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Hand-Washing at Work

Hand-Washing at Work

Alison Green | Ask A Manager

October 12, 2010

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.

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