employee uses the bathroom stall with the door wide open — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I have (what I think is) an outlandish question for you, but I promise it’s true. It comes from my coworker’s spouse.

At her place of employment, they have found it difficult to retain anyone in the administrative assistant position. It sounds like there was a lot of turnover in that role, to the point that management is desperate to retain someone … anyone! The current admin assistant, lets call her Feyre, has some personal hygiene issues (i.e. not showering, coming to work unkempt in worn sweatpants, etc.) which had to be addressed by whoever oversees her.

While addressing personal hygiene is not out of the realm of possibilities in the workplace, one startling revelation was that other coworkers have walked into the bathroom where Feyre was “doing her business” with the stall door wide open! The affronted other employee excused themselves immediately and thought it an accident. However, this kept happening and a pattern emerged.
Management approached Feyre with this, and she said she has severe claustrophobia where she can’t use the bathroom with the door closed. In order to accommodate her, management made it clear she must either shut the stall door or use the private accessible toilet down the hall. She has refused to do this, and is still using the toilet with the stall door wide open. As management is desperate to retain someone in this position and her work is mildly satisfactory, they still want to keep her.

I’m obviously not in this situation as I don’t work there, but I do a lot of the hiring/HR at my smaller organization so I am both horrified and fascinated at what management’s next steps should be. We are in Canada so the laws may vary, but at what point does the employer exceed their duty to accommodate an employee for something like this? What would be the best way for management to navigate this situation?!

There are all kinds of accommodations that can be made for claustrophobia, but “use the toilet with the door wide open in a bathroom where other people are present” is not one of them. I can’t speak to Canadian law, but I suspect it’s the same as U.S. law in this circumstance: accommodations can’t require that other people’s rights be violated, and Feyre’s coworkers have the right not be subject to an practice that involves them being repeatedly and involuntarily exposed to a colleague with her pants down.

Having Feyre use the private accessible toilet down the hall was a good solution. Since she’s refused to do that, they need to find out why. Is it too far from her desk and she sometimes needs the bathroom more urgently? If so, can her desk be moved? Or is it a closed door that’s the issue for her, period? If so, they need a lawyer to guide them here. My instinct is that that’s a situation that can’t be resolved — because, again, accommodations can’t violate other people’s rights (which is why you can’t, for example, set accommodations that include things like “never has to speak to female employees” or “must be permitted to run nude through the hallways”) — but when you’re at the point of denying a medical accommodation, you want a lawyer to help you navigate it.

In this case, it sounds like the employer wants to throw up their hands and say, “Oh well, she’s going to use the bathroom with the door open, nothing we can do” because they want to keep her in the job. But the employees there would be on solid footing if they wanted to push back and say, “No, we’re not willing to be exposed to this.”

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