randomThe Paper Towel Problem

The Paper Towel Problem


A fable for adults



Once upon a time, in an office far, far away, there were two managers named Allen and Brenda. Allen was in charge of the Sales department, and Brenda was in charge of the Marketing department. They were also, by virtue of being male and female, respectively, in charge of the men's and women's bathrooms - not cleaning them, of course, that was the janitor's job - but of ordering new hand soaps, making sure the paper towel dispensers worked, and generally ensuring that their male and female employees had a pleasant place in which to do their business (when not actually doing their business).

One day, as Allen was washing his hands, he happened to notice that there was a damp, crumpled, used paper towel on the floor, next to the door. He picked it up, threw it away, and thought nothing of it.

The next day, Allen noticed there were two used paper towels on the floor. He picked them up and threw them away.

The next day, Allen noticed there were three used paper towels on the floor, so (after throwing them away), he decided to have a little stakeout.

Allen stood at the sink and pretended to wash his hands for a while, quietly observing the men's room in the mirror. Soon, he noticed an employee come in, use the toilets, wash his hands, dispense a paper towel, dry his hands on the paper towel, then use the paper towel to grab the door handle on his way out of the bathroom. On his way out, he tossed the paper towel in the general direction of the garbage can... and missed.

Allen went to the laser printer, and printed out a simple sign. It said "PLEASE do not throw your paper towels on the floor". Allen took his sign to the men's room, and stuck it to the wall by the door with a piece of Scotch tape.

A few days went by, and nothing changed - employees were still throwing their paper towels on the floor by the door. Allen decided to appeal to reason.

He designed a full-colour poster that pointed out the obvious fact that if everyone washed their hands, the out-handle of the men's room would be no dirtier than anything else in the office. Plus, if his employees were truly concerned about the cleanliness of their hands, there were bottles of waterless hand sanitizer distributed throughout the office. Wet discarded paper towels on the floor were not only an eyesore, they were a potential safety hazard - someone could slip on one and fall! Allen printed his poster out on the colour printer, took it to the men's room, and hung it up by the door with a piece of Scotch tape.

A few days went by, and still nothing changed. There were still used paper towels on the floor.

Allen put in a request to Corporate, asking to have the paper towel dispensers replaced with hot air dryers. After a few days, the response came back - Corporate was not allocating funds for washroom renovations at this time. Besides, wasn't Allen a manager? Were his employees not adults? Why didn't he simply tell them not to throw paper towels on the floor?

So Allen did just that. He went out and bought a few dozen donuts, and called a meeting of all the male employees in the office. He stood up in front of them and gave a quick presentation about not throwing paper towels on the floor. He told the men everything he'd already put in the poster, about germ distribution and safety, and he spiced it up with a funny anecdote and some encouraging words about their recent Sales numbers.

A few days went by, and still nothing changed. There were still used paper towels on the floor.

So Allen sent out a memo to all the male employees, both in his department and in the other departments that might possibly use the washroom on his floor - anyone caught tossing their paper towels on the floor would be subject to disciplinary action.

A few days later, Allen sent out another memo, this one with a more concrete threat - anyone caught tossing their paper towels on the floor would be docked a full day's pay.

Of course, these memos were ignored. Everyone knew Allen had no way of enforcing his threats, because there were no cameras in the washrooms.

So Allen sent out a third memo, in which he mentioned that anyone who saw and reported their fellow employees tossing their paper towels on the floor would receive a reward - they'd get the day's pay that the other employee was penalized.

This did not have the desired effect.

About half the employees immediately started snitching each other out, going so far as to haul each other into Allen's office by the shirt collar and demand their day's pay. (The accused, of course, denied their crimes, reducing it to an unresolvable argument in which it was one man's word against the other's.)

The other half of the employees became sullen and unco-operative, sneering at their tattling co-workers (some even going so far as to threaten them with violence!), and complaining bitterly about the repressive System.

Complaints, both hushed and overt, became common. Employees were heard to use terms like "Gestapo" and "secret paper towel police". Someone with a Sharpie added a Hitler moustache to Allen's photo in the lobby. Allen would overhear multiple conversations calling him a "petty office tyrant", who was obsessed with "tiny, meaningless things".

If putting your paper towels in the trash was so tiny and meaningless, Allen would always retort, why didn't people just do it?

And, of course, anyone he confronted directly would insist that they did put their paper towels in the garbage - it was those other people who didn't.

Productivity in Allen's department tanked. Morale was at an all-time low. Allen got in the habit of neglecting his duties, and took to wandering quickly but aimlessly down the hallways with an empty clipboard in his hand and a desperate look in his eyes. On one such walk, he happened to pass the women's bathroom as someone was leaving it. Allen took a quