The Human Resources Files: Guy Clipping his Toenails at Work

Full Disclosure: While names and locations have been changed, these stories are depressingly and hilariously true.

Everybody needs to do little personal hygiene maintenance throughout the day, but people have different standards as to what is acceptable to do at work and what should be done in the privacy of one’s home. For example, my friend Jon thinks that brushing your teeth is not something to be done at work but I think it’s fine and, at times, very necessary. If I have eaten a tuna sandwich for lunch, brushing my teeth is better for all concerned. However, it would be difficult to expect everyone to have the same standards; we all come from different backgrounds and may have been raised with different codes of behavior. People have varying levels of comfort for certain personal habits. Having said that, you would think that there are certain things we can all agree should not be done in the work place.

And then there are the outliers.

Jon worked with a guy named Sam at a company doing SEC compliance for major corporations. Sam was an older man in his late fifties or early sixties, educated and articulate. One distinguishing characteristic of Sam is his height; he is around six foot six with a very thin frame and a mop of messy gray hair above a long face. Everything about him was unkempt; his shirt was always wrinkled, his pants were too short and belted too high yet droopy at the same time, thick framed glasses with lenses that always needed a cleaning. He was a caricature of an archetype.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Sam was that he clipped his toenails in the break room at work. Right off of the customer service area, there was a small room with some tables, a sink and a refrigerator, no larger than a studio apartment in Manhattan. Not only did Sam clip his toenails in there, he would stand up, prop one bare foot at a time on the edge of the counter and proceed to clip his toenails into the sink. Anyone who happened to be in the customer service area could see him doing it, as well as anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in the break room with him at the time.

After a while, someone reported this behavior to Human Resources. They called Sam in and had a discussion with him about how clipping his toenails in the break room sink was offending his coworkers because everyone used that sink and that he should stop and maybe take care of those things at home. Sam agreed but he claimed that he didn’t really understand why people were making such a big deal out of it. Everyone clips their toenails.

Sam was a strange guy in many respects. He took vacations to various places, like China, to witness solar and/or lunar eclipses. This was not because he was some type of amateur astronomer; he had some type of occult belief that these events were linked to the end of the world, Armageddon, something of that nature. He had cornered Jon a couple of times to explain the whole deal but Jon didn’t want know much about it; that type of madness can be contagious. So, seen in the light of the fact that we are all doomed anyway, clipping his toenails in the sink might seem rather insignificant.

All that aside, don’t tell me that Sam didn’t know that what he was doing. There is a psychological component behind such behavior. He obviously did not need to clip his toenails at work, let alone in the sink in the break room. That is an aggressive act designed to piss people off and create an adversarial environment. It may have been a way for Sam to feel consequential, to get people to notice him. It may have been a manifestation of his frustration at being stuck in a job he did not find satisfying. Like a child who doesn’t know how to express himself, Sam was “acting out”.

I have to imagine that this type of behavior goes on in companies all over the United States, if not the world. I have heard stories on NPR about widespread job dissatisfaction; people hate their jobs but at the same time are afraid of losing them. They can’t afford to go in and scream at their bosses and quit their jobs like the protagonists in Fight Club or American Beauty. People feel powerless. So, to gain some semblance of control, they engage in this low intensity warfare with their colleagues by chewing gum too loudly, microwaving fish in the break room and stealing office supplies.

We need to feel alive.

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