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The American View: Full Mental Straightjacket

Well-written policy can be an excellent tool for maintaining good order and discipline in the office. Policy is also potentially useless once a worker steps outside the office. Policy writers need to consider rules and expectations for employee actions in ungoverned spaces outside the company’s jurisdiction.

I miss Army barracks life some days. I realize that seems crazy; having to put up with four dozen other soldiers in a platoon bay was always chaotic, loud, and nerve-fraying. It did have one thing going for it: problematic behaviour got corrected immediately. We had two Non-Commissioned Officers living just off our main bay, and if any private started some disruptive idiocy, one of the eternally-grumpy sergeants would venture forth from his private sanctum and lay the hurt down until it was clear to everyone that anti-social malarkey would not be tolerated in 3rd Platoon’s barracks.

I felt that nostalgic sentiment earlier this week when a stranger from the company opposite ours strolled imperiously into our floor’s shared men’s’ room wearing an oversized set of wireless headphones. The fellow had just strolled up to the urinal bank beside me when his phone went off. Rather than apologize for the interruption, or ignore the call, this guy accepted the call from his headphones and began offering the caller “excellent customer service” whilst simultaneously making use of the facilities.

My world turned red. It’s been over 25 years since I last wore corporal’s stripes, and the old weight of an NCO’s duty to enforce ‘good order and discipline’ came roaring back like it was yesterday. I felt a powerful urge to break out the old ‘drill field voice’ and give the fop a corrective tongue-lashing that would strip the flesh from his bones and sear the impertinence from his character. I took a breath … and strangled the urge.

We have a problem, you see. Nobody owns our office latrines … meaning no one has the authority to set – or to enforce! – common rules of behaviour in shared spaces.

I’m in favour of giving our cleaning staff the standing authority to club senseless anyone who selfishly makes a mess in the common areas. Why not deputize them to enforce social norms and arm them with electric cattle prods to reinforce ‘acceptable’ behaviour?

Our office takes up one half of our floor. A different company occupies the other half. Shared public lavatories are located exactly between us. This is normal for a modern American office building. Saves cost over having each business have its own private lavatories inside their perimeter.

The downside is that no one is actually in charge of the shared space. If this sort of conduct had taken place inside a private lavatory, then we’d have the option to report the offender directly to his supervisory chain because we would (a) know who it was, and (b) have the right to judge their conduct. Management and HR could have a rehabilitative chat about the use of recording devices in shared spaces (i.e., don’t if you’d prefer to remain employed).

That option doesn’t exist in the building’s shared restrooms. Technically, our building’s facility manager ‘owns’ all of the shared spaces, however they (a) don’t enforce norms, and (b) don’t have any power over people in the building even if they were inclined to … which they’re not. You can complain all you like to the facility’s maintenance staff; they’re not going about confront a lewd lavatory lout.

This means that our shared men’s room has become ‘no man’s land’ (so to speak) for conduct that falls below the threshold of a reportable crime. The only agency authorized to take corrective action there would be the police, and their response time is probably not going to be quick enough to catch an offender in the act. So, what are witnesses to do? Film the offender’s offenses which is, in itself, also an offense? That seems … counterproductive.

How would you record that arrest in the employee’s performance appraisal? ‘Excellent initiative and commitment to core values, poor judgment for associated felony conviction.’

Lest you think I’m kidding about the ‘reportable crime’ issue, this sort of thing really happens: about six months ago, a fellow came into the same shared lavatory and immediately started acting squirrelly. While waiting in the queue, I saw the stranger using his mobile phone to video himself urinating from … er … very close up. See previous, re: seeing red.

