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A junior coworker of mine takes very long breaks every day. I've timed them; he makes hour-long visits to the restroom every day. He is paid by the hour, leaves after 8 hours, and is not allowed to work from home, so I know he's not making the time up. He usually doesn't finish his work on time.

I've gone a long time not discussing this with him, but I'm now wondering if I should bring it up. (If it were me, I'd want a coworker to warn me.) He spends all this time in the restroom and there aren't enough stalls for this to not be a problem, so people are grumbling. I overheard his manager complain he's never at his desk and somebody told him where he spends all that time, so it's been noticed.

I've casually mentioned to him before how he should try to limit his breaks, without saying more, but he didn't really pay attention to me. Is it appropriate for me to be blunt and bring this up to him? On one hand, it would be better if he heard it from me before he got chewed out from my manager. But on the other hand, I really don't want to have this awkward conversation with him. What is the professional thing to do in this circumstance?


UPDATE: Been a heck of a day and wanted to give you all an update. My manager pulled me in his office today and asked me if I knew of Hans' behavior of spending an hour in the bathroom at a time. I gave a non-committal answer, but said I had my suspicions. He then chewed me out for not bringing this to his attention earlier and not working with Hans on this issue. (He emphasized that we were a team and I was supposed to have certain responsibilities as a senior member on the team).

A few hours later, Hans was called into my manager's office. After 45 minutes, he was escorted out of the building. My manager then sent out an e-mail saying that Hans was no longer a part of our team.

I'm still in a little bit of shock and am feeling a bit guilty over what happened.

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    This question is being discussed on meta: workplace.meta.stackexchange.com/q/5974/36524 – Federico Feb 18 at 14:47
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    Is the employee a good worker otherwise? Or is the office better off without him altogether? – Alexandre Aubrey Feb 19 at 14:29
  • Rather than feeling guilty, take this as a learning experience. If I may suggest an improvement, your update should be removed from the question and posted as an answer instead. That's solid advice from your manager: attempt to work with your coworker on the issue and if that fails, bring concerns to your manager. – Robotnik May 1 at 1:19
  • The last thing you have to do is feeling guilty. It was his fault, not yours. He was perfectly aware of what he was doing and the risks he would face in case the manager noticed – David Jul 15 at 14:44

11 Answers 11

475

Hans will spend over an hour at a time going to the bathroom every day.

Perhaps your coworker has a medical condition. What business is that of yours?

And if you're wondering, yes, I timed it.

Stop doing that, right now.

Now I notice it every day when he's in the bathroom.

Try not to. Mind your own business, and focus on your own work.

He also usually doesn't finish his work on time.

Unless you're his manager, this is — once again — none of your business.

I'm now wondering if I should bring it up

No.

I've casually mentioned to Hans before how he should try to limit his breaks (without mentioning I know how much time he spends in the bathroom), but he didn't really pay attention to me.

Of course he didn't. You're lucky he didn't report you for harassment. Don't do that again.

Is it appropriate for me to be blunt and bring this up to him?

No.

One on hand, it would be better if he heard it from me before he got chewed out from my manager.

No. Only his manager should be discussing things like this with him.

But on the other hand, I really don't want to have this awkward conversation with him.

Good. Don't.

What is the professional thing to do in this circumstance?

Stopping literally everything you're doing about it at the moment.

Get on with your work.

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    I feel like the medical condition thing only makes your answer less compelling. Are there actually medical conditions that (a) require spending an hour in the restroom on a regular basis, (b) would not be obvious/visible to others, and (c) that one would not expect an employer to have been already informed about? It's tough for me to imagine this all being true, so unless you have reason to believe this is a real possibility, I'd just remove that part of the answer. – Mehrdad Feb 20 at 2:08
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    "He also usually doesn't finish his work on time." ... "Unless you're his manager, this is — once again — none of your business." Not completely true. In small, self-managed teams (think Agile software), accountability to the team is important. However, it would likely be discussed in a periodic retrospective within the team before it became a problem with the manager. – Steve Feb 20 at 2:19
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    "What business is that of yours?" - why are people asking this question so accusingly? People often work as a team, if one of the links in your chain is missing for hours at a time, how does this NOT concern you and your team? – ESR Feb 20 at 9:49
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    While your answer is, obviously, not without merit, the final result demonstrates that your answer is also less than ideal. The prescribed 'caring' results in a lack of care when carried to this extreme. Is he his brother's keeper? - To some extent, yes. Might he have been able to save the day? Maybe. Would the coworker have benefited from an approach less like the one you suggest? If you think the answer is no it would be very strange indeed. And? Is your comment on harassment sensible in a world where people care about others and not just their own skin? A: What world is that :-(. – Russell McMahon Feb 20 at 15:00
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    In light of the question's update, I don't think this answer aged particularly well. – Michael W. Feb 20 at 18:53
80

