I go to the restroom in every workplace I visit. No, I’m not having “control issues.” I just believe you can learn a lot about an organization by visiting the employee facilities, including the restroom. Providing a clean, functional restroom is the most basic service a company can provide for its employees, and this dedication (or lack thereof) to staff comfort often echoes throughout the workplace culture.
I started to think about this idea over a decade ago as a custodial manager at the Walt Disney World Resort. My team was responsible for cleanliness in both Guest and Cast Member areas, and we worked hard to ensure backstage facilities were not forgotten when customer-facing needs picked up.
Since then, I have made a point to stop into the employee restroom in every facility I visit – whether I’m there for personal and professional reasons. I also try to see the break and training areas, but employee restrooms are almost always accessible as an invited guest. I time my visit so I can use a restroom deeper within the workplace rather than one closer to the entrance or guest area – just in case there could be a difference based on anticipated outsider use.
Note that I’m distinguishing employee-only restrooms from facilities that are shared by employees and customers. I also recognize that common areas, including restrooms, may be the domain of a smaller company’s landlord and not in their direct control. However, I believe this concept can be at least influenced if not directly impacted in such cases.
No, I don’ think you can learn everything you need to know about a company from its restrooms, but it certainly is a behind-the-scenes opportunity for insight that can lead to further exploration. Here are 4 questions that I believe can be at least partially answered by a quick visit to the company restroom.
Does the company focus on the details?
There’s really no reason for an employee restroom to be noticeably dirty, understocked or poorly functional. Of course, a sink or a stall may be out of commission for plumbing issues that cannot be solved for a day or two. But are they out of paper products? Are multiple units not operating – and not marked as out of service? Is the place just dirty – and I mean more than paper on the floor dirty? This may point to a lack of detail and process orientation within the organization. It could also signal a lack of commitment to the employee experience on the part of management.
Do employees respect the company – and one another?
Restrooms don’t get messy on their own. A dirty restroom can also indicate a lack of respect on the part of employees. It could mean employees don’t respect the company and therefore don’t take care of the organization’s resources. It may also mean the employees don’t respect one another, as it’s really their peers that are impacted by their lack of care for common areas. Beyond basic restroom “dirtiness,” there are a few telltale signs of this issue, including graffiti, broken dispensers and other physical damage inconsistent with typical activity. After all, if you’re having a bad day at work, how many places can you go to “let it out,” right?
Does the company invest in the overall employee experience?
I have zero research on the impact of restroom quality on employee engagement and retention. However, its pretty easy to relate restroom and other employee-focused amenities to overall company investment in the workplace experience. Employee restrooms don’t need to be AMAZING. They don’t even need to be of the same quality as customer restrooms – although they really should be. But they should be an obvious extension of the company’s culture and be maintained/updated accordingly. Failure to improve employee areas may point to gaps in the organization’s overall mentality on workplace design.
Does the company value work/life balance?
Who puts marketing materials in the restroom? Seriously!?!? I learned to keep company messaging out of employee areas a long time ago. Break rooms and restrooms are the only real places employees can have “me time,” especially if they work in customer-facing roles. Putting company messages on the backs of restroom stall doors is just ridiculous and shows the organizations general mentality when it comes to work/life balance. Keep messaging to dedicated shared areas, such as outside the restroom door. But don’t use the restroom for a “captive audience” … Just don’t …
Have you ever gained insight into an organization by visiting their restrooms? What would your company’s restrooms say to outsiders?
JD Dillon is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. He has spent 20 years designing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. JD is the founder of LearnGeek and Chief Learning Architect with Axonify.