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Workplace Bathroom Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts

Written By Amber L. Carter | Mar 28, 2017

There are two types of people in this world: those who are totally comfortable with basic bodily functions, and those who’d prefer to pretend that they simply don’t exist.

I, my friends, stand firmly in the latter camp. In fact, according to all of my ex-boyfriends, my body is basically magic and has somehow managed to hit a higher evolutionary stage that gives me the ability to regard bathrooms as silly little places to temporarily store my makeup. Another fun fact about me is that I tend to break out into spontaneous musical improv whilst others are using a bathroom in or around my presence, mainly because I respect your privacy and, in fact, would much prefer that your bathroom doin’s remain a part of your life that you keep completely hidden and secret from me, thanks so much!

As it turns out, though, not everyone agrees with that last sentiment. In fact, in the last couple of years, we’ve even come to know a few state legislators who seem pretty keen on monitoring the bathroom activities of citizens…specifically those who may identify as transgender. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in the 2017 alone, state legislators in 16 states introduced legislation to restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of “a definition of sex or gender consistent with sex assigned at birth” (a.k.a., “biological sex”).

Hence, the social landscape of the public restroom–a place already ripe with vague codes of conduct–has swiftly become the object of scrutiny and controversy, resulting in a mire of new and sometimes tense corporate stances and office politics.

But fear not, Dear Professional Person! We are here to kick down the stall doors on proper workplace restroom etiquette to help you navigate these strange new times.

Do: Keep Your Restroom Adventures To Yourself

There’s a crazy psychological phenomenon that occurs when you tell someone you’re about to perform an action: to aptly process the words they hear you saying, their brains attempt to form a mental picture of what that specific action might look like. Science!

In short: If you don’t want your team to imagine their supervisor hanging out on the toilet after a big lunch, then maybe just slip quietly down the hall instead of announcing your bathroom breaks to your staff.

The same is true in reverse: Unless you somehow got sucked down into the sewer system and managed to befriend a squad of teenaged, crimefighting, anthropomorphic turtles named after Renaissance Italian artists, we don’t really need to know what happened in there. Chances are, unlike some state legislatures, most people you work with aren’t repressed weirdos obsessed with other people’s everyday bathroom activities…so in this instance, not sharing is caring!

Don’t: Be a Bathroom Buddy

Every male comic in the entire world has done the “Girls going to the bathroom together…what’s up with that?!” joke, and I don’t wanna blow the lid off a faithful comic bit, but the answer to this mysterious and complex human behavior is simple: We’re talking about you. The end!

Yet, while tag-teaming it to the Ladies is fun and great when out on the town, in the workplace, this earns a big nah. For one, there’s a particular intimacy boundary that many people would prefer to maintain when it comes to professional colleagues. Just like how you don’t spill the messy details of your breakup to Carol in Accounting, she would probably prefer that you aren’t bearing witness to the sounds her body makes after a visit to Chipotle.

The one exception to this rule, of course, is when you announce that you need to book it to the facilities before the big meeting and your manager/congressperson slides his fleshy palm into yours and whispers, “Okay, I’ll go with you.” He’s just doing it to protect your privacy, alright? So just let him go with you! Let him go with you every single time you want to use the lavatory so that he may effectively ensure that you and everyone else who dares to enter that space actually belongs in there…y’know, in the interest of your privacy.

Do: Give Your Coworkers Some Space, Weirdo!

We’ve all had that boss or coworker who wants to talk shop during our lunch break. And guess what? Everyone hates that guy!

You know who’s even worse than that? The colleague who decides to sit in the stall right next to yours (despite having their choice of 15 other empty stalls) and hold a conversation with you whilst you are both engaged in what should primarily be a private activity cloaked in silence and shame. Most people merely want to get in and out of the restroom as quickly and efficiently as possible and would prefer to not even make eye contact with their fellow restroom inhabitants, so kindly can it with the stall-to-stall small talk, yeah? (Also, hot tip: If you tell that joke one more time where you wonder aloud how blind people know when to stop wiping, we’re going to pool our office fun money to have you transferred back to Cleveland).