Your manager is (I hope) trained on how to have these embarrassing conversations and how to suggest a change in behavior or accommodate a medical situation. You are not trained (imagine if he suddenly revealed medical details to you) and have no authority to offer accommodations or demand a change of ways. Leave the managing to the manager and cheer up your coworker afterwards if he is left upset by the conversation.

You've mentioned it once. Chances are others have too. At this point, the situation is not going to change due to coworker nudges.

  • Your manager is (I hope) trained... see the update to the question :( – Mehrdad Feb 21 at 22:59
  • While it's clear the manager didn't handle this well, that doesn't prove that the OP would have. Without the authority to say "stop doing that" or "oh ok I see why you're doing that, carry on" the OP can only say "hey if that's something you can stop you probably should because the boss is on to you" and I wouldn't have predicted that doing that would end up helpful. – Kate Gregory Feb 21 at 23:57
56

You have already warned him and it appears he has ignored you.

If you warn him again, then the manager talks to him - he may associate that as your fault and be annoyed at you.

I had a similar situation about a more serious issue and warned a colleague ... who did not listen, eventually management fired him...

You have been a friend and told him, stay out of it now.

37

Maybe give him a friendly heads up that you overheard the manager talking about it, but keep the emphasis on friendly. Generally speaking, the bathroom habits of your colleagues are none of your business so put the emphasis on him being away from the desk without bringing up the toilet.

It's worth bearing in mind that there are medical conditions that require spending an above-average amount of time on the toilet, and the people who suffer from them generally don't want to talk about them.

Whatever you do, don't let him know that you've been timing his breaks. That'll just make you come over like a creepy stalker and you could find yourself being the one on the receiving end of a warning over it.

  • +1 for mentioning "creepy." – Kent A. Feb 18 at 2:19
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    Indeed. Someone was on here a few weeks ago complaining about a total weirdo who kept track of bathroom breaks. Wondering whether there's a connection. I'm also wondering whether both posts are an elaborate troll of some kind... – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 18 at 3:03
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit indeed, I wonder if they are in the same office. To add to the answer, if that bathroom reason is any kind of disability, that is an area of law where one should not bungle around carelessly. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 18 at 3:10
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    You might say that you should wash your hands of the matter and move on. :) – Matthew Barber Feb 18 at 4:44
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    You might also question whether only one stall for "a fair sized office" complies with the relevant health and safety at work regulations. The fact that another one "is currently being built" doesn't change that situation. In the UK, the maximum number of employees in a workplace with only a "single stall" is five - which doesn't sound like "a fair sized office" to me. – alephzero Feb 18 at 13:23
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Yes, you should. And I am angry with everyone else who answered or commented. Are we really to the point, again, where we avoid doing the morally right thing just because there might be personal risk? Yeah, you might get into an HR stew and your co-worker might be angry that you are meddling. Still, you should. You said yourself that you'd want someone to do you the same favor, that is, at some personal risk, they would try to help you.

If your morals or ethics collapse the minute some inconvenience (or even just the possibility of inconvenience) arises, what sort of low-rent, dime-store morals were they? The Allies put German soldiers in prison for not disobeying orders, even though to do so was certain death. Now, by dint of nothing more than fear of a career set back, we think it's OK to not speak up when speaking up is needed?

This small tirade is not really for the OP, but for all the answerers who answered on the basis of self-service, as if that were the only criterion.