To this bloke’s … credit? I’m at a loss here … the amateur filmmaker never lifted his phone above the privacy divider, so I’m fairly certain that he didn’t violate Texas Penal Code § 21.15. concerning Invasive Visual Recording, which reads (emphasis added):

(b) A person commits an offense if, without the other person‘s consent and with intent to invade the privacy of the other person, the person:

(1) photographs or by videotape or other electronic means records, broadcasts, or transmits a visual image of an intimate area of another person if the other person has a reasonable expectation that the intimate area is not subject to public view;

(2) photographs or by videotape or other electronic means records, broadcasts, or transmits a visual image of another in a bathroom or changing room; [1]

If I’m reading the law right – and I am not a lawyer – this dude didn’t break Texas law since he only filmed (or livestreamed?) himself and not anyone else. If we assume that he knew the law, it might explain his awkward camera handling technique.

Anyway … These bizarre examples present us with an interesting management challenge. Consider: while in a public space, an employee of Company X observes an employee of Company Y engaging in a questionable (or possibly illegal!) act. Company X has no authority over Company Y staff (and vice versa). Failing to take corrective action may constitute tacit endorsement of the misbehaviour, exposing Company X to liability and/or reputational damage. Whereas taking corrective action to halt the misbehaviour might also expose Company X to liability and/or reputational damage. Seems like a no-win situation, however not acting might also be unacceptable.

‘Witness at the scene reported that the victim, a corporate policy writer, was mumbling nonsensically about paradoxes right before his head exploded.’

Looking at it from a leadership perspective, consider: if your employee asked you what your company’s position is on this sort of scenario, what would you tell them? What policy would you review to find the official answer? If there isn’t one, would your company’s lawyers have a collective stroke if they heard your interpretation? Who would get in more trouble? Your employee for confronting a stranger? You for authorizing the confrontation? Everything about this problem is messy! Hence, why most people’s reaction is to stand by silently and do nothing rather than risk making the problem worse.

This is one of those peculiar issues that policies can’t solve, thanks largely to the jurisdiction problem. Any action that your employee takes to correct a problem will likely do more harm than good, even though it may be socially appropriate … Ugh!

As much as I’m irked at the problem, I find the abstracted topic fascinating. Most of my career has involved studying the intersection of law, policy, culture, and behaviour. These ‘car wreck’ scenarios are often the most intriguing problems to dissect because there are rarely ever any effective or satisfying solutions. When there’s no official right answer, which individual interpretation is the least unpalatable? And how do you teach people how best to reason their way through the legal, cultural, and social minefield?

This would never be an issue on a military installation. Whenever some private pulled a stunt like this in the barracks, you could guarantee the swift arrival of a torqued-off NCO to re-set everyone’s understanding of acceptable latrine conduct. Also, there would always be shouting. LOTS of shouting. The Army’s authority was absolute; a private business’s authority is absolutely not.

Soldiers can’t resign and take their talents elsewhere when the job gets infuriating. Corporate workers can and will – especially in a ‘right-to-work’ state like Texas. So … just how draconian can you afford to be?

We must accept and acknowledge in policy writing that we don’t have the same control over our workers that the military has over theirs. We also have significantly different mores when it comes to interpersonal interaction and conflict. Most HR folks aren’t keen on ‘high-volume conduct correction’ techniques. Legal frowns on making a stranger do a hundred push-ups. The janitorial staff gets vexed if you flush an offender’s mobile or headphones down the loo. I get that. Heck, I agree with that. The business world is supposed to be more civilised …

Except sometimes we aren’t. Some people don’t seem to grasp the essential elements of courtesy and privacy when it comes to using shared spaces. Maybe they weren’t raised right. Maybe their psychopathology undermines their judgment. Whatever the cause, some people’s shocking behaviour provokes furious reactions … and yet there’s often no acceptable way to correct the offender. Makes for quite a conundrum.

I recommend that everyone who’s read this far drop by their company’s Legal office and casually pose the question: what is your company’s official approach to stopping this sort of cinéma-vérité nonsense in the office lavatory? Wait a moment for dramatic impact, then ask what the official approach is for a shared space. Odds are good you’ll get to watch your legal boffin short-circuit right before your eyes. You might not be enlightened, but you’ll certainly be entertained.

Title Allusions: Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket (1987 film)


© Business Reporter 2021

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