Tenant restroom left a mess

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about unsanitary conditions: each day there are wads of toilet paper on the floor, un-flushed toilets, menstrual and fecal mess smeared on the toilets and walls, etc.

I work for the company that owns the business building we’re in. On a tenant floor, ever since a new tenant moved in, the women’s restroom is left a mess daily. Despite several email reminders to all tenants (this email is sent to all as to not point fingers) on proper restroom etiquette and hygiene, each day there are wads of toilet paper on the floor, un-flushed toilets, menstrual and fecal mess smeared on the toilets and walls, etc. Other tenants are having to go to other floors to use the restroom, as it’s disgusting and they also don’t want their own guests dealing with the mess. I’ve tried emails to the tenants, checking who’s going into the restroom via our key-card system log, etc…but nothing seems to work as it’s a high-traffic bathroom. The tenant employs many “young” staff, and several seem to be making these messes. Before I discuss with our own HR staff to see what they think we should do, I’m asking you! Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

This is a very lengthy response, but perhaps it will help you develop a plan of action. Failing to flush or pick up litter is one thing, but feces smeared on a wall or left on a toilet seat, is obnoxious, unhealthy and seriously concerning behavior. So, you probably have several things going on in the situation. You don’t say if your role is that of maintenance, a manager in the building or a concerned employee. I’m going to respond as though you have managerial or supervisory authority or at least some influence about this matter. Consider dealing with this in two ways at once:

(1.) Go above and beyond the norm to have the best looking restrooms possible. Evaluate the status of the restrooms when they are at their best and see if there is room for improvement. In crime prevention there is the “Broken Window” effect, whereby one broken window results in many more. The same thing happens with litter and dirt. One toilet is not flushed and the next thing you know, several need to be flushed. It’s almost as if a woman is sitting in a stall and thinks, “Someone else is a slob. I’ll make it worse and maybe they’ll do something about the slob.” Consider toilet seat covers if they are not in the stalls. As budget allows, consider slowly replacing manual flush toilets with automatic flush. Even at the risk of losing a can of room spray now and then, keep a can of pleasant-smelling spray on the counter. Consider wall-mounted dispensers, one for hand lotion and one for anti-bacterial gel. People who don’t wash their hands may use that. Make sure the floors are very clean around the stall areas. When the person in the stall sees built up dirt around the stall mounts attached to the floor, it gives the impression that the rest of the place is dirty too. Do what can be done to make the restroom more pleasant and attractive, not just sanitary, even if it seems to be very good now. Then, post a professionally made sign or framed, well-made word processed sign that asks people to call maintenance if the bathroom is in need of cleaning or supplies. If it is financially possible, given the cleaning staff available, have bathrooms cleaned more than once a day. In one office building with which I’m familiar, their goal is to have several stalls in the restrooms with the seats up and the toilet freshly cleaned, all the time. Having maintenance workers of both genders makes that easier all over the building. What almost never works are signs telling people to clean up after themselves, as if someone who has just urinated on the toilet seat will see that and repent. I was in a public restroom last year where someone had posted a sign that required three pieces of copy paper to contain all of the remarks about getting tired of cleaning up after people. It had a list of Dos and Don’ts. All that did was encourage the inevitable. Someone had written, “Bathroom Nazi” and some other nasty words, and others had written other remarks. It made everyone using the facilities feel bad and also wonder just how dirty the place really was. I could empathize with why the signs had been posted, but it was irritating too.

(2.) The second action, which can be going on while the other is happening, is more of an investigation and documentation of the situation. This will give you a foundation for a discussion with your HR people or with the managers of the tenant space, according to whether you can talk to the tenants yourself or not. If bad things keep happening, it will probably take a couple of weeks or so to put your package of material together. But, it sounds as though you have already been dealing with it regularly, so taking the time to do it in the best possible way will probably not make things worse. If, for some reason, there is improvement, it may take longer; or it may not be needed. Here are the five steps to this second approach: 1. Do your best to ensure that this is handled by you or the person you designate to do it, in a reasoned way that is above reproach. Your writing indicates to me that you are a mature and capable person, so that probably is an obvious thing to you. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. You want to come out of this showing that you have made a good-faith effort to solve the problem, no matter what the final results. You and others who are involved in trying to solve this situation should keep your methods to yourself for the time being, instead of talking about it to employees. You don’t have to deny it if someone asks, but it should be considered a serious managerial investigation not just a topic of office gossip.