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    Indeed. It's sad that so few answers seem able to appreciate 'concern for others'. "None of your business" is fair comment at some point. But as the starting point when another's job is at stake (as proved to be the case) is overdoing it. – Russell McMahon Feb 20 at 15:16
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    This is on the right track. But I would emphasize, there is absolutely 0 reason for HR to even be an issue. You don't have to talk about why they're gone, only warn them that the manager has noticed that they are away from their desk for long periods. A friendly heads up. There is no risk to yourself here. If you didn't know where they went you'd say the same thing - "hey, people noticed you're gone a lot and they're concerned". Solidarity with your fellow workers. – Vectorjohn Feb 21 at 22:36
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    Completely agree. I am absolutely appalled by the most upvoted answer. Colleagues are supposed to give well-meaning constructive feedback to each-other, focusing on behaviour and not judgement. It depends on the company culture, of course, but if there is no healthy feedback culture in a team, then it's a not a good sign either way. – BKE Feb 22 at 18:53
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First, this is potentially an issue with ADA, Unruh or your jurisdiction's equivalent laws that protect persons with disabilities or medical conditions. As such, anything remotely related to medical or disabilities must be handled in compliance with relevant laws and with the utmost sensitivity.

What's more, there are things you may not know, that you should not know, or may not be allowed to know. If you had a horrible injury or disease that required you to spend an hour at noon doing some sort of awkward and very private medical procedure, you really wouldn't want your privacy invaded by your coworkers. So pause to realize that invading his privacy, itself, is a grave violence against him.

It is possible that the employee has already disclosed this to HR, and the issue is understood by them, and you didn't get the memo because you don't have any right.

On the other hand, maybe he's in there playing Candy Crush, but ADA is such a legal minefield that you must assume worst case.

So let's be clear on this point: the topic of bathroom activity is 110% totally out of bounds here. You cannot raise his absence issue in any way which could possibly relate to his use of the bathroom. Since you believe you know where he goes, do not ask him where he goes. That can come to no good.

That said, two things are fair game.

First, you can state concern about his frequent absences, assuming that you have no earthly idea where he goes. In fact, telling him "the boss was looking for you, and he's annoyed to not find you" is a decent "watching your bro's back" thing that I recommend.

Second, anyone who needs the facilities has every right to use all the standard/normal methods to deal with the anonymous individual hogging the stall. Point being, no one has an inherent right to hog a stall as long as they pleases; other people need to go to the bathroom too! If the door is locked and there is no response from inside, then it's either a) an empty stall or b) a medical emergency; get a responsible person with a key.

If the person has a bona-fide need to have an hour in the bathroom, then that person needs to raise the requirement to management (they do not owe management the details, saying "it's a disability" invokes their ADA etc. protections)... Then management needs to communicate to employees that hourlong bathroom occupation is a necessity for certain anonymous employees and that they have a right to privacy... Then you need to keep your schnozz out of it. In that order.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 20 at 21:08
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So with the results being announced and the #1 answer resulting in trouble for OP and our poor junior being given a hard life lesson, I think it's worth reviewing the results and efforts made and learn from our mistakes.

Likely correct answer
Matthew Barber's answer probably said it fairly well.
As the senior, OP was expected to have made an effort (hence being scolded for not doing so) and Matthew presented a manner in how to do it appropriately: take the junior aside and mention that the manager is not happy with being away from the desk for an unknown reason.

Additional info that may have helped
・Clearly stating if OP would like to protect the junior (or not). In other words, making the desired outcome clear.

Community misses
・If this was a disability issue, would the manager not have known beforehand? OP stated from the start that the manager has taken notice of junior's absence, but was unaware of being in the restroom. (Edited to "complain")
・OP's tone--OP is convinced that this is a junior with a poor work ethic goofing off. Junior is "immature," usually doesn't finish his work and is grumbled about by coworkers (who also know he's in the bathroom). Much more likely than a handicap is that junior is on his cell-phone (which, if known, should have been mentioned).
・Junior doesn't finish his work on time, which is likely directly correlated to the 1.5+ paid hours that OP is not actually working (if there was a disability, the workload should be adjusted). As such, depending on the work environment, that means work for others (not to mention the disruptions from "oh, he's not here..."). This means it likely IS coworkers business. The standard procedure is likely to go through management, which makes things official, however the OP's question was whether professional etiquette or duty requires OP to do things personally (or in this case, to prevent the managerial hell that was likely coming). Regardless of how people feel (overwhelmingly "not your problem!" it seems), the result has made it clear that OP is in a work culture where it IS their problem. ・Over-editing. Turned junior from a slacker who doesn't finish his work to a handicapped person who can't finish. I respect the value of editing to make questions more general and professional, it doesn't help OP if you edit away all of their context!

If you have more analysis to add, feel free!

