The Power of [Passive Aggressive] Suggestion

This week, I had an employee come to me and complain about other employees not washing their hands after using the bathroom. They wanted me to put up signs telling people they need to wash their hands before returning to work. Needless to say, I do NOT work at a McDonald’s. My (rhetorical) question is this: does putting up a sign telling people to do something or not do something actually work?? If so, I need to rethink our whole office communication plan. It might save me a whole lot of time and trouble.

First question for the person who asked this question: How do you know that people aren’t washing their hands? Are you hanging out in the bathroom? Really? Because I believe that studies show that even avowed non-washers wash their hands when someone else is in the bathroom.

My second question is why would anyone think that someone who is brazen enough to walk out of a public restroom, observed by a co-worker, and still not wash their hands would see a sign “reminding” them to wash their hands and go, “Oh! I’m supposed to wash my hands after piddling? I had no idea! Thank you place of work for telling me this. I shall now wash my hands.”

Not gonna happen. Not even close.

I will say, though that there is a time and a place for passive aggressive notes. And that place is here, and nowhere else. Otherwise, if you won’t say it to their faces, leaving notes won’t help. (I was strongly tempted to leave a “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie, wipe the seatie” sign when someone in my office used to hover and then not wipe up after herself. I mean, honestly, are you that delicate that you can’t clean up after yourself but expect the rest of the world to do it? Actually what I would have liked to do is put a sign saying, “I don’t know who you are, but if we find out, you’re going down.” I didn’t. You shouldn’t either. But, geesh, people, have some consideration for others!)

I would be willing to bet (if I were a gambling woman, which I’m not), that the complainer has other problems that need to be addressed. People don’t come to HR over this unless there is an underlying issue. Sure, they may say, “Sue in accounts payable doesn’t wash her hands!” while they are chatting, with people giving furtive glances at Sue and wondering about the bacteria colonies on her keyboard, but they don’t come to HR about it. This is someone who is frustrated over something else and needs a little control in her life. (I just switched from gender neutral into female, because I’ll also bet this is a woman. I don’t think men care about this and if they did and saw other men not washing their hands they’d say, “Dude, you didn’t wash your hands” instead of coming to HR.)

So, no. I don’t think a sign will solve any problems. I think the problem isn’t handwashing. I think it’s something else.

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30 thoughts on “The Power of [Passive Aggressive] Suggestion

  1. I agree, something else is really bothering them. I had an employee who always complained about weird or small things. She was just terribly unhappy working here and there wasn’t really anything we could do to make her happy.

  2. When you are unhappy at your place of employment, everything aggravates you. I agree with EHRL, something else is going on. That or the person needs some more work to do!

  3. In defense of the handwashing policeman or woman, I spent nine months pumping milk in a bathroom at a job where there were no private offices anywhere in the joint. I became tragically and acutely aware that one particular colleague of mine NEVER washed her hands. Ever. Not even a little bit. What made it better was that her position also required her to handle every piece of paper that passed through our operation. I didn’t say anything to HR though. I just washed my own hands even more vigorously and hoped for the best.

  4. I disagree. For germaphobes, not washing hands is a BIG deal. It can cause you to stand over their computer wondering how much bacteria is on the keys, and the water cooler knob, and the copier, and so on. Now, I DO agree with the fact that a note likely won’t help. But, it might. And it might start enough talk around the office to get people to change their habits. Or give the complainer enough gumption to say something to the offender.

  5. I was in a ladies room in France and noticed a very nicely dressed French woman come in, wash her hands, then go into the stall. I was washing my hands when she came out, and I commented in a friendly voice “It’s interesting, in the US we are taught to wash our hands after using the facilities.” Her reply “Really? In France we are taught to not pee on our hands.” Maybe there are a lot of French people in this woman’s office?

  6. Is the complainer in an office directly across from, or next to, the bathroom? Because I spent a year in that unenviable position, and I became intimately familiar with the hand-washing habits of my co-workers. It was entirely unintentional, of course, but if someone walks in your line of sight to use the facilities and you hear the flush but you don’t hear the sink…ever…there really is no other conclusion to draw. I had no door to close to keep the noise out.

    That said, I never dragged HR into it. Even though I now firmly believe that the office across from the bathroom is a special kind of hell and no employee should be so tested. (My “office” was originally a copier room, never intended for full-time use.) But the experience did, um, color my view of certain co-workers, even though I’m really not a weird person with Issues.

  7. I agree with the sarcastic answer to the note question. If the note refers to something that people already know they’re supposed to do, it isn’t going to help. The only time that passive agressive notes are appropriate (outside of that wonderful blog!) is if you’re really giving information that people didn’t already know, or if it’s a legally required posting.

  8. I think the complainer obviously does not have much work and his / her work load needs to be evaluated. Idle minds are a devils workshop, as they say.

  9. You don’t need to spend that long in the restroom to find out about people not washing their hands.
    If, for whatever reason you are in a stall, you can clearly hear how one out of three (my own statistic) don’t wash their hands as the noise you hear immediately after a flush is the door closing… That is a big pet peeve for me too.

  10. Oh for pete’s sake. I lived in South America for two years and worked with women who had to get all their water from a pump and had to use an outhouse for both functions. Then I travelled back to the US over land and was in many situations where there was no water available for flushing, much less for washing. (Yes, I was traveling on the cheap and yes, I saw the women in Bolivia walk out to the field, lift their skirts and squat to pee.)

    Over two years of exposure to unwashed hands and I did not die of some horrible pee on the hands disease. As a matter of fact, I almost never get sick. I think handwashing is overrated.

    1. except you spread a bunch of germs and bacteria to everyone around you…WHY WOULD SOMEONE ARGUE AGAINST HAND HYGIENE!!!???THAT PERSON IS THE WEIRD ONE..think about someone besides yourself

  11. Boo, French Lady stole an old UPenn vs. Princeton joke.

    Yes, it’s disgusting, but an HR issue? Is this really a company-wide problem? HR is not meant to police employees to get them to act like adults. If this really bugs the complainer, s/he should have the guts to tell this to the person’s face.

    I did have a male employee who once asked us to send out a message to remind them not to put their bottles too close to the mouth of the spout of the water dispenser. When his request was politely ignored, he decided to send that request via email to our “compliance committee” email list, which included every senior executive, our auditing team, etc. in the company. That act cost him a planned promotion, and raised a concern over his common sense.

  12. Heh. What do you do when HR tapes flyers to all the stalls to let you know you should clean up any problems you may cause regarding the toilets? The stated reason is the cleaning company is not going to do it. They even provided gloves and sprays and a plunger.

    There is even a reminder to wash your hands after each use of the toilet.

  13. We actually had this issue brought to our Health and Safety Committee. We laughed first, then talked about it second. We decided that cleanliness wasn’t just about washing hands after washroom, it was to prevent germs, etc. etc. from being passed around and infection control. We are in a manufacturing type environment and a lot of products get passed from hand to hand.

    We decided to install sanitizing liquid dispensers at various places throughout our building and promote their usage. Our employees laughed about it at first, but now they are always using them, addicted in fact. Our absenteeism rates (sickness-related) have actually dropped from last year, so we see this initiative as a success.

    So yes, I agree, complaints can sometimes be petty, but they can also initiate change.

  14. The guy who emailed every executive in the company asking them not to put their bottles too close to the mouth of the water fountain is really weird!!! Or at least, that action sure was…

    It’s like, if you’re that worried about germs at the fountain, bring a water bottle to work!

  15. Some of the other men who use our restroom are pigs-urine on the seats, on the floor sometimes, it’s disgusting. And it’s an office environment! I’d like to complain if I thought it would do any good and am otherwise happy with my work environment. So I can sympathize with the person (and actually, our bathroom does have signs on how to properly wash your hands with the right ordering of turning the water on and off while using the towel that you have already pulled; it’s a great plan. Of course, not worthwhile if only one person refuses to wash and then handles everything. But I guess it makes everyone feel better.) My suggestion to the employee- invest heavily in hand sanitizer. I use it every time I come back to my desk from being out and about the office.