2. Document, through photos and written descriptions, how the restroom looks when it is clean and how it looks when it has been maliciously dirtied or left dirty through carelessness. This is a crucial part of your report. Chronicle the situation for the number of days needed to show a pattern. Develop your document by date and time of day, since that often is helpful for having the employees identified, or for at least narrowing it down to a shift or group, if possible. It also shows that the behavior is ongoing. In the case of purposeful things, like smearing feces on walls, it shows it is blatant and likely to continue if not stopped. At least one time at the beginning of your project, take a few photos of the restrooms on each floor, after they are freshly cleaned, before employees use them, to show a baseline for comparison. Check the bathroom as often during the day as is reasonable. Maybe you could have a few people take turns going in hourly to check. (I know that’s time consuming, but for a few days it may be necessary.) Whenever the restroom is reported to have been left in a filthy condition, whether or not it is as severe as it has been on some occasions, take photos of the space and close-ups of the trash or filth. Then, take at least one photo of a restroom on another floor, to show that other restrooms were still clean. Close the bathroom during that time, rather than making it obvious what is happening. That not only is more professional appearing on your part, it reduces gossip and speculation about why someone is in there taking photos.

3. Prepare a document, with sections by date and time, and insert the photos with date, time and full descriptions. As disgusting as it may be, write it out in detail. As an example, one such description said something like, “The toilet seat was wet with urine, from front to back and on both sides of the seat. Some of the urine had dripped on the floor on each side. The toilet had not been flushed and there was urine, but no tissue, in the stool. There was some wadded up tissue on the floor. The sinks were dry, indicating they had not been used recently. The restroom smelled strongly of urine. Clean-up required additional supplies and extra safety precautions and took over an hour longer than other restrooms in the building.” That sounds a lot different than the more generic and polite descriptions. You need something that is clear and realistic to get the attention of the tenant manager and your own HR. If something worse occurs you will also need it to support other responses by building management.

4. See if you can find out; or if you have a record; of when this started happening. See if reviewing your documentation gives you an idea of what time of day is most likely. All of those things can help with pinpointing individuals involved.

5. When you have enough days to show that it is not a rare event, but a rather common one, you can consider what to do next. The building owners do not have control over tenant employees, but they do have control about issues related to leases and to expenses. Hopefully the building management and the tenant have a good enough relationship that they will be equally concerned.

6. Your options vary according to your authority. If you are part of management, you may be able to talk to the tenant. If not, you may have to work through someone who can. Ideally, you will be the one to talk to the tenant manager. If so, follow the next step.

7. Show the tenant manager your documentation and ask for his or her help to solve the problem. Ask if you can meet with the staff in an informal huddle session (maybe several of them if the group is larger.) If you are a man and you’re talking mostly to women or a woman talking mostly to men, it may be less comfortable, but it can be done effectively. If the manager prefers to talk to employees, ask him or her to please convey your request for assistance in putting trash in receptacles, flushing the stools and other hygiene measures. Talk about what is being done to make the bathrooms even more clean and pleasant.

8. Hopefully the manager will let you make a brief presentation to the staff. Here is a format that works: Keep it brief, friendly and to-the-point. Make it a request for assistance. Not a plea or an order, just a request in the spirit of wanting to be a good citizen of the building. Use the names of custodians when describing who had to clean things up. “Last Friday, Millie had to get a chemical sanitizer and wipe someone’s feces off a toilet seat and wipe the toilet down by hand, to make sure it was clean, then wipe the wall and floor all around it. It took her an extra hour and she had just had to wipe things down for the same reason two days ago, so it was very discouraging to her.” Don’t say that kind of thing in an angry or disgusted tone, say it in a way that sounds as though you are disappointed and wondering how it could have happened. You will see people looking around like, “WHO would do that??” And you can bet one of them knows it was her! Quickly move to asking again for their help in using receptacles every time, flushing every time and calling for maintenance if things are unsanitary. Make eye contact with everyone in a meeting like that. What you want is to engage each person so they will think about what they’re doing or not doing and correct it. 9. If the situation continues, separate what seems purposeful from carelessness. You may have a situation of malicious mischief and can let the manager know that it has risen to the level of criminal behavior. That might require use of surveillance cameras to monitor who is in the bathroom, and more frequent checks afterwards. Now, having said those 8 steps, I wish I was confident things would change permanently with a mere request. In some places they have; and in some they have not. In one large building, the tenant was not asked to lease again the next year; and no one missed them. In another, the tenant was warned that the rent would need to be raised to cover costs. Ultimately, the tenant has to get compliance and if he or she can’t, the sanctions are applied to the tenant. In another building, a key card lock was put on the door and the manager had the custodian check after every usage for a couple of weeks. The problem employees were identified and the tenant apparently dealt with it, because there were no other problems.

***************************** This was a very long response that does not give you any magic answers. However, perhaps it will give you some things to think about in your own situation. I hope the ideas were useful. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide to do. Your experiences may be helpful to others. Best wishes!

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.