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    Mentioning that OP was in a role where it IS OP's responsibility to care for the performance of juniors - It sounds to me like the OP didn't know that their manager expected them to do this. If they had already known that their manager wanted them to intervene in performance issues with junior team members then they wouldn't have had to ask this question. It sounds like the manager isn't actually doing a good job (not making OP's responsibilities clear, not saying something to the junior employee before it became necessary to fire them). – BSMP Feb 21 at 6:07
  • @BSMP Good point. Edited that out – Mars Feb 21 at 6:19
  • In retrospect, it seems by the time OP posted here it was already the endgame, the firing was 99% likely to happen, and by the end there wasn't much OP could do to help. It wasn't just the bathroom thing, the employee "usually doesn't finish his work on time". While the boss may be unhappy about the bathroom issues, regular poor performance would probably be a much more serious concern. The bathroom thing just gave the boss an obvious justification for getting rid of him. – krubo Feb 22 at 7:20
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    @krubo I agree for the most part, but I think if OP's conversation with the boss went along the lines of "Yes, I noticed. I spoke with him about that and his performance the other day and he's shown improvement since then," the outcome could have been completely different though – Mars Feb 22 at 7:23
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    +1. Sometimes it seems like everyone here works for IBM in the 1950s, where everything is all official direct chain of command all the time. But everywhere I've worked, a more collaborative approach of senior employees guiding newer ones, working closely with the manager on team issues, and taking responsibility for overall team performance are common. – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jul 15 at 14:45
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This is ultimately a "nunya" situation; nunya funkin' business. Is this really how you wish to learn about a co-worker's private medical condition of which you have no right to know about?

If you have an issue with bathroom wait times then complain about bathroom wait times.

If you have an issue with working with someone who is never at their desk then complain that you can never find person xyz when you need them.

If this person is truly unaware that their hour-long bathroom breaks are causing an issue then they will be informed by the appropriate individual when the time comes. If they are already aware and they continue with the behavior then you should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they need to do what they are doing.

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    "they will be informed by the appropriate individual when the time comes", as nasty as it is, it is quite possible (even if not very likely) they will be fired without anybody actually ever telling them it was because of the long breaks. – hyde Feb 19 at 7:27
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    @hyde Check out OP's update if you haven't already done so. – MonkeyZeus Feb 20 at 20:24
3

It's really about how you bring it up. What you do not want to do is to bring it up in a way that makes him think you are being judgmental. This could cause a lot of problems for everyone involved (yourself included). Things not to do include:

1) Mention any particular action he does or place he goes (e.g. "I notice you've been going to the bathroom for a long time")

2) Mention you have been stalking him (e.g. "I've been timing your breaks"). Also, just don't do that in general. Since you have been doing it, you should both not tell him you have been doing it, and also stop doing it.

3) Give him any specific advice (e.g. "You should do/not do XYZ")

If you want to bring this up to him, to give him a heads up, things you should do include:

1) Make it short and sweet. Do not have a discussion. He does not get to respond with anything except a "yes, I understand". If he starts to respond, cut him off and say "I just wanted to let you know, you don't have to justify yourself to me".

2) Mention that this has come to the attention of his boss, and that he might be under fire. Make sure you are abundantly clear that it wasn't you who "told on" him.

3) Make sure you are discreet. Don't talk in front of other coworkers, talk quietly, and make it quick.

My personal phrasing would be something like:

Hey, Joe, I've been noticing you've been away from your desk for long periods of time. I think Bill [Joe's boss] is starting to notice as well. You might want to cut down on whatever it is you're doing, or you could get into some serious trouble. Just giving you a heads-up. It's not my business what you're doing, so you don't have to justify yourself to me, but I'm just giving you a heads up that Bill might start asking questions.

2

I consider this to be at best a supplementary answer to Lightness Races in Orbit's excellent straightforward answer (I left essentially a three phrase version of this as a comment there, contexted as the difference between creepy and not), and as such it's intended to answer any lingering "but what if I just...?" (such as: "but what if I just want to warn my coworker about their boss noticing them doing this").

What can you say?

What your colleague does (particularly on break, in private) is precisely... none of your business, as many others have repeated. How long they are not at their desk is also not your business. Why they are not at their desk is not your business.

What is your business, and what you can bring up with your coworker, is interaction you have had or directly observed going on (and when I say directly, I mean actually what you saw or heard, not what conclusions you then assumed about it).