  16. Jaded HR Rep –
    That move actually cost him a promotion? I can totally understand why someone wouldn’t want their water fountain tarnished with germs. He should GET a promotion for having the guts to say something like that. And “politely ignoring a request” is an oxymoron. It is RUDE to ignore someone, period. What company do you work for so that I know not to apply there?

  17. Geez, anonymous. He didn’t lose the promotion for making the suggestion. He lost the promotion for sending it to every executive in the company, which displays a bizarre lack of understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate and a good use of other people’s time.

    And come on, “politely ignoring a request” doesn’t mean ignoring the person — it means being polite to them but not utilizing the input.

  18. Ignoring is ignoring any way you slice it. And he meant to send it to everyone in the company, because he didn’t want ANYone putting their germs on the fountain. If it wastes too much of your time to read a note about not putting your spit on a company water fountain, then you have too much on your plate. It’s a sanitation issue! I applaud him, and please let me know what company this is, so I never apply. Seriously.

  19. For nectarines: I think, if I were in your position, I’d make casual jokes around the water cooler about the “benefits” of my office placement, such as that I knew which co-workers never to shake hands with. And then make brief eye contact with one of the worst offenders. If that doesn’t stop them, no sign will.

    Now me, I’m in a profession where I wash my hands before and after using the bathroom, so let’s just say enforcement isn’t an issue around my workplace.

  20. Anonymous
    Ignoring it means they didn’t take his suggestion. It’s not rude. It’s not unprofessional. HR isn’t required to take every suggestion people give.

    I would never in a million years send out a notice about where people are putting water bottles in relationship to the drinking fountain. So, you probably don’t want to work where I work either.

  21. I was the anonymous poster on the 27th. Originally, I did think it was weird that that guy sent that note, but, it’s SUCH a minor thing. Something was bothering him, HR was rude to him (yes, you were rude), and he went and made a statement. HR gets up on their high horse even though they offended him in the first place, and withholds his promotion. That’s such a catty thing to do. Get over yourselves HR, and let people express themselves without being tormented by you.

  22. It sounds to me like the woman who would regularly leave wee on the seat was a stand-up wiper rather than a sit-down one.

    On the contrary to expecting others to clean up after her, she may not have even realised it was happening. I once remember overhearing someone on the bus, saying a friend of theirs would habitually leave a drop on the seat after going to pee. I made a point of checking from that point on and, to my discomfort, would consistently find a drop. It made me wonder if I had actually been a regular offender in that department myself.

    Of course, the whole thing can be easily avoided if one remembers to wipe while sitting down. (I recall a friend expressing surprise when I said I did it standing up. I then tried it sitting down and there it was. No drips.)


  23. I just found your blog and I am catching up on some of your posts. I LOVE THIS. I am starting my fifth year of HR as a generalist, since getting a master’s in HR management. Can you believe that before going to grad school I had no idea what HR was about, other than hiring and firing? Little did I know that if you go into HR because you think you “love working with people” you’ll leave because you’ll start hating working with people. You have to be quite level-headed about everything that comes your way.
    Anyway, thank you for this blog! Again, I love it. You have so much common sense.

  24. Actually i work at a vets and have this same also a nurse and know how infections and disease spread,,,by not washing ir sanituzing your hands…why should i get an infection in my leg because the supervisor informed me..”MRS Isnt a big deal..we work with animals so hand care isnt that important “…we have an obligation to protect the healthy boarders cats, and grooms that are also there..instead they didnt tell me a dog had MRSA and i got an infection on my leg were i had burned it..exact kind found all o er in the clinic..i lost my leg because im alergic to the antibiotics to heal it..all because they didnt tell me about the dog so i could use a disposable gown..oh..and No one washes their hands still!-!!

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