person who always strikes up a conversation and keeps you standing in the restroom far longer than a person should stand in a restroom.

Craig Heimbuch, editor-in-chief of ManoftheHouse.com, an online magazine aimed at the average-Joe working dad, wrote recently on the subject of office bathroom etiquette for men. His tips included "The Buffer Urinal," "No Eye Contact, No Talking" and "Don't Linger."

"The bathroom can be a very vulnerable situation," Heimbuch said. "It's this weird combination of utility and vulnerability. You just kind of want some space."

He finds that some of the worst moments come from simply having to interact with colleagues in the often-cramped confines of what should be a private place: "For me, there's nothing more awkward than seeing my boss in there. You really don't know what to say, so you do that nervous, eyes-down march."

We've all been there, Craig. And presumably we'll all be there again.

In fact, I think I'm going to go there right now.

I promise I'll leave the seat up. Or should I leave it down?

Maybe I'll just use the bathroom at Starbucks.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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