A reader writes:
I hate to ask yet another “Can they do this?” question, but… can they do this?
Some backstory, I’ve been working full time as a salaried, non-exempt employee at my company for the past three years. Throughout the entirety of my time here, I have often stayed late, arrived early, and rarely (if ever) eat lunch away from my desk in order to complete everything on my plate. Basically, I work much more than the 40 hours a week I’m being paid for. I enjoy my job and pride myself on the work I do, so I do this happily and without complaining. I’ve also never received anything less than an excellent review.
I recently was pulled into a surprise meeting with HR, where they told me that I am taking too many bathroom breaks and it is becoming unacceptable. Now, without going too far into TMI territory, I will admit that I probably do use the restroom more often than the average person; I make it a point to drink at least 64 ounces of water a day, which, yes, does lead to that. However, I’d say that my bathroom breaks are usually no greater than five or six throughout the day, and no longer than 3-5 minutes at most. That would mean that at maximum, I’m taking a break of 30 minutes per day.
I did mention what I wrote above (spending more time at work than I am required and not taking lunch), but was told that that is my choice, and I am taking more time during work hours than I am allowed. They said that I should consider this an official warning, and that I am now allowed only three bathroom breaks every day, which I have to check out for, and if I need to take any more than that I need written permission from my supervisor.
I am absolutely furious about this. I am a grown woman who has been with this company for a good part of my adult life and now I am being treated like I am in grade school! Is it seriously legal and allowed for my company to monitor my the amount of time I go to the bathroom? Would it be different if it was due to a medical reason?
I have not talked to my supervisor yet since he was on vacation last week, but we’ve always had a good working relationship and I can’t imagine him caring about my visits to the restroom.
Not only is this ridiculous and degrading, but there’s also no way that there aren’t tons of other serious issues in your office. Any organization that would approach you like this has a load of other problems; you don’t get something like this happening within a well-managed organization.
Now, before I go any further, I’m obligated to point out that it’s possible that we’re not hearing the whole story here. In fact, Suzanne Lucas of Evil HR Lady recently wrote about a similar situation from the other side … but in that case the frequent bathroom-user had performance problems, and those were the real issue. You, however, have received consistently excellent reviews. (Of course, it’s certainly true that lots of bad managers give bad employees good reviews, because they’re wimps, and it’s possible that that’s the case here … but even then, your employer would still be awful, for lying to you about your performance and then trying to micromanage your bathroom usage instead of giving you straightforward feedback. And if that’s what’s happening, believe me, that is not a company you want to work for.)
In any case, back to your question. It’s almost certainly legal unless you have a medical condition that necessitates the bathroom breaks.
But the question should really be whether this is sensible or reasonable, not just legal, and the answer to that is a resounding no. Your employer shouldn’t spend even one second thinking about your bathroom usage unless it’s impacting your productivity, and if is impacting your productivity, then that’s what they should have addressed with you. It sounds like this: “Jane, I’m concerned because your productivity is lower than what I need from you. I need to see you start doing more A, B, and C , faster than you’re currently doing it.”
See that? No mention of bathrooms necessary.
People who instead respond the way your employer did are people without clarity about what you’re all there to get done, and how, and why. And a manager without clarity on those things is a Very Bad Thing, one that’s highly likely to make your life unhappy in other ways.
So I’d look elsewhere. But assuming that you don’t have the luxury of instantly changing jobs to one where you aren’t treated like a child, what should you do in the meanwhile? Personally, I’d sit down with the manager — not HR — and say this: “HR told me last week that I’m using the bathroom too frequently and they are limiting me to three bathroom trips a day. This seems bizarre to me, so I wanted to talk to you about whether something else is going on here. Are there concerns about my productivity or the quality of my work?” And if she says no, then you ask, “If my work and productivity is good, why on earth would anyone pay the slightest bit of attention to my bathroom usage? Please tell me what this is actually about.”
(By the way, I also think it’s odd that HR handled this, rather than your manager. Did your manager even know about this? Either way, this isn’t something HR should be handling; your manager should. Which is yet another huge managerial problem with this company.)
But really, unless you find out that this was some rogue HR person who is now being dressed down in the sternest of terms, get out of there. You deserve better.
You can read an update to this post here.