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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

coworker won't wash her hands after using the bathroom

A reader writes:

We have a very distasteful problem at work that I just don't know how to handle, and it's really disgusting. We have a co-worker who absolutely refuses to wash her hands after she uses the rest room, and she refuses the alternative of using gel sanitizer. She has fecal bacteria, ecoli, and Lord only knows what else on those bacteria covered hands of hers. These are the same hands she uses to open the office door the rest of the office staff has to use. She touches the copy machine buttons, the postage machine, all the other office equipment the office employees have to share, and there seems like there is nothing we can do about it.

We have approached her directly, but she just laughs. We have approached our supervisor, who spoke to her, but nothing changed. I am at the point of actually looking for another job over it. We keep sanitizer and handiwipes in the office, and wipe common use areas down frequently, but we should not have to, and I resent the filth. This is so disgusting! Is there anything we can do?

You're thinking of leaving your job over this?

Look, yes, this is gross, and yes, it's unsanitary, but ... do you really think that you're not encountering the same sort of problem in other places?  I assure you that this woman is not the only one engaged in this behavior; she just happens to be the one you know about. When you go to the mall, the grocery store, the park, wherever -- you're undoubtedly encountering things that have been touched by other people who also don't wash their hands. The only difference here is that you happen to know who a specific culprit is.

(I just looked this up to see if there were any statistics on hand-washing, and I found this study, which says that 28% of adults don't regularly wash their hands after using the bathroom. And to make matters worse, this study found that even people who wash their hands don't wash them well enough to wash off germs.)

I suppose a manager in your office could lay down the law on this -- requiring employee hand-washing in the same way that restaurants do, to prevent the spread of germs, and talking to this employee in a more serious way to let her know it's not optional ... but (a) do you really want your managers monitoring people's bathroom behavior, and (b), even if they did create some rule around this, are you ever going to really trust that she's washing her hands when someone isn't around to observe her?

Keep hand sanitizer around, use it liberally, and socially shame her if you must -- but quitting over it? For that to make any sense, you'd also need to wear gloves and a mask every time you emerged from your house. People are often gross. The world is germy. Write this woman off as one of the many gross people out there and move on.


Heather said...

I think it's amazing that they approached her and expressed their concerns and she laughed it off.

Sabrina said...

Wow. This whole thing is amusing. Why is there not a someecards about this topic?

Anonymous said...

Reader should swab her own keyboard and cell phone and report back the results. Gross, yeah. Worth getting bent out of shape over, no.

Now, if this co-worker is anti toilet paper too...then we have a problem.

Anonymous said...

AAM is right - you don't know what else is so disgusting in the world, but it's because you know this one woman that you are more repulsed. I find it very disconcerning that she laughed it off when people approached her. Something is wrong there beyond her just not washing her hands.

I don't think it's worth quitting over. Just make your hygiene is in good standing. Don't overuse the hand sanitizer; it can dry out your hands and possibly overdo the killing of germs (there are "good" ones out there too). If you are in the rest room, use a paper towel to open the door if you have to pull it to leave; otherwise, give it a small kick with your foot. For your copier and other common technologies, maybe use the pencil eraser end to hit the buttons. Be creative to find a way not to touch stuff you've seen her use throughout the day, but wiping the stuff down with the wipes will work too.

ImpassionedPlatypi said...

I doubt this will make me popular, and AAM I realize this opinion may have an adverse effect on my ability to get a job with your organization if I apply for another position there in the future, but I don't even really consider this all that gross. As AAM already pointed out, lots of people don't wash their hands every time they go to the bathroom, or every time they sneeze, or every time they cough and so on. There are bacteria and germs everywhere. You know why that's not gross? Because it strengthens our immune systems. I remember reading something ages ago about how kids who eat non-toxic but weird stuff like paste and who pick their noses tend to get sick less than kids whose parents have them constantly washing and using antibacterial gel. When our immune systems get lots of practice, they're better at fighting things off. It might be a little distasteful, but it's not something to get anywhere this worked up over.

Anonymous said...

See, this is YET ANOTHER good reason we should bring back the custom of wearing white gloves in public! And parasols to keep the cruel sun off our delicate faces.

Anonymous said...

@impassioned, while I agree it's not as if OP isn't already taking a big microorganism hit just being out among the unwashed masses (and around her own children if she has any), it would be a mistake to base a judgement on a "study you read somewhere". One single scientific study does not make a proof. It must be reproducible and verifiable. Further, a summary of a study republished in a newsrack mag from a summary in some other journal from a reference to the original does not make for a very good summary. Remember that kid's game where you whisper a secret down the line?

I apologize, I know this is a business blog, but I'm a scientist first and I have to stop lurking and speak up for a moment here.

To my knowledge, there's really no proof of that widely held belief. (if you know of it, please post the link, I would very much like to read it) It's like the 8 glasses of water a day thing. A guy back in the 60's thought it was a good idea, and now it's "fact". For a good discussion of the phenomena I'm talking about, pick up a copy of "How Doctors Think".

Anonymous said...

There have been multiple studies linking overuse of antibiotics to the development of superbugs and greater susceptibility to infection. In fact, the WHO is suggesting all antibiotics be prescribed.

Getting back to the topic: It is anti-social to refuse to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, but just like wearing too much fragrance or people talking too loudly about random television shows, it's nothing to quit your job over.

Ruby said...

Really? Oh, I would completely be squicked out, right along side the original questioner. It's one thing to know that the germs exist out in public wherever you go, but the fact is, work is NOT public. Our work environments make a huge impact on us (which is precisely why this sort of blog exists) and "the little things" like a colleague not washing the urine and feces off her hands when she uses the toilets (or anything else depending on the time of the month), and then having to share *anything* with her would drive me out of my mind!
In a shopping centre, I can use an alcohol wipe to clean off the trolley handle if I want to; and I choose to wash my hands before I handle food on it's way to mouth - but maybe I've got a touch of neurosis! Killing germs that can make us sick is not a bad idea - there's a difference between over-use of antibacterials (which I too disagree with) and the sanitary use of plain ol' soap and water. I'd be happier NOT working with someone who I knew didn't wash her hands, even if it meant working with someone who *may not* wash her hands.

fposte said...

If this does cause a problem, it'll probably be for herself anyway--she's not using the opportunity to wash off all the microorganisms she's picking up from everybody else. The old-fashioned coughers and sneezers into their hands are more likely to be spreading stuff around.

But ultimately this is more a social thing than a health thing. That doesn't mean it's insignificant--social things are how we make each other comfortable or crazy in sharing a space--but it's not a situation of endangerment, either. And as Alison implies, if you feel a need to quit your job because you're sharing a workspace with somebody who doesn't wash their hands, you're going to have to leave every workspace, because most certainly handwashing is universal at none of them.

Anonymous said...

I'd say about half my coworkers don't wash their hands. Seriously. Disgusting. But there are so many other things wrong with where I work, their lack of personal hygiene is the least of my problems. If that's your biggest concern about your job, consider yourself lucky.

Katrina said...

Matt Lauer of the Today Show has a personal germ issue - and he did a segment on it once. He and a scientist walked around NYC all day swabbing stuff while Matt couldn't wash his hands, only use the gel sanitizer.

At the end of the day, his hands were germ free. However, on the hand rail of an escalator they swabbed they found a bacteria normally present in the vagina.

In other words, keep the gel sanitizer on YOUR desk. There's a doctor in my town who just received approval to produce a hand sanitizer that lasts longer than 45 seconds. Look into it if you're that concerned.

Class factotum said...

kids ... who pick their noses tend to get sick less than kids whose parents have them constantly washing and using antibacterial gel.

I lived in South America for two years, working with rural women where I just didn't have easy access to soap and water after using the outhouse.

I never get sick. Never. Of course, I also do not pee or - otherwise - on my hands.

Kathy said...

I bet there's probably a teensy bit more involved with OPs problem with this woman than *just* the hygiene (granted, it's gross). I would bet the woman is undesirable in other ways, which just amps up OPs repulsion of the woman.

I wonder if OP were to find out that a person she esteems highly had the same hygiene issues, would she be willing to leave her job over this respected person? Or would OP cut the respected person a bit more slack than the icky woman?

Overall, the woman is probably an inconsiderate slob, and the hygiene is probably the straw that breaks the camel's back.

ImpassionedPlatypi said...

Anon@12:27- I never tried to claim that whatever it was I read (and I thought I'd made it clear, but I don't really even remember where I read or heard it, it's just a vague recollection) was some definitive scientific study. I also mentioned in my very first sentence that this was an opinion of mine. The opinion being that the the idea of exposing your immune system to a lot of different potentially harmful things can help to make it stonger by giving it practice at fighting those things off makes a lot of sense. And my basis for that opinion is not just this vague recollection of something I read or heard years ago. I used that recollection as an example because it was the first thing that popped into my head at the time. I stated an opinion and gave a quick example/reason for my opinion. I wasn't trying to write a dissertation. I don't see what the problem was.

Clean Jean said...

EEEEEEWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!! I just broke out in hives all over my body! Just knowing that they asked this employee to wash her hands and she laughed gives me the heebie-jeebies!

Yeah, I know there are a lot nastier things out there in the world, but ignorance is bliss in that case.

On the other hand (no pun there), knowing which dish was hers at the company potluck would probably be a valuable tidbit of information.

Jamie said...

Kathy is right - there's something more than hygiene wrong with this co-worker. The lack of shame on being called out for being gross is probably an indicator of much bigger problems.

That said - AAM is right - this is just someone you know about. I assume there's a lot of ickiness being spread around so all any of us can do is try to keep our own hands as clean as possible and take reasonable precautions.

That said, it would be hard for me to have a good working relationship once I put a face to the yuck factor.

I guess that's one argument for telecommuting. Our homes are filled with germs, but at least we have the illusion of control.

Jamie said...

Clean Jean made an excellent point - I would stay away from any food she's bringing in from home. I can't imagine she's any more concerned about bacteria in her own kitchen then she is in the bathroom.

Rebecca said...

"Now, if this co-worker is anti toilet paper too...then we have a problem."

Oh, you joke, but... a friend of mine experienced this for real. Shortly after his work picked up a large number of seasonal employees, someone started smearing feces on the insides of the men's bathroom stalls.

The culprits were found out after the big boss publicly threatened firings over it. They complained (to each other, and not in English) about how they didn't get what the big deal was and they'd just have to "lay low" for a while.

They were overheard by one of the managers, who (unbeknownst to them) had grown up in their home country and understood everything they said.

The manager didn't call them out on it immediately... just told a few people and let the grapevine work. The guilty parties were rapidly shamed into compliance.

Anonymous said...

Also, fwiw, your kitchen sink and the bottom of your purse probably have more E. Coli on them than any surface in your bathroom, including your toilet.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous at 12:27 AM - Hi, scientist here as well.

I'm a chemical biologist, and speaking as one, I can say that it stands to reason that exposure to infectious diseases or microorganisms is the best way or the body's adaptive immune system (not your innate one) to build a library of molecules to fight against varied antigens. Without limited exposure, your immune system is only working a half capacity, so to speak.

MANY, many studies over the past half-century have been done showing a positive correlation between early life exposure and increased resistance to various maladies.

Here's a link to one such study (just the first one I snagged off the line):;jsessionid=6AF08F8995E5A09A3FB886DB1F460FEE.d03t01

Can't access it? Here's the title: Asthma onset prior to multiple sclerosis and the contribution of sibling exposure in early life

The authors conclude from their study that "The link between early life sibling exposure and the immune response to herpes group viral antigens is consistent with a protective role for early life infections."

Anonymous said...

Just because lots of people don't wash their hands is no excuse to allow this kind of ridiculous dark age behavior. The people not washing their hands should be ridiculed to the point they quit or start washing their hands. They are the ones being disgusting and need to be made aware of such, repeatedly.

Violet said...

You think your job is bad.

“All of us abuse the hand sanitizer. I know that over-the-counter antibacterial products are bad. I know that it actually develops hideous resistant strains of bacteria. I even did the high school biology experiment where you put penicillin in a petri dish of E. Coli, then watch the zone of inhibition get smaller and smaller as the bacteria learn to eat the stuff for breakfast. I know it is bad, and I don’t think it should even be legal to sell it. All of my fellow clerks agree with me, but we all abuse the hand sanitizer. We can’t help it.” —Ali Davis, True Porn Clerk Stories

Anonymous said...

Didn't Mythbusters or one of those types of shows do an episode where they found that the feces actually covers 6 feet of bathroom area just from flushing?

I know I've seen a recommendation that you keep your toothbrush covered or more than 6 ft from the toilet. Odds are, even if she was washing, you're still touching icki-ness all over the place in the restroom.

Joey said...

What a sh*tty problem! lol

Honestly, although it's gross to think about I also wonder if the op is just one of those germophobes that always rubs their hands with hand sanitizer after they touch anything. Get real! Does the op realistically expect a manager to do anything substantial? You can't seriously be implying toilet hands warrant any kind of formal discipline. I don't want to be repesenting the company in that unemployment hearing. Get over it or buy a bigger bottle of hand sanitizer.

Anonymous said...

..."like a colleague not washing the urine and feces off her hands when she uses the toilets..."

Um, I don't know who potty-trained you guys, but if you're getting urine or feces anywhere on yourself when you use the toilet YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

Jamie said...

The science behind the germs is actually really interesting to me - I read once where a communal keyboard will usually have more bacteria than the average toilet seat. As IT I think about this when I touch a strange keyboard, and I touch a lot of strange keyboards.

I don't think the ick factor is really about germs though. If it were that we'd all encase ourselves in plastic and soak in tubs full of penicillin on the weekends.

It's offensive because it's just rude. It's rude to be gross because it makes other people uncomfortable. That's just bad manners.

We can't just opt to not see our co-workers, and we all have our little quirks and idiosyncrasies. So if people are required by circumstance to spend time together it behooves us all not to be deliberately off putting. Social conventions are in place for a reason.

Violet said...

@Rebecca— Your friend's story story sounds really suspicious to me. It just trips a huge number of urban legend alarms.

Jamie said...

Actually - while Rebecca's story sounds like it could be on snopes it has more than a ring of truth to me.

In certain work environments statements are made in some very unsettling ways.

Back in the day I had to call out an emergency cleaning crew out once for one of the plants - similar situation. It does happen.

clobbered said...

Okay well the obvious question is, how do you know what your coworker is doing in the bathroom? She might be going in there to break wind. She might be going in there to text her boyfriend. She might be going in there to mutter "I hate my busybody coworkers" :-) She might have some skin condition that means she doesn't want to get her hands wet.

Hell, (and not to gross anybody out) but if you are female you can even pee without touching anything in bathrooms with automatic flushers, provided you don't wipe. So it's not necessarily a case of "fecal! matter! everywhere!".

Like the others, I can't help thinking there's more than meets the eye here.

PS. I look at all the Japanese people who wear masks when they have a cold (which is unusual in the West) and their water-jet toilets and think we must look pretty gross to them. Eye of the beholder and all that.

Anonymous said...

I bet there would be a lot less bacteria on communial items if more people washed their hands ;)

Kevin said...

I've worked at sewage treatment plants since the Reagan administration and at the current one our lab regularly does what are called surface plates around the plant. A surface plate is where you take what is essentially a low side petrie dish with hardened growth media and press the media gel against a surface, then incubate it and see if any fecal bacteria grows.

Last round there was zero growth from any surface in the rest rooms; our micro guy tested the door handles, faucet handles, vanity tops, and toilet seats. Where did we get bacteria? The biggest hit was the kitchen sink followed by some desktops. But nowhere was there any significant growth. Note that this media is fecal specific, any other types of bacteria wouldn't show up; but fecal (I could say it more if you like; fecal, fecal, fecal) is the focus of this question.

As others have said, I'm more concerned with her reaction to the request than the actual failure to wash.

Class factotum said...

In Rebecca's defense, someone smeared feces in one of the shower stalls of the gym where I used to go. I told the desk attendant. I went back to the gym at lunch (I used to swim before work and then lift weights at lunch and yet I am chubby - go figure) and the feces were still there.

I told the attendant again and she said that I couldn't expect someone making what a janitor makes to clean sh*t. I told her that not only did I expect it, but that I had cleaned sh*t for minimum wage when I was a lifeguard and some boys decided to poop on the bathroom floor.

Rebecca said...

o noes, my interwebs reputation! lulz

Re: masks in Japan -- another reason many wear them is as a cold preventative. One of the government's failed economic plans in the 50s was to try to start a massive Japanese lumber industry. It was a colossal failure on two levels: (1) nobody wanted to buy their expensive, poor-quality wood, and (2) a large proportion of the population is allergic to the pollen from the species of tree the government chose. So, end result: no lumber industry and a massive annoyance for a lot of citizens in the spring and summer. (Source: Different friend, who grew up in Japan. Go ahead and check Snopes ;) )

Julie O. said...

I think we could have inferred the situation in all its glory simply from the second sentence of the OP's letter ("We have a co-worker who absolutely refuses to wash her hands after she uses the rest room, and she refuses the alternative of using gel sanitizer.") Boom, got the picture!

The fact that the OP felt the need to preface it with the warning that it was a distasteful and disgusting problem, and then enumerate the types of bacteria and all the things the person touches (bleh, we get it, we get it!) suggests an above-average germ aversion, a need to be extra gross to sway our opinions to her side, or both.

Germs are everywhere, and in a way the OP is lucky to have a daily reminder of that fact.

P.S. Rebecca, the fact that you emphasized the culprits' foreign-ness may be what's causing skepticism about your story.

Anonymous said...

Class factotum - I would've just reported them to the health department. That's just way nasty.

fposte said...

Anon 10:15--there might be less *fecal* bacteria. But most of it comes from other parts of our body, which we're not touching in the bathroom. Unless you're going to insist on hand-washing every time a colleague rubs an eye or blows a nose, contamination rates on things like keyboards aren't likely to change much.

Anonymous said...

I have overwashed my hands. As a breastfeeding mom, my nutrients were so low, my skin was starting to break down on one of my fingers. I had to take supplemental vitamin C to repair it, but I cannot use soap on that finger anymore. It will crack and bleed. I have to use soap on the upper part of my arm and let it wash down on the finger. I run the water for a long time and rub well, but my skin is very damaged on that finger.

Just letting you know that not everyone can wash their hands. Eczema runs in my family. Believe me that it is painful.

Coworkers don't need to force their will in that type of a situation, unless it is a restaurant.

I try my best to be sanitary, but in some parts of the world, there is no soap. The world still goes on...

Anonymous said...

You are far more likely (85% according to the CDC) to get e.coli from eating a hamburger than by touching something your coworker happened to touch before you after not washing her hands. If you do catch something from your coworker, its far more likely that it is a germ that came from her mouth or nose, than from her use of the toilet.

There are really two issues going on here: the coworker with poor hygiene, and OP, with paranoia and germaphobe issues.

Anonymous said...

Besides, the person the non-washer is most likely to hurt is herself; she probably gets more colds than everyone else. That's the main thing you're protecting yourself against when you wash, the common cold, not fecal contamination.

Katie said...

Hand soap isn't even provided in the restrooms at my office. We have wall soap dispensers, but they aren't refilled nearly as often as they need to be, and the soap that's in them when they are filled dries my skin so severely that it looks like I'm wearing red gloves. I can always rinse my hands, and I have a teeny bottle of hand sanitizer on my keychain, which I need to get into the bathroom anyway, and a big one at my desk. Since I don't know what other women, or men, for that matter, are doing about our soaplessness, I treat my office bathroom as I would any other public restroom, and I touch everything with my toe or a paper towel. At least colleagues who see that I'm not washing my hands are in the same boat; I can see how it would look if they noticed me skipping out on washing my hands!

AAM—are there any rules about supplying hand soap in restrooms? We've complained about the dispensers running out (I'm not about to raise my voice about my delicate skin) to no avail. What would we do if toilet paper were as limited?

Ask a Manager said...

Good question. If it were a public space (such as a restaurant), public health rules would take care of that. But I'm not sure if any such rules apply to office spaces, actually. Maybe you can ask your office manager or whoever orders supplies to just order a bunch of containers of liquid soap for the bathrooms? (Although maybe he/she is the problem.)

Anonymous said...

As a guy, I would say that most guys either don't wash their hands at all or do what I like to call the "splash and dash" -- just splashing water for less than 1 second and wiping it on their pants.

My bigger pet-peeve is the people who pee or poop all over the toilet seat and don't clean it up. Seriously, people, were you raised by animals? Yeah, I'm sure you don't want to clean it up, but neither do I, especially when I really have to go.

At my workplace, they've gone "green" and have no paper towels at all. There's one electric hand dryer, and it is basically impossible to actually get your hands dry unless you use it for about 5 minutes (and there's usually someone waiting impatiently behind you with dripping hands). The bathroom has 2 extremely heavy doors (a doorway inside another doorway), and they are basically always covered in water & soapy slime and grime.

Also, it's not about whether or not you pee on your hands, it's about the bacteria that's in-between your legs.

Jesse Hachey said...

I think an appropriate insight to this problem would be to look up the amount of bacteria that is retained by common office tools, specifically the keyboard and mouse - which have been found, in some studies, to contain exceptionally higher amounts of bacteria than toilet seats. A good reference to this is here: .

Anonymous said...

I have seen people who are too clean/too germophobic who get colds worse than others. But they are doing more than just washing their hands. They over use the hand sanitizer a lot, and then wonder why they get such bad colds. Their bodies are really not immune to anything.