In a Work Toilet, How Close Is, Uh, Too Close?

Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to [email protected]. Include your name and location, even if you want them withheld. Letters may be edited.

An Even More Traumatic Public Bathroom

My 50-person team got relocated to a new floor in our building, and the bathroom situation is curiously abysmal. There are two, one labeled “male,” the other “female.” In each room, there are two toilets with no dividers whatsoever. Rumor has it H.R. has ordered fabric curtains to separate them. I trust all of my co-workers, but I don’t think curtains could ever provide sufficient privacy or security for people to feel comfortable using the restroom. Lots of us are upset and plan to use bathroom facilities on other floors of our building. Are we justified in feeling this way? Is having curtains to divide bathroom stalls even legal?

— New York

I’m not authorized to practice bathroom law on land, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sanitation regulations appear to indicate that a workplace of 50 employees is required to maintain at least three “water closets” (cute), each consisting of “a separate compartment with a door and walls or partitions between fixtures sufficiently high to assure privacy.” It seems to me that even if H.R. hung truly luxurious curtains, multitoilet restrooms without lockable stalls could count only as single-use facilities, which would place two on your floor. (Of course there’s no point in gendering single-use facilities, especially with adjectives as oddly scientific as “male” and “female.” It seems to me that whoever made those labels panicked and forgot what bathroom signs typically say.)

But! If your company provides “unobstructed free access” to other toilets — imagining, in this scenario, that it operates on multiple floors, not that employees have propped open a fire escape to facilitate backdoor bathroom access to the offices of corporate neighbors — this unholy circumstance may violate the laws of good taste while just barely complying with those of New York State. In 1976, an OSHA director wrote that a restroom facility in a separate building 90 feet from the building where employees worked was in compliance. (Why are social rules upended for men at urinals? Nice try — I can’t be tricked into pondering a gentleman’s thought process.) My advice: Familiarize yourself with OSHA’s complaint guidelines and see if any of the options appeal to you — but also seriously consider finding a new job. A love seat bathroom setup does not suggest a business with a bright financial future, or tremendous concern for its employees.

Editors to the Letter

I am periodically asked to write letters of recommendation for former students or colleagues. I’m generally happy to do this and pleased if they offer some direction about skills or experience they want me to emphasize. Often they ask to proofread the letter, and I’m fine with them correcting a typo or asking me to tighten up sentence structure.

Increasingly, however, the critiques of my draft letter include requests for specific phrases. I’m not sure how to say, “Sorry, Mo, but I don’t actually think you have leadership skills.” How can I politely convey that I will only provide the letter if it’s in my own words?

— Pittsburgh

Even if you don’t believe a hijacking attempt demonstrates leadership skills, your students’ and colleagues’ efforts to forcibly steer your recommendations in the direction of their choosing are, at the very least, indicative of proactive styles of problem-solving.

That being said, someone who needs to borrow $50 doesn’t get to choose the bills. I’m slightly concerned that applicants ask to proofread your letters “often.” This is either a sign that you lack basic letter-writing skills (which could explain why the only people who solicit your endorsement are immoral ne’er-do-wells with no flair for leadership) or a trick to ensure applicants can collaborate with you on their own compliments. Assuming your email to Work Friend is indicative of your usual style (and was not proofread by someone seeking your recommendation), you are a neat and clear writer whose prose does not call out for extensive rewrites. Either problem can be solved with the same solution: asking a reasonably intelligent acquaintance to give your letters a quick once-over.

Of course, it’s ideal if your letter features airtight sentence structure and suggests to recipients that its subject has earned the admiration of someone with a sound knowledge of modern grammar and spelling conventions. I once asked an authority figure for a letter of recommendation that — when received one day before the application deadline — contained so many errors, I feared submitting it would call into question my own judgment. So I did what any considerate, rational person would do: burst into the office of someone else at the same institution, begged them to write me a letter with no notice, apologized profusely for not having asked them in the first place and swore them to absolute secrecy, thereby preserving the dignity of the original letter writer, and dusting intrigue like powdered sugar over everyone’s plain lives.

When someone asks you to write a letter of recommendation, that person is seeking your approval. Accept only thanks. (Not edits.)

Retiring Vicariously

I’m retiring. I’m surprised how consistently I’m asked what I’m going to do. Any suggestions? After I organize my house, go through my reading list and get a good gym regimen, what’s next? What does successful retirement look like?

— Portland, Ore.

I recently encountered a man who was retired and taking a scenic train ride through the American Southwest. At the time, his retirement was very fresh — so fresh he could still revel in its novelty among strangers. He confided to me that his new workless life had required “a short period of adjustment — about 10 minutes!” That’s a perfect joke, and he delivered it flawlessly. Practicing this joke so you can incorporate it into your repertoire will eat up a couple of minutes of your abundant free time.

Your retirement will be successful by virtue of the fact it will take place — a circumstance neither I nor my friends (an ironic term referring to my enemies in competition for the Earth’s dwindling resources) will ever experience. People who ask about your plans for the chapter of your life when every day will be Saturday afternoon are not looking for a reasonable reply. They are dim-eyed soldiers who, their lower limbs having just been blown apart by German artillery, are posing to you the blood-choked, hopeless question: “What will happen to me now?”

The appropriate response (accompanied by a smile): “A scenic train ride through the American Southwest.”

Caity Weaver is a writer for the Styles section and The New York Times Magazine. Write to her at [email protected]

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