In a Work Toilet, How Close Is, Uh, Too Close?

In a Work Toilet, How Close Is, Uh, Too Close?


Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, even if you want them withheld. Letters may be edited.

My 50-person team got relocated to a new floor in our building, and the bathroom situation is curiously abysmal. There are two, one labeled “male,” the other “female.” In each room, there are two toilets with no dividers whatsoever. Rumor has it H.R. has ordered fabric curtains to separate them. I trust all of my co-workers, but I don’t think curtains could ever provide sufficient privacy or security for people to feel comfortable using the restroom. Lots of us are upset and plan to use bathroom facilities on other floors of our building. Are we justified in feeling this way? Is having curtains to divide bathroom stalls even legal?

— New York

I’m not authorized to practice bathroom law on land, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sanitation regulations appear to indicate that a workplace of 50 employees is required to maintain at least three “water closets” (cute), each consisting of “a separate compartment with a door and walls or partitions between fixtures sufficiently high to assure privacy.” It seems to me that even if H.R. hung truly luxurious curtains, multitoilet restrooms without lockable stalls could count only as single-use facilities, which would place two on your floor. (Of course there’s no point in gendering single-use facilities, especially with adjectives as oddly scientific as “male” and “female.” It seems to me that whoever made those labels panicked and forgot what bathroom signs typically say.)

But! If your company provides “unobstructed free access” to other toilets — imagining, in this scenario, that it operates on multiple floors, not that employees have propped open a fire escape to facilitate backdoor bathroom access to the offices of corporate neighbors — this unholy circumstance may violate the laws of good taste while just barely complying with those of New York State. In 1976, an OSHA director wrote that a restroom facility in a separate building 90 feet from the building where employees worked was in compliance. (Why are social rules upended for men at urinals? Nice try — I can’t be tricked into pondering a gentleman’s thought process.) My advice: Familiarize yourself with OSHA’s complaint guidelines and see if any of the options appeal to you — but also seriously consider finding a new job. A love seat bathroom setup does not suggest a business with a bright financial future, or tremendous concern for its employees.

I am periodically asked to write letters of recommendation for former students or colleagues. I’m generally happy to do this and pleased if they offer some direction about skills or experience they want me to emphasize. Often they ask to proofread the letter, and I’m fine with them correcting a typo or asking me to tighten up sentence structure.

Increasingly, however, the critiques of my draft letter include requests for specific phrases. I’m not sure how to say, “Sorry, Mo, but I don’t actually think you have leadership skills.” How can I politely convey that I will only provide the letter if it’s in my own words?

— Pittsburgh

Even if you don’t believe a hijacking attempt demonstrates leadership skills, your students’ and colleagues’ efforts to forcibly steer your recommendations in the direction of their choosing are, at the very least, indicative of proactive styles of problem-solving.



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