by Phil Wilson

Is Your Washroom Breeding Bolsheviks?

A few weeks ago I took a wonderful trip down memory lane. I visited my old law firm offices, where I got started in this business a quarter-century ago (good lord that last part was hard to type). In the years since I left the common spaces, the firm transformed into an art and natural history museum.

The art in the office is a great new addition. But my favorite piece of art at the firm was there the first day I showed up for my summer internship, and it still hangs in the same prominent place: the men’s bathroom.

Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

This paper towel ad ran in Time Magazine in 1932, during the anti-communist red-scare. ScotTissue Corporation came up with a brilliant campaign. If your employees spend the week wiping their hands on “harsh, cheap paper towels” you could be breeding commies right under your own nose.

The answer? Apparently you can avoid grumbling by providing employees “cloth-like” ScotTissue towels. Those “thirsty fiber” towels rank right up there with other employee benefits like “proper air and lighting” (seriously?). Oh, and the folks in accounting like them too, since you only need one towel to dry your hands - brilliant!

I’m not sure how many Bosheviks were bred based on harsh paper towels, but I’ve definitely seen union elections that centered around bathroom conditions. So I think the folks at ScotTissue make a good point – you want to pay attention to what’s happening in your bathrooms.

And like clockwork, the NLRB also recently weighed in on bathroom behavior. This incident occurred in a bathroom at a Quicken Loans office. This grumbling wasn’t about paper towels, instead, this potential Bolshevik was dropping F-bombs about clients in a public restroom.

Apparently, Michael Woods was frustrated that a client he’d assisted four years before was back in his pipeline. In the public bathroom, he declared that the client should “get in touch with a [f-bomb] Client Care Specialist and quit wasting [Woods’ f-bomb] time.” His timing wasn’t great, since he said all this in the presence of a supervisor.

The question in Quicken Loans was whether terminating Woods violated the Act. His position (of course) was that the conversation in the bathroom was protected concerted activity. Based on earlier Board decisions (in which almost anything was protected activity) the Administrative Law Judge ruled Woods’ conversation was protected. The Board ruled, in a 3-0 decision that surprisingly included Democrat Member McFerran, that the conversation was unprotected.

The Board found that the conversation was not trying to induce any kind of group action about the way calls were handled between departments, instead, it was an individual complaint (saying, for example, the client was wasting his time) and Woods was not trying to get others to join him in protesting his concern. In other words, the conversation was “mere griping” and therefore unprotected.

The Board went further, they stated even if they had found that the conversation intended to generate group action, the goal was not “mutual aid and protection” or to improve or change any policy, procedure or work condition, instead they found the goal – if any – was just to complain.

It is refreshing to see the protected concerted activity pendulum swing at least partially away from the world we lived in a few years ago, where every stray employee gripe got full protection from the federal government. Unfortunately, Quicken Loans does not directly answer the important question of whether paper towel complaints are protected. We’ll be forced to wait a bit longer for the answer to the question, “Is Your Washroom Breeding Bolsheviks?”