What To Do Next?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a very unpleasant matter:

Well, recently found out that a co-worker had been storing and smearing their faeces in our toilet. We found the faeces all over the basin of the sink. When asked what had happened, everyone was angered and shocked, including the guilty party.

We looked into what we could do to prevent this from happening as we have had minor cases of this in previous months. The next day the smell wasn’t going away. So my boss removed the tiles from around the sink, and behind there was lots of faeces, some in tissue some not. Other rubbish was stored behind there as well, such as wrappers and ladies feminine napkins etc…

We held an emergency staff meeting to sort out what was going on as we were all so shocked, disgusted and disturbed by it all. A member of staff owned up to it before the meeting took place. The next day she handed in her notice of leaving. It went into immediate effect (to prevent any other form of charges). The owner of the business offered to get the person help and said they wouldn’t feel comfortable passing on a reference until the person had gotten help.

We have recently found out that this person has got another job in the same field (working with small children), and we, her previous colleagues, are quite concerned about by this in case she is mentally unwell. Please advise how to best to deal with this? She has not sought a reference from this workplace and still holds a dbs. We just want to do right by everybody. Thanks

Signed–Concerned

Dear Concerned:

Knowing what is best for your former coworker and those with whom she works is problematic. I’ll refer to this individual as Rose so as not to have to refer to her as this person. Rose admitted her very unpleasant behavior and resigned. Since then, you’ve learned Rose has a job “the same field (working with small children)”.

You wrote us because this is not the kind of coworker problem normally encountered and it raises a number of issues:

  • an employer’s responsibility and liability in providing a reference or warning to a future employer,
  • how should such an incident be investigated and handled for one responsible—particularly for one mentally not well?
  • employee privacy and secrecy
  • communication about a taboo topic during the investigation and afterward.

There might be more issues to consider, but let’s look at these:

E employer responsibility. We don’t provide legal advice; however, it probably would be wise to seek such from an attorney familiar with employer/labor laws. Such advice will help answer questions such as: should your employer contact Rose’s current employer and if so what should be disclosed about her? Will your employer be held guilty of breaking Rose’s privacy by disclosing the feces-smearing/hiding that resulted in her resignation? Will your employer be liable if they don’t disclose Rose’s behavior should her problem continue or show up in a different way? An attorney probably will recommend that your employer carefully and accurately inform Rose’s new employer. Hopefully, she has sought psychological help and, if she has not already done so, can forthrightly confront her past behavior and promise it will not happen again. Her new employer might consider Rose wrong if she had concealed her previous mental disability. My associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rose, says, “I think they should get legal advice about the way to notify the current childcare place, so as to avoid liability concerns from the employed person or the facility. (I hope they documented the situation with photos.)”  Tina’s advice leads to the next issue.

Investigated and handled. Because on one occasion the toilet facility had been much soiled, investigating why was a primary concern for your staff. All of you wanted to learn who could have done this and why. Often we learn too slowly how to investigate messy matters and therefore you probably now you wish that photos were taken, as Tina recommends.  Your boss found the persisting odor came from “faeces, some in tissue some not” around the sink and that “rubbish was stored behind there as well, such as wrappers and ladies feminine napkins.” I’m using the language you presented to commend you for using accurate terminology rather than to hide it euphemistically.

You say there were “minor cases of this in previous months.” This is to say that the problem had gone on for some months. Apparently no one sensed that Rose was having a mental problem. Now that it has led to her confession and resignation, you have reason to ask if the staff’s relationship with Rose had been insensitive. Was she part of your group or in some way marginalized? What if she had not confessed and/or resigned? Have your thought about that? If Rose was found to blame, should your employer have made reasonable requirement for psychological help for her and enabled her to continue employment? These are practical and ethical questions.

Mentally not well.  We are rightly cautious about labeling anyone as mentally ill. U.S. law makes job interview inquires out of bounds for anything but topics relevant to the ability to perform tasks required by the job. I mention this to raise the question that every employee has to the more general responsibility of caring for property and civility of working relationships.  A staff member’s physical and mental well-being is a private matter until and unless it adversely affects one’s performance and /or working relationships. We don’t normally discuss co-worker’ health unless it becomes obvious that something is wrong. In Rose’s case nothing was obvious.

Rose’s case surfaces other concerns such as the uncomfortable disclosure by a job candidate of mental illness. Such a disclosure has been shown results in a lower chance of employment than disclosure of a physical disability. Disclosure has its risks, yet an argument for disclosure of one’s own mental health is that you wouldn’t want to work for an employer who would not be understanding and supportive. Concealment of mental illness carries with it the worry that discovery of its secrecy distracts from getting the help needed.  Also secrecy activates obsessive preoccupation and intrusive thoughts about the “secret.” Rose’s case should interest your staff in how we frame mental wellness and trouble.

Communication about a taboo topic and other topics. Toilet-type topics are not ones that a staff would normally have cause to talk about. But now you have cause, even though Rose is gone. This is to suggest that your staff might use this messy matter as a reason to talk about your working relationships and general working conditions. Staff meetings can be meaningful. They can help make your boss’ work easier and more effective. Too often working relationships are not discussed, even in a general way with such questions as How’s everything going?

I have studied places in which work groups took major responsibilities for who was hired, distribution and cross-rotation of assignments, costs and acquirement of supplies, performance evaluation and pay. Your particular workplace probably isn’t ready for self-management. However you might learn how to function more effectively and happily by regularly creating an agenda of topics that should be addressed (for example “minor cases of this in previous months.” Physical working conditions–of how to make them more aesthetically pleasant for your clients and employees should be matters of general concern. One place I investigated made the sound level better by wall padding, and more beautiful by frequently changing green plants and art works. Others decided on paint colors and wall logos.

Now you as a staff might talk about talk—what topics are important to making work more effective, what talk is inappropriate such as gossip that is personally damaging, talk that shows an interest in yet is not nosy, how to speak with each other about one another’s performance, how you like to be managed. I recommend that a staff spell out talk dos and don’ts and then review them from time to time. Sports team skull sessions and practice should serve as models for the workplace.

Enough said? Probably you will think that your question could be more simply answered. It could have, but I hope these additional thoughts resonate with you. The larger issue is embedded in my signature: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. In short are you as a staff compelled by this messy topic to work more effectively together and for those you serve? Will you make time to update us on how your staff works through the after thoughts of this loss of Rose?

William Gorden