No one’s invading an innocent person’s privacy while you’re around!

Of course, it’s totally, totally different if you’re attempting to position yourself as a leader in the workplace and/or the government. Then, yes, you should absolutely show initiative and inclusion by striking up a dialogue with the intern at the urinal next to you. Take advantage of that captive audience and ask some getting-to-know-you questions: How was their weekend? What are their goals for the company? Is the gender they currently present as the same as the one listed on their original birth certificate? Can they produce said birth certificate stating as such? And if not, are they prepared to personally prove to you in some other manner that they’re using the bathroom that matches their biological sex? Feel free to round out this conversation by giving them some helpful unsolicited feedback on their life choices, and support this line of discourse by announcing that you’re merely trying to protect all the innocent colleagues out there who feel that restrooms should remain sacred for human waste and illicit airport liaisons between lawmakers and people who are not their spouses! Interactions like this are very productive, and show Grade-A leadership and critical-thinking skills. No one’s invading an innocent person’s privacy while you’re around!

Don’t: Designate The Restroom As Your Second Home

It’s been a crazy, drama-filled day…the kind where you just want to pull a Katy Perry, take a Quiet 15, and allow a single solitary tear to fall softly down your cheek before you have to get on stage in front of a packed arena and pretend that your husband didn’t just tell you via text that he wants a divorce. We get it! And where is the most obvious place to do that whilst at work? That’s right: the 8th floor restroom, which everyone knows has the softest lighting and the quietest acoustics, therefore unofficially designating it as “The Pooping Floor” (a nickname that everyone who works on the 8th floor most likely appreciates and adores).

But here’s the thing: They’re not movie theater seats, and no matter how hard of a day you’re having or how entertaining your Twitter timeline is, get a hold of yourself and get outta there! What you think is private time is actually probably/certainly being monitored by someone else…either by the other person in that same restroom who suffers from performance anxiety and is therefore hating you with every passing breath, or by that coworker who has taken to timing your daily 1:37-on-the-dot bathroom breaks and is entering that data into an impressively detailed spreadsheet that she will then transform into a collection of colorful graphs and charts to be shared with multiple people across departments (that person may or may not be me. I have a background in collecting and analyzing behavior data, and I like to keep my skills fresh).

The only time using the workplace restroom as your personal hangout is permissible is when you’re seeking to preserve the safety of (select) private citizens by monitoring whether or not someone with mismatching genitalia is using that specific facility. Then it’s fine if you wanna linger in the stall for a couple hours to wait to hear if someone’s voice is just a little too deep, or to make a show of thoroughly washing your hands like a doctor so you can more effectively judge whether or not those hips on Alex from IT are suspiciously slender. In fact, why not take it a step further by laminating a nifty lil’ badge and declaring yourself an honorary bathroom monitor? Most of us haven’t had a run-in with one of those since we were in elementary school and learned the basic rules of minding our own business, but hey–this is a brave new world! If you want to take valuable time and energy that could be used doing important, productive, and necessary work and instead waste it by encroaching on the privacy of people who know better than you, then that is not your right, but please, by all means…make yourself known to the rest of us!

Do: Clean Up After Yourself, Ya Filthy Animal!

Look, most of us know that Mother Earth is in a sore spot right now, and conserving water is a key way to care for our planet. However, most of us have also learned by now that no one wants to see what you made in there, so no matter what color it is, flush that ish down. And when it comes to germs, please don’t waste paper products or spread more of your own germs in a quest to avoid them from others. Do you not trust your own ability to wash your hands? Don’t hover over the seat, don’t flush with your foot, and stop using copious amounts of paper towels as a shield against the faucet or door handle. You’re an adult now. You’ve managed to make it this far with the rest of the pack without being culled from the herd by a childhood disease or freak super germ. Don’t make nature–or the rest of us–regret that decision.

You know what else is a waste of paper? Writing and trying to pass ridiculously invasive “bathroom bills” targeting the transgender and gender non-binary communities! Seriously, you guys, stop it.

Amber L. Carter is a freelance writer and the author of THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. She currently lives, works, and faithfully practices respectful restroom etiquette in Minneapolis, MN.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.