Dear Come Correct:

I work in an office with about 50 people in it.  We are generally pretty considerate of each other--the cultural environment is pretty invested in polite behavior and a crunchy-granola version of "do unto others"--but there are lapses.  One important one for me occurs in the women's bathroom on a daily basis, and I'm stumped as to what to do about it.

I often bump into a colleague in the ladies' room who outranks me on the organizational chart.  She is a very, very chatty person, one of those people who is always in a rush somewhere.  So she comes in, uses the bathroom, continues her conversation over the partition and, while I'm washing my hands, breezes past me with a cheery "bye!"

No, that's not a typo.  The woman does not wash her hands after using the loo!  (If it matters, it's only been for a drive-by pee, but still....)  She also doesn't always flush the toilet.  Busy, you know?

I need my job, but I need to stop acting like the bathroom attendant--I'm so grossed out by the no-hand-washing that I take a paper towel and wipe down the handle, then use another towel to grasp the handle to leave the bathroom.  Takes more time than I want to, and really, what happens when I'm not there?  Other women have commented on my executive colleague's behavior, but we don't know how to correct it without putting our jobs in danger. (When her feelings are hurt--watch out!)

So what do we do?

Not Felix Unger

Dear Not Felix:

You'd be astonished how often this happens in offices around the country!  If the person is on the same level as you--in other words, is truly a colleague--be forthright and just take a deep breath and say it: "Sally Sue, we're trying to keep healthy around here and it would be great if you'd wash your hands after you use the bathroom."  If Sally Sue protests she doesn't need to by telling you human urine is sterile (a frequent rationale used by non-washers), you can counter by saying "yup--until it hits air.  Which it does as soon as it leaves your body.  Wash your hands, girl."  Sometimes a little shame works wonders.

When the non-washer is a member of the executive staff, things get trickier.  This is where HR comes in.  Call your HR administrator and simply say "the executive director doesn't wash her hands after using the bathroom.  It's caused some comment and anxiety here--people think it's unhealthy and that they're being exposed to germs and disease--but nobody wants to get on her bad side by pointing out she should be washing.  At least a half dozen people have mentioned this to me.  I'm thinking it leaves the company liable if someone gets sick.  What can you do to help?"

The executive director will soon be washing her hands--ostentatiously--the next time you and she are in the ladies'.  Trust. Companies hate the word "liable."  And it's way easier for them to hip the executive director that hand soap is placed on the bathroom counter for a reason than it is to pay out workman's comp because one employee got hepatitis from another's unwashed hands.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times.  (Doubleday)