Required To Sign Out To Go To The Bathroom

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about sign out rule:

Hello, I’m writing to you because currently I work in a medical billing office and they have just made it mandatory that all the 4th floor has to sign out to go to the bathroom. Also, my supervisor wrote me an email and told me that when I clock in I should be ready to work. When I told her I am ready to work but sometimes, I need to go to the bathroom, she told me to try and go before my shift started. She has people watch when I go to the bathroom. Is this legal? I have never worked in a place that wants you to either sign in or out when you go to the bathroom, plus I have worked there for over 5 years.I have never worked in a place where they tell you when it’s a good time for you to go to the bathroom. I know you may think this is not true but it is. They really want to regulate when everyone goes to the bathroom. Is there a law they are violating in regards to federal laws of any kind?

Signed, Baffled

Dear Baffled:

I’ll probably sound very unsympathetic in this response, although I don’t want to do that. I am going to present another viewpoint, with the idea that it might not be a correct one, but I think it’s likely.First, let me suggest that all employees who have concerns request a meeting with managers to ask why this is happening. Find out what has prompted an extreme measure. If the manager refuses to talk about it, take it higher in the organization. It may be you will find out the reasons for the action–whether you agree with the reasons or not. Since you were talked to specifically, ask your manager if there was something you were doing or not doing that led to the new policy for you. Discuss the situation and see if you can at least get the manager’s viewpoint.

Regarding your question of whether it is legal to monitor restroom use. Check with your state’s Labor Department to find out if there are laws in your state. Generally, an employer has to provide a bathroom and must allow reasonable bathroom breaks. However, many jobs require employees to ask before they leave the work area, even to go to the bathroom. So, it’s not as wild sounding as you might think.

Although, I must admit that sign-out to leave the work area is usually done in warehouses, factories and large assembly line businesses, not usually in offices.But here is the key point. Based on the information you provided it could be you are viewing the policy as more negative than it actually is. You say employees must sign out when they go to the bathroom–perhaps when they come back as well. That doesn’t mean they have to get permission to leave, just that a record is being kept to determine if time away from work is excessive–not an unusual requirement, even though I don’t think it’s a good way to handle it in this case.The policy also does not say anything to indicate that managers are trying to set a bathroom schedule and regulate when everyone goes to the bathroom. Be sure you do not overreact and weaken your position about this. Stick to the facts not speculation. I don’t know what was happening, but I would almost put money on the probability that there had been problems about some people being away from their desks excessively and chronically.

Either coworkers were complaining or managers noticed it and reacted in a strong manner–with a new rule.Let me give you an example in one office. A woman went to the restroom about once an hour for ten or so minutes at a time and sometimes longer. They found she was talking on her cell phone, not using the facilities. In another office several people were going to the bathroom and using drugs that had been stashed there. In other offices people have taken bathroom breaks just to avoid working or handling counter duty. I know of a specific situation in which an employee HAD to go to the bathroom every time copies had to be made–because she didn’t like to make copies.Let me give you another example that might relate to your personal situation. In one office with which I’m familiar, the phone starts ringing at 8 a.m. when the office is officially opened. The staff are kept busy with one call after another for the first half hour. If someone is late to work it is punitive for those who have to answer the phone. Being late could be caused by not arriving on time or by arriving on time but hanging around the break room or going to the bathroom. Employees are told to be ready for work at 8 a.m, not just in the office but not ready to start answering calls at 8 a.m. This rule created some anger for a few employees but was applauded by other employees who were tired of handling opening up the office while other employees were slowly getting ready to work.Keep in mind that no one is being punished by this rule. There is apparently not a requirement for x number of bathroom breaks or x number of minutes. They simply want to know when you leave and when you return–or how often you leave. What I would question if I were an executive in the company is whether the managers talked directly to employees who were using the facilities excessively or inappropriately. Direct action would be much better than blanket policies. (Although, they did talk to you, so perhaps they talked to others as well.) Now, having said that, let me say that I can imagine it is frustrating and irritating. I would also imagine there is more going on than just this. It sounds as though there is a definite chasm between managers and employees. I wonder if both employees and managers ever come together as a group to work out problems, to congratulate each other or to share concerns. It sounds as though there is little positive communication. Maybe you can take a leadership role in changing that. If everyone was talking to everyone else this could probably have been handled verbally and in a much more low key way. Your managers would have talked to you earlier if they felt there was a problem about your checking-in habits. They could have talked to others about other issues. They could have avoided making a new policy that can’t help but sound repressive, no matter how justified it might be. On the other hand, employees might have been able to avoid this if they had regulated their own behavior.Start communicating and move up the chain of command in the organization as you need to.

At some point you’ll either find a sympathetic ear or someone will tell the truth about what caused all of this. When you know that, maybe you and others may be able to negotiate about it and ask to be treated with more respect and in a more professional way–in exchange for professional actions by the employees. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. This is the kind of thing that goes quickly from zero to line-in-the-dirt!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.