Discussing Things Everyone Wishes Could Be Kept Private

Some topics are more challenging than others when it comes to helping Workers succeed in their jobs. This series covers some areas that can be challenging on either side – or both sides – of the Worker/Trainer equation. When names are used, they have been changed to protect privacy.

Restroom Breaks

Watching Ben disappear around an end cap loaded with seaweed snacks, I wondered how long this restroom break would last. The summer stint in an upscale supermarket was the seventeen-year-old’s first job, and my task was to coach him to success. By the time Ben wound down his six-week program, he would theoretically be prepared to move on to a “real” job.

If he could curb his tendencies to argue with supervisors and take agonizingly drawn out restroom breaks, that is.

Hordes of young people with assorted barriers to employment had worked their way through these summer programs to find themselves standing firmly on the “finished” side, with clear ideas about how to conduct themselves in the workplace. They learned skills and behaviors ranging from appropriate lunchroom topics to handling the “I’m-going-to-be-late-for-work” call.

A person’s bathroom habits ought to be private, but when it cuts into work time, lines may need to be drawn. This was better done by me than a supervisor in the store. Should it matter that I’m a middle-aged woman and Ben’s a young man? 

Maybe not, but I had a feeling the things I needed to say would end up being uncomfortable for both of us.

I made my concerns known by timing Ben’s trips to the restroom, then mentioning the number of minutes he was gone. Soon he was clocking himself and announcing the verdict on his return, but the breaks weren’t getting any shorter.

One morning after a twelve-minute absence, I decided to go for it. “Remember in soft skills training the part about how employers buy the minutes of your time?” I asked.

Ben nodded from above. I’m tall, but he towered over me, looking more like a man than a student.

“But . . . when I gotta go, I gotta go.” He studied the contents of the Natural Food department cooler, avoiding my eyes.

I didn’t blame him. The last thing I wanted to do was delve into Ben’s bathroom habits. But if we didn’t address this, it could be detrimental to his employable future.

So I gave him the only advice I could think of, and made it personal to myself, partly to demonstrate I wasn’t ashamed to be as human as he was, bodily functions and all.

“Here’s what I’ve found can shorten restroom breaks: when I think it’s time to go, I wait a little longer. And if I can, I wait a little longer again. Then, when I get the restroom, it seems to happen quickly.”

It was the best I could do. Ben tore his eyes away from pint containers of miso and vegan cheeses, looked down at me and said, “I’ll try it.”

Then he walked back to the rack of bulk food dispensers he’d been tidying and went back to work.

I took a deep breath, then decided it was my turn for a restroom break, and after I got back, both of us carried on. Ben finished the cleaning job he’d been given and began stocking protein bars.

The next day his longest break lasted nine minutes. Over the following two weeks, his all-time low record was six minutes. Neither of us mentioned it again. Clearly Ben had gotten the point and was modifying his behavior accordingly.

I don’t know whether it was my advice that turned the tide, or the strong desire on both our parts to never discuss it again. But I thought there was an excellent chance Ben’s future employer wouldn’t have to bring up the subject, and that was good enough for me.

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