Unplugging A Clogged Toilet

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a dirty assignment:

Yesterday, I found out that the manager at a Wendy’s burger joint had my daughter unplug a toilet only using a latex glove on her hand because they did not have a plunger. This is my daughters first job and she knows the whole routine of being at the bottom of the totem pole, but to have someone stick their hand wearing only a latex glove on it into a toilet with human feces urine and blood! I don’t think it’s right.

Signed–Not Right

Dear Not Right, Mom:

I forwarded your question to Danica Rice, an Human Resources Professional  in Akron and , Craig Tengler, an owner/manager of fast food restaurants in Texas and Florida. Also Tina Lewis Rowe, Associate Workplace Doctor and I have added our advice. As you will see, we agree that you are right to be upset.

Danica Rice’s response to your question contains the good sense that was absent in the manager at your daughter’s workplace. Here it is: “Oh my word! First of all I completely agree with mom and her sentiment behind the “bottom of the totem pole”, however her daughter’s employer should have NEVER requested that type of work from her. It is not sanitary and she is not qualified. The manager could have asked her to go to the nearest dollar store and pick up a plunger to complete the task or they could have put and out of order sign on the restroom until the issue was resolved in a healthy way. I would advise the daughter and mom, if she wants to write a letter to management, to send the letter to corporate about this task and behavior. I know there’s always the “other duties assigned” clause in job description, and I’m all about team work and doing things outside of my scope of practice,  but not when it can be a health hazard or is unethical. This case clearly falls under a health hazard. That company was dead wrong!”

Craig Tengler’s response is similar: “Wow…I don’t remember the exact policy – but, if they did not have a “plunger” then a quick trip to Home Depot or some similar place would be the most appropriate thing to do.  If this was a manager or assistant manager they should either have taken care of this themselves if they were too cheap to purchase the proper “tool” for the job.  This type of treatment of people in the workplace is exactly what the workplace does not need.  If this was my restaurant… the Manager or Assistant Manager would be the person in need of training.  The crew member is owed an apology.  Mean people need to be removed from positions of authority.  Or, as Robert Sutton would say….get rid of the assholes in the workplace!”  (The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Is –  is a book by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton, based on a popular essay he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. It sold over 115,000 copies and won the Quill Award for best business book in 2007.)

Craig is right. The manager should have been the one to do the unplugging. Associate Workplace Doctor Tina Lewis Rowe sends this advice: “I’ve done some quick research and do not find any OSHA or FDA regulations about how toilets should be cleaned or unclogged—just that they must be. However, I still think, if it did in fact happen (the parent is hearing this second hand), the employee should complain to the local or state agency that deals with restaurant safety and cleanliness. My thought about it is that complaining to a higher level of management will probably only address the grossness of requiring her to do it, but an agency involved with food handling and food serving may consider whether she went back to food preparation, after the potential of having some of the waste splash on her clothes or transfer to her arms when she was removing the gloves. See http://www.safetynewsalert.com/worker-goes-to-osha-and-court-after-messy-bathroom-cleanups/ The link is for an article about a Staples employee.  If it happened she ought to quit, because that shows so much disrespect that no one should support it by continuing to work there. Those are my thoughts!” –Tina.

Mom, you’ll have to decide how it is best to advise your daughter. This order by a boss provides an opportunity for you to help her learn how to respond to what is not safe. It’s a lesson that should last well beyond her first job. Your daughter should know …

1.    It’s her right to refuse to do something that is a health risk.
2. That can do done politely and firmly.
3.  Before following an order, THINK–Think if it is a safe and if it doesn’t seem safe, don’t do it. If she can, propose a safe way to do the task.

Now you and she can decide what is the most effective way to react since this already happened.  Assure her that you appreciate her bringing this unusual assignment to you. In the years ahead, she is likely to encounter other matters that seem wrong—asked to do something dishonest, sexually harassed, verbally abused, bullied, etc.

Reporting this manager’s “wrong order” will affect his good standing and maybe his job. The fault is not only the manager’s poor judgement. He or she was not well trained. Therefore, whatever you and your daughter choose to do, you should consider how you would want criticism made of you to be made. Think of the language you can suggest your daughter uses and when to confront or write. What are her and your options?

  1. To bite your tongue and ignore it, but to refuse should another such order seem wrong.
  2. To send a letter to this manager’s superior or to corporate. This should get results; however, it could cause a lasting rift between the manager and your daughter. That doesn’t rule out this option. Some mistakes by managers should be reported.
  3. To speak to the manager privately once she returns to work, saying something like, “Jan, I think your order for me to unplug a toilet without the proper equipment was wrong.  I know you simply wanted to get the problem fixed, but weren’t there ways to do that that were more sanitary and did not cause me a health risk?  I am willing to do my share of bad jobs, but not this kind. Can I know that you will never do that again?”  This assertive language can provide the kind training that the manager missed. In a follow up, she or you could say, “Obviously Wendy’s did not prepare you for such situations or if they did, you must have missed it.”
  4. Tina’s option of contacting the state’s agency charged with restaurants is a good option, even if your daughter quits.

It is good that you want to stand up for and with your daughter. She should expect that learning about what does and can happen at work is par for the course. That’s why you and your daughter are invited to scan Q &As in our archive. They can help her to know what to expect and provide ways to respond. Forewarned is forearmed. Please feel free to send us a note as to what you elect to do and how it works out.

Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.  In your situation, it would have been wise for the head to say not to use your hands without a plunger.

-William Gorden