If their boss comes and asks where they are, you can relay that to your coworker. "So-and-so was asking for you, I didn't know where you were so that's what I told them". Don't speculate about where they were. Don't speculate to anyone else about where they were. Don't speculate about anything. For example "So-and-so was looking for you, I bet they're annoyed at your 1 hour bathroom breaks" is you purely assuming and speculating on the latter half. Don't do that.

Being a friend at work or at least a good coworker starts and ends with not pushing in uninvited on personal issues (not to be mistaken with offering support in a way that doesn't push), which is absolutely what's going on when it's a peer (or under a lateral reporting structure) and not your report. Whatever your coworker's 1 hour bathroom(?) breaks involve is between your coworker and their boss and HR. You have no knowledge of whatever arrangements they have made, and such arrangements would not be any of your business if they existed.

If something about your coworker's performance is affecting your work, then that is up to you to address with your boss, but I would caution to keep it to the direct facts of what is having an effect, NOT your assumptions about what is behind that.

"Coworker isn't keeping up with deadlines" is a direct fact. That's what you need your manager to deal with for you.

"Coworker isn't keeping up with deadlines because of 1 hour bathroom breaks" is your speculative assumption, and as someone not managing that person, not your call to make, and WHY your coworker isn't keeping up or is causing bottle necks for you is something for your manager to figure out and figure out how to resolve, not you.

Whatever you can do to let go of this interest of yours in your coworker's related time is in your best interest. You're not their boss. So if their boss has taken an interest, yes, you can communicate that actually observed interaction (not your subsequent assumptions/speculation) on the part of their boss. If it's affecting you directly due to workflow, you can in turn address that. But don't turn this into you trying to clock watch someone else at work who isn't your report, and seriously don't turn this into speculating about why they're gone for so long.

We're all human and curious

...but this is the type of road that, professionally, you're better off turning away from. This is one of those cases that for everyone involved, about the best thing you can do is to keep things professional about this, in context with what your role actually is (e.g. not being their manager). I realize that there's also a strong "fairness" sense that can impact here, which is also one of those very human things (fairness is one of the earlier psychological social constructs to develop, showing up even fairly early in babies) but ultimately you need to find a route to letting go of your concern over that however you possibly can, because you simply don't know everything going on, it's not your place to know, and it's not your place to handle it. Quite simply whatever's going on may even be quite "fair" in context and regards to you, if for example it involves a medical issue on the part of your colleague... but ultimately, regardless, you have to figure out how to resolve your feelings about the situation and whatever is driving you to take such a deep interest, so that your own feelings on this can quit impacting you (which they clearly are, even if only to the extent that you're now clock watching a coworker).

What if you're simply genuinely concerned about your coworker?

Then keep that conversation focused on offering support, without prying. But don't mix it with "hey I think the boss is on to you".

"I just want you to know, if you ever need anything that I can help with, I'm here for you" is one way to word that which doesn't involve essentially saying "hey I've been stalking your bathroom breaks".

It's also low pressure, because you're not assigning anything that then needs a refutation or asks for some kind of direct answer, such as "Is everything ok?". It's pretty easy to answer "Thanks" to that if they want to drop the conversation. If they don't continue the conversation, drop the conversation. The point was to being actually supportive, not prying. And this is supposed to be about them, not you: yes, letting go of your interest is hard, but if you actually care, that's what you need to do.

If they then ask "why are you asking", that's an appropriate time to mention, simply, that you've gradually noticed that they seem to be away a fair bit (or, as a better point of focus, that you've noticed that they seem to be struggling to meet deadlines), even though it's not as if you're keeping track, and you don't know why and it's none of your business, but you do care about them as a colleague so you wanted to express your support if there's anything going on they might need help with.

2

I've been in several workplaces where people have been eager to earn 'brown-nose-points' at the expense of others. It is a nasty thing and now I tend to build files on everybody so I can fight back in case people try it against me. I feel it's a waste of time but I also feel I need to protect myself.

In my opinion the regular people in teams (non-managers) should stick together and cover as much as possible for each other, especially when it comes to things like 'private time', bathroom breaks etc.

I'm not saying that we should lie - but there's absolutely no need to report things, nor to confirm 'suspicions' from management.

Now, such extensive bathroom breaks are over the top unless there's a valid medical condition. But we should deal with in within the team and not involve management.

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