Not many of my stories start with me in the bathroom, but this one does. I was a young man in an unexciting first job. I remember essentially nothing from the job except this one story.
My boss was a big, handsy man (not in that way); suffice it to say that you got a handshake every time you passed him in the hall and a slap on the back sometimes, too. About a month into my time at the company, I head to the bathroom and hear someone finishing their business in a stall. As I turn away from the urinal, I just about walk into my boss as he’s leaving the stall. He yells my name and before I know what’s happening, he takes and shakes my hand. He then says have a great day and walks out of the bathroom without washing his hands.
I was shocked. I spent the next 15 minutes in the bathroom scrubbing my hands. At the risk of dating myself, this memory might be more deeply imprinted because that same week the pie episode of Seinfeld came out. It’s the one where Jerry is dating a girl whose father is the owner and chef of a restaurant they are eating in. Jerry ends up in the men’s room with the father, and can’t help but notice when the man who will be preparing his dinner does not wash his hands. Jerry ended that relationship.
Since that week, this particularly unhygienic quirk has been a bit of a fixation of mine. How does this relate to jobs? Well, last week a hiring manager at The Viscusi Group was in the restroom with a stranger. This stranger did not wash their hands and, knowing how I feel about that stuff, the hiring manager came in to tell me about it. An hour later, the hiring manager came back into my office. Guess who he had just had a meeting with. Yep. That same person who hadn’t washed his hands showed up in my hiring manager’s office and held out his hand for him to shake.
There are worse first impressions you can make, but not many.
Okay, I’ll admit, I feel a little silly writing about this, but this is exactly my beat! This is a concrete thing that very well might have cost someone their opportunity at a job, and believe me when I tell you this practice is far more widespread than those of us who hold up basic hygienic standards imagine.
So, what can you do? I would like to say that my only advice is wash your hands, dummy! However, the fact that I’ve gotten this far makes me think that people will continue to not wash their hands and that I should, therefore, give them strategies to get away with not washing their hands. Offering this advice directly contradicts some of my most deeply held personal beliefs, but here I am offering it. You should be grateful.
To help me get through this, we’re going to turn back to Seinfeld. As those of you who have seen that episode might recall, when Jerry describes the situation to George he says, “at least pretend, at least run the water, for my benefit.” As is usually the case, Seinfeld is dead right. At least pretend. In fact, this is a good rule of office etiquette generally, but let’s focus on this specific example.
Perception is reality in this situation. Likely, if someone runs the water or puts on a show of washing their hands, even if you don’t see them soaping up, you’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. It is those brazen people, who don’t seem to care at all what you think, that really drive me crazy. The point that Jerry harps on is how disrespectful not pretending is. When I see someone not wash their hands in the bathroom I take it to mean that they don’t care what I think, that my presence means nothing to them. Some may say this is an overreaction, but anyway you break it down it points to the non-washer’s indifference. Of all places to make this sort of statement, a workplace is about the worst. Even if it doesn’t cost someone their job, it could cost relationships. Is it really worth it?
For those of you who are as troubled by this as I am. I’ll concede that it isn’t the best practice to confront your boss or colleagues about this stuff. Lucky for you, I am the boss and combative enough that I do confront people. I have, in fact, had this conversation with enough friends to hear all types of excuses. The most plausible out that I’ve heard from one friend is that the bathrooms at work are so disgusting that he goes back to his office and uses hand sanitizer. That is fine, but here we come back to Jerry. At least pretend! How am I supposed to know that you’re going to use hand sanitizer?
Really, you should wash your hands whenever you use the bathroom (incredible that I need to write that). But if someone else is in the restroom, at least for their benefit, wash your hands! So much of work these days is about the relationships you have. Do not risk these valuable relationships because you are too lazy to do something that is objectively the right thing to do. Or as my mother would say, “How were you raised?”
Stephen Viscusi is the CEO of The Viscusi Group, a global executive search practice located in New York City. Viscusi is the author of the HarperCollins Best-seller “Bulletproof Your Job”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his website at www.viscusigroup.com or follow him on twitter at @StephenViscusi as well as Facebook and LinkedIn under Stephen Viscusi