The price of dignity at work: one company says $20

Guest post by Lori Fry, Principal with Navigator Management Partners, originally featured as a post at    Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Lori.

  1. Monitoring employees’ time in the restroom is not okay.
  2. If you believe monitoring employees’ time in the restroom will materially improve your company’s bottom line, refer to item #1, and please keep reading.

Item 1 should go without saying. It’s like telling colleagues to stop chasing the bats in the office – seriously – I’ve done that. Or telling kids to stop eating liver and onions. But at least one company, which we will refer to Company W, has proven me wrong once again. Some years ago, W’s management saw fit to expand the purview of “performance management” to include employees’ personal business:  employees spending more than 6 minutes a day in the restroom risk being written up. This. Really. Happened.

“The company’s human resources department described “excessive use of the bathroom as…60 minutes or more over the last 10 working days…do the math and it works out to 6 minutes a day,” the article stated.

I suspect this stroke of timesaving brilliance was born out of a not-so-unusual concern about productivity or output. I get that. There’s a problem – let’s jump right to problem solving because that’s the way of the traditional method of management – leading unsuspecting management teams down a bad path. So very reasonably, hypothetical solution in hand, management rightfully pursues a data-driven approach to said productivity problem. Enter technological ease – management implements the swipe in /swipe out approach to restroom breaks – thus confirming productivity is in the toilet. Sticking a pin in confirmation bias for now.

Imagine the unintended consequences of operation “haste makes waste”: trashed restrooms and unwashed hands. If there were any productivity gains (from the few who might have abused restroom time), they were probably lost on sick leave (remember – unwashed hands). I doubt going faster and trying harder did much for W’s bottom line.

The imposition of workplace policy on one’s basic human functions is just plain wrong. And limiting restroom breaks for the sake of productivity is dumb.

If this wayward management team knew Dr. W. Edwards Deming and his System of Profound Knowledge, they would know it’s they, not their workers, who are responsible for improving productivity. Dr. Deming fought against the supposition that problems in production were the result of workers not doing their jobs the way they were taught. Rather, it’s management’s job to understand their business as a system, make processes visible, and give their workers the tools and knowledge needed to improve the capability of the system instead of assigning arbitrary productivity targets.

You see, management achieves a high-quality product by improving the manufacturing process, not by offering $20 gift cards (one dollar a day) to workers who don’t use the bathroom at all during work time.  Company W did that too….  As I was saying, when the process is ‘in control’ – management is able to transfer resources from the production of defective units to the production of good product.

If W’s management embraced Dr. Deming’s theory of management, restroom time management, like chasing bats, would fall into the realm of the absurd.


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