transcript of “Toilet Trouble”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today – well, I’ll just say that when I first started Ask a Manager 11 years ago, I never expected to get so many questions involving office toilet etiquette.

Caller 1:  I work in a small office of about 35 people and we have an interesting situation here that none of the leadership knows how to contend with so we decided to ask you.  Someone (or maybe multiple people) does not flush the toilet.  Staff are reporting that with some regularity (and no pun intended) they are finding toilets filled with, shall we say, “large deposits” and are grossed out.  How do I address this with my staff? I have been a manager for more than 20 years and this it’s a first for me.

Alison: The first thing I need to say here is that I get a lot of letters from people whose offices are in this same situation, which really surprised me because who knew this was so common? I’ve even encountered in real life – I once worked in an office where it was happening – we called whoever was doing it “the phantom pooper” … and it suddenly stopped after one particular guy was fired. So either he was the phantom pooper, or someone else was and realized that they could frame him by choosing that particular time to stop. I want to say that second option is too pathological to explain it, but on the other hand, the behavior itself is already kind of pathological, so who knows. I also have a relative who reported it was happening in his office too. And like I said, I get a bunch of letters about it. So apparently there’s a weird epidemic of aggressive non-flushing in offices out there.

As for an answer … I don’t have a good answer for this. I don’t know that anyone does. Obviously you can try putting up signs asking people to flush – but people generally already know that they’re supposed to flush. It’s not like a sign is going to teach someone that rule for the first time. Maybe if it’s just happening because someone is incredibly absent-minded … but I’m skeptical that this is about being absent-minded. I mean, flushing is a key part of the activity that you’re in there to do. So I think it’s more deliberate than that, and often can be a kind of act of aggression. I mean, I think it’s no coincidence that the guy who at least seemed to be responsible in my office was someone who eventually got fired, for unrelated reasons. It’s not the kind of thing that you think your star performer is doing, you know? It feels more like an F-U.

And if that is the case, signs aren’t going to help, and might even egg the person on. But you can try signs! Who knows, try putting up friendly signs asking people to remember to flush and see what happens. It probably won’t solve it, but it’ll take minimal effort to try that out.

But assuming that doesn’t solve it, at that point you don’t have a lot of options. If you really want to get serious about it, there is one thing that can potentially work. It’s kind of a pain though. You can put a lock on the bathroom door and start requiring people to get the key from your receptionist in order to get in there. That’s not actually an uncommon set-up – lots of offices do have bathrooms that work that way, but if yours isn’t already set up like that, it can feel like a lot of effort and change just to get someone to flush the toilet. But that IS a way to potentially stop it, because if someone walks in there and finds something gross, it’s much easier to know who was last in there if people have to get a key every time – so there’s this sort of specter of accountability. And that might stop it. But again, that’s a lot of effort to go through for this.

The other thing though, and this is a fairly meta way to address it, but you could think about your staff and who’s thriving there and who’s not. Do you have someone who’s struggling with their work, or who seems unhappy, or just any unresolved personnel issues? And I am not saying you should then go to them and accuse them of doing this, absolutely not. The idea is that if you do have unresolved staff issues, I might take this as an incentive to really tackle those. And I know that sounds totally unrelated, but like I was saying before, this isn’t something that your star performer generally does. And really, you should be resolving any existing staff issues anyway – but it’s human nature to let things linger and lots of employers, lots of managers do let things linger. It’s possible that by deciding, we’re going to do a sort of organizational health check-up and start working to fix anything that isn’t in good shape, it is possible that in doing that you’ll find this problem goes away too. And that might seem like an awfully big-picture reaction to something that seems very small, but what I’m saying is that this poop might be like the canary in a coal mine, you know, a sign that not all is well.  The poop in the coal mine, if you will.

Or not, I mean, maybe you have a tremendously absentminded person on your staff, who knows. But it’s always a good idea to do that kind of organizational health check anyway, and there are all kinds of other good things that could result from it, so it wouldn’t be wasted effort.

That’s probably way more than you expected me to read into poop in the toilet, but there you have it.

Caller 2:

Hi Alison, my name is Raya. I love your podcast and love hearing your helpful suggestions to people at their workplace. I have a question for you that’s been a recurring topic of debate among me and my friends. What is your take on using personality tests when hiring?  Personally I think they are sort of like horoscopes – I think people sort of read into them and pick what they want to hear and ignore what they don’t want to hear. I could give you another hundred reasons why I don’t like them, but I’m really interested in hearing your take. Thank you for your time and I really look forward to many more episodes.

In hiring, specifically, I’m not a fan. Frankly, I’m not a fan of using them with existing employees either, but that is more just about my personal preference. I know a lot of people have found things like Strengths Finder or the DISC assessment to be really helpful in giving insights into their own strengths and their approach to work, and for getting insight into those same things for their coworkers and just figuring out how to communicate with each other better. Some people do really find value in that. But using it with an existing team is one thing. Using it as part of your hiring process is a lot more problematic. There are employers who have people take personality tests early on in their hiring process, and then they just automatically reject people who don’t score a certain way. That puts way too much weight on the results of the tests and actually several of the big personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs, specifically say that they should not be used in hiring.

There are a couple of big problems with doing it in hiring. One, there are loads of problems with most of these tests’ scientific validity. It’s one thing if you want to use a non-scientifically valid test with existing employees because you think it helps people learn to communicate better with each other or whatever it might be. But it’s really a different thing to use them to make decisions about who you will and won’t employ.

Another problem is that you’re forcing people to take what is essentially a psychological test as part of your hiring process and people are entitled to some psychological privacy – it’s not really reasonable for an employer to require that a potential employee open up to them so completely. It’s kind of gross, you know, to scrutinize every aspect of a candidate’s life in that way.

And then the other thing is, it’s not good hiring. People with different personality types can excel at the same job for different reasons and it’s not smart to decide you know who will be good at what based on the results of a personality test, when you have much more relevant information right in front of you in the form of their work history and their accomplishments. It’s a little like if we were going to hire based on IQ. Intelligence is great, but what you really want to know is what the person has USED their intelligence in the world. What have they achieved? And it’s the same thing with personality tests. You want to look at what they have actually gotten done, and that’s a much more reliable measure of what you can expect from them if you hire them.

Okay, next question.

Caller 3: I’m a recent graduate working in a major metropolitan area. I put my all into work, but I often like to plan for things after-hours, like networking events, alumni meetings, or dinner with friends.

I’m contracted 9-5, just like my colleagues with the same title. My new supervisor often keeps me late without notice. I almost always let him know when I have conflicts after work, but he often emails me new assignments right before I’m about to leave. He has told me my relatively frequent requests to leave on time (not early) are “inconvenient.” I now think he’s distracted by these requests so much that it hinders him from seeing my efforts.

I am always early and often work through lunch and complete overtime. I meet deadlines and expectations. None of my colleagues with the same title are held to these time standards and are instead given much more flexibility. How do I stand up for myself without crossing the line? My boss is the head manager and we don’t have a human resources department. Thanks so much.

Alison: Well, that’s annoying! It is true that 9-5 jobs aren’t always really 9-5. In professional type jobs, it’s not uncommon to need to stay late to work on something that comes up at the last minute or to meet a deadline. It shouldn’t be happening constantly though, unless that’s something you were prepared for in the hiring process or unless it’s a known condition of your field. But having it happen occasionally isn’t uncommon. That said, a good manager will work around it when you explain that you have existing plans, unless whatever the work is is truly crucial, or unless whatever your existing plans are sound really, really flexible. Like if something fairly important comes up and you say, “Well, I was planning to go to the gym,” that’s not going to look great. But if you have a commitment to someone else and something comes up that isn’t super time-sensitive, a good manager would not push on that.

I’m curious about two things. The first is, how time-sensitive is the work he’s giving you right as you’re about to leave, and was there any way for it to be handled earlier in the day? In other words, is the way that he’s doing this really necessary? Or is there something else going on? And my second thing that I’m wondering about is, it’s interesting that other people with the same title don’t have this happen. If they have different bosses than you do, that could explain it. But if you all have the same boss, then this is weird – and it makes me wonder if something else is going on, like does he thins you’re more competent and so he wants you to be the one to do the work, or are you getting stuck with it because you’re the one who doesn’t have kids and therefore you don’t need to leave for daycare pickup but everyone else does, or something else unfair like that.

In any case, I think the best thing to do here is to talk to about it head-on. Sit down with him and say something like this: “I wanted to talk to you about my hours. I’ve gotten the sense that you don’t want me making plans in the evening in case last-minute work comes up, and I wanted to clarify what is expected from. My understanding when I was hired was that the role is mostly 9-5, although I understand that of course occasionally I might need to stay late. I wouldn’t want you to have the sense that I’m not putting in the time – I’m always early, and I often work through lunch and work overtime hours, and I never miss deadlines. But of course I also do sometimes have commitments outside of work. And I can change those when something is really urgent, but I have the sense that you want me to be available in the evenings more often than I have been. I don’t want to guess at what your expectations are, so I was hoping we could talk about it.”

When you say that, tone really matters. You want to sound, kind of the tone I was just using, you’re trying to not be defensive or argumentative or saying that you absolutely have to do it your way, but you’re trying to get a better understanding of what the situation is and what he’s looking for.

And then see what he says. But if he tells you that yes, you’ll frequently need to work later than you have been, it would be reasonable to say, “Can I ask you more about that? I’ve noticed that other people in this job do regularly leave on time. Is there something about my particular role that makes it different? I’m not trying to argue with you, I just want to understand so that we’re on the same page going forward.”

And who knows – he might actually have an explanation here that makes sense, like maybe you deal with a different type of client than other people do and your clients have more time-sensitive work, or who knows what.

But if not, then, depending on how the conversation has gone overall, you could possibly say something like, “I really appreciate you talking with me about this. Is there a way to make this work where I’m still able to have evening commitments? I of course can work around them when there’s an emergency, but I’m hoping that you’ll factor in that I am coming in early and working through lunch and doing excellent work, and I’m hoping my schedule can be more similar to the other analysts (or whatever your job title is).”

Hopefully that will lead to a useful conversation. But if you come away from this having been told, yeah, this is just how it is and you just need to deal with it, then at that point you know, okay, this is part of the deal with this job, at least for as long as he’s your manager, and at that point you have to decide what to do within those parameters – which could mean you decide you’re going to suck it up, or could mean you decide to look for a job with different hours, or it could mean that you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, which is pushing back and letting him know when you have other plans on a day he wants you to stay later.

But a lot of this does depend on the type of work you’re doing and the culture of your office, because there are offices where it would be totally fine to push back like this and others where you might come across as not understanding the nature of the work. I don’t know from here which yours is, although is really interesting that other people in your job don’t have the same expectations – and one of the most useful paths here may be finding out why that is.

One last thing about this – you had said you’re “contracted 9-5.” I have been assuming that when you said that, you don’t mean that you have an actual signed contract limiting your work to those hours. I’m assuming that because most people in the U.S. don’t have contracts in that sense. They have offer letters, they have employee handbooks and hiring paperwork, but it’s unusual to see actual employment contracts except for very high level executives in most fields. Now if I’m wrong about that and you do have a contract that explicitly limits your work hours, you’d point to the contract … but I’m assuming this is a more typical situation where your hours were just laid out in an offer letter or in a handbook, which isn’t binding in the same way, and where your employer CAN say, “hey, I need you to stay late tonight.”

Caller 4: Hi Alison. I work for a small media company and we’re constantly battling to stay staffed properly. Clients will send us large projects with a tight deadline, so we’ll staff up to meet the demand, but then the client will inevitably delay and force us to let people go since we can’t always sustain a higher staff when the money isn’t coming in as quickly as expected. My question for you is what’s the best way we can let people go, without killing moral or treating them unfairly. We’re a small group, so we tend to become good friends, and it’s hard to watch good people get cut simply due to financials. Sometimes we’re cutting 3-5 people, which is a pretty big blow when our total staff hovers around 20-25 people.

In the past, my boss has pulled the staff members who are getting cut into a conference room, while someone else hits “send” on an email to the remaining staff, letting them know what’s going on. Then, while those on the chopping block are being let go, their workstations are locked down and they gather their belongings and leave. The reaction is basically chaos from the moment people start reading the email until they say goodbye. And everybody grumbles bout how shady it is to fire people this way and how uncompassionate it is. I’m torn, myself, because I’m not sure what other way we could possibly do it.  What are your thoughts? What’s a graceful way for a small company to make big cuts like this? I know we’ll never make everyone happy, but surely there’s got to be a better way out there.

Alison: This is so hard. There isn’t really a great way to do layoffs. They always suck and they’re always hard. The way that your company is doing it is actually pretty typical. It’s very common for companies to have laid off employees leave immediately, in part because they want the staff who remain to be able to adjust to this new normal as quickly as possible, and it can be hard on everyone to have laid-off employees sticking around – hard on the people being laid off, of course, but also hard on their coworkers, who can feel kind of guilty and awkward, and it can prevent the company from being able to move forward and recover.

I suspect with your staff who are complaining, it’s feeling very abrupt – you know, one moment they have these coworkers who they’ve grown close to, and the next minute people are gone. So one thing that you might do is talk to your staff about why you do it this way – and how it can be difficult for someone to be told that they’re being laid off but then still be expected to stick around and be productive.

But there are two other things I would also do. One is to make sure that you’re treating your laid-off employees as well as you can – make sure that you’re giving them generous severance, pay  for their health insurance as long as you can, even help with job hunting leads if you can. If your remaining employees see that you’re doing those things, it’s going to help. They want to see that you’re treating people well, so the more you can demonstrate that you are, the better.

The other thing, though, is that it sounds from your letter like this is not an uncommon thing to have to do. And if you’re regularly needing to lay people off because you’re staffing up for a new project and then the client delays or doesn’t come through, you may need to change the way you’re handling that staffing. You might be better off going with contract or temporary workers, where it’s explicit from the beginning that this could happen – rather than hiring people as longer-term employees when the reality is that you know from past experience that you might not be able to keep them on. You don’t want to hire someone away from a good full-time job to come work for you and then end up laying them off a few months later. That’s pretty awful to do to someone if there’s any way that you can foresee it. Sometimes you can’t foresee, it course, but it sounds like in this case it’s happened enough that you know going in it’s possible. And in that case, at a minimum you’ve got to be open and transparent about that with people so that they can make good decisions for themselves and not get blindsided by it later. But it would be even better if you could change the whole model that you’re using to hire for these projects so that it’s explicitly structured as a shorter-term contract to begin with – maybe with higher pay to compensate for the uncertainty that’s built into the timeline. That would be the right thing to do for them, and I suspect the rest of your staff would feel a lot better about it if they knew that that’s was how it was being handled.

Okay, next letter.

Caller 5: I quit my job at company A that I really liked back in December, and have been working at a new place closer to home since then. I regretted quitting almost immediately. I left my previous job at company A for a few reasons – tensions with a bullying manager, low pay, and chronically overworked employees, to name a few. I decided to quit and come to company B for those reasons. I heard lots of good things about company B, and did enjoy it for a while. The work was easier, I can bike to the office, and my schedule is flexible. However, I find myself unchallenged and disengaged at company B. The people here are less dynamic and of a different cohort than myself, and the work is much less interesting. I miss the hard work and the people at company A.

I reached out to company A about three months after starting my new job, to open the door to coming back, and had what I thought was a positive meeting with my previous manager. I also talked to several of my colleagues at company A, and they were over the moon at the prospect of me returning. However those meetings did not go anywhere, and I did not hear back from my former manager. I decided not to push it.

I have thought about it for a while now, and I feel I made a mistake in leaving. How can I re-open the communication with company A to express my desire to go back? Or should I take the hint and look elsewhere?

Alison: There’s a framework of thinking in your question that I hear from people a lot, which is that you’re looking at this as a choice between A and B, when you really should be looking at C.

It sounds like you left company A for really good reasons – a bullying manager, and low pay, and being chronically overworked are things you want to get away from, not things that you want to knowingly go back to. Aside from the low pay, which of course you do know about going in, those are the sorts of conditions that people tend to discover after taking a job and hate and wish they’d known about beforehand because they would not have signed on if they had! You have the advantage here of already knowing what it’s like there, and it sounds like you made a smart decision to leave. I think you’re now second-guessing it because Company B turned out not to be the right match for you – but that doesn’t mean that you should go back to Company A! I would actually take the fact that your conversations with them about returning didn’t go anywhere as a blessing in disguise, and instead focus your energy on finding a better match somewhere else.

I will say that when you do that, be careful that you don’t jump at the first offer that you get, which is easy to do when you’re in a bad situation and want to get out of it. But because you haven’t been at Company B that long – I think close to a year – you want to make sure that wherever you go next, you can happily stay for at least a few years so that your resume doesn’t start looking job-hoppery. You’re totally fine with this one short-ish stay, you just don’t want to start racking up more of them because you don’t want it to look like a pattern. So just be really vigilant about screening the next employer and do due diligence to make sure it’s what you want. I mean, of course that’s always a good idea to do anyway, of course – just be really careful about it in this context.

But yeah, don’t go back to a job that sounds highly problematic just to get away from the current one! That would be like going back to a bad ex rather than dating new people. You’ve got lots of other options out there!

Well, that is our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling(855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question, a question where you’d want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

That’s it for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions.