Office toilets
When you’re gotta go, you’ve gotta go. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

BusinessApril 4, 2022

When office toilets become a shit show

Office toilets
When you’re gotta go, you’ve gotta go. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

A brief history of the worst office bathrooms I’ve been forced to endure.

“Right.” Bang on 10am in the middle of the newsroom, Adam* would stand up, fold a newspaper under his arm, announce what he was doing and stride purposefully towards the bathroom. It was a ritual we had become accustomed to. Twenty minutes later, he’d return, ready to discuss any topic that took his fancy from his chosen reading material. We’d swap eye rolls and quiet sighs, wishing he’d shut up. No one wants to talk to someone who’s just done poos. Give it five minutes, minimum.

But Adam loved to chat. Sometimes, he wanted to discuss more immediate headlines, like the life admin he’d just taken care of. With no shame, he’d explain to anyone within earshot the size and consistency of his stools. Once, using his office chair like a pretend dunny, he perched with his newspaper open, mimicking his daily ablutions. Then he turned his head to peer down behind him. “Do you take a look?” he asked, trying to get a rise. He didn’t get the response he was after. Louder, he said, “Of course you do. Everyone does.”

What was the point of all this? Decades on, I still don’t know. But it was one hell of an introduction to the weird world of office toilet etiquette. Adam was my first desk neighbour in my first proper job. It set me up for two decades of tense, awkward, weird and downright disgusting office bathroom encounters. There, in an open plan office with beach views, I discovered a silent hierarchy: toilets were designated to departments, and some cubicles belonged to certain people. They were simply out of bounds. You did not use them, or HR might get involved.

Those few that were available to us plebs were often filthy, desecrated pieces of porcelain that struggled under the sheer workload. Often, just a few hours into each work day, they’d already be full of life’s detritus both inside and out of the bowl. Sometimes, Adam’s discarded newspapers would be left lying around. In others, there’d be spools of hopefully unused toilet paper covering the floor. Who drinks coffee while emptying their bowels? Apparently, those who work in newsrooms do. The amount of remnant coffee cups could fill a dishwasher.

In the Ricky Gervais mockumentary The Office, the biggest source of tension comes from the terrible behaviour of bad boss David Brent. In real life, the main source of office frustration can often be found in staff toilets. It’s where office resentment builds into beef that gets carried back into the office. When you’re busting to go and your only option is to confront revolting toilets, those marble thrones become cubicles of despair. You’d do a Will Smith at The Oscars to the culprit if only you didn’t need to go. Like, right now.

David Brent
Bad boss David Brent from The Office.

“What happened in here?!” is a question I have asked myself many times. Across 20 years of office survival, I have seen all of life’s foibles on display in the bathrooms. Bathrooms so stinky you can barely breathe. Toilets so grim they should be in a Saw film. No soap. No paper. Puddles and stains of dubious origin. Indescribably awful noises. And people. Happy co-workers, crying co-workers, tense co-workers, disgusting (and disgusted) co-workers. Those that want to chat. Those that want to flee. Life’s characters, all forced to use the same john.

Some rules you learn along the way. Get in and get out as fast as you can. Don’t make eye contact if you don’t want to chat. If you share a bathroom with a news sports department, don’t use them on Mondays. Ever. In case of emergencies, make sure you know where the back-up toilets are. Abscond to another department, another floor, or, if necessary, the nearest public toilets. Don’t be afraid to explore: I once found a beautifully clean, unused bathroom in an office across the road. It became my go-to until they cottoned on and added swipe card security.

Other rules you learn by mistake. Don’t use the disabled toilets during Friday night office parties. You never know what or, perhaps who you might find in there enjoying that extra space.

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t spend an abnormal amount of time in the bathroom. This is cubicle life. Ask around and you’ll find most office toilets are a shit show. Everyone’s got a story, some worse than mine. A colleague asked me to track down the “mystery shitter” who plagued ACP’s Auckland offices for years. A friend told me how her ex-colleague accidentally mass-emailed their entire company as many as 8000 staff worldwide — over a toilet blockage in an Auckland office. 

Another friend, this one in radio, recalled how a piece of very well used toilet paper made its way into the middle of the shared office space via the bottom of someone’s shoe. Rumour has it that someone is a talkback host. Rumour has it that someone is a household name.

The Spinoff is not immune to these issues. In a previous building there were inadequate bathroom facilities. Already overloaded, a mystery guest rendered them unusable by vomiting so much red wine on the floor it dripped through to the office below. As a recent recruit, in our new building, I’m happy to report they’re the proud owners of some of the cleanest office toilets I’ve seen. Not a smidgen of vomit in sight.

Office toilet
An inner-city Auckland office toilet sign tells users not to leave ‘presents’. (Photo: Supplied)

I’ve saved my shittiest story for last. A previous workplace had good vibes and no bosses. We played indoor lawn bowls when we were bored, and completed mountain bike time trials round the large office space during slow weekend shifts. Yet, every day, by mid-morning, the men’s bathrooms were rendered unusable. No one knew who was to blame, but the carnage inflicted on that cubicle has left an indelible mark on my brain.

It was like a poo grenade exploded, coating the toilet, the seats, often the floors, and sometimes the walls, in shit shrapnel. Forget final-day music festival portaloos: this was something far more toxic and corrosive. My nostrils still flare at the memory. We were distressed, puzzled, repulsed.  The entire office did the only thing we could: we got in our cars and drove home to use our own toilets. This happened daily. For years. We had to warn new recruits. Hey, this is part of the job.

It seems ridiculous, but, working from home might be where it’s at for loo-wary office dwellers. That’s where I’m at right now, writing this, and I’m happy to report our bathroom is as clean as they come. But there are still frustrations. My daughter recently complained about the broken toilet roll holder. “Is that it?” I thought as I screwed it back onto the wall. She needs to spend a few days in an office to see how bad it can truly get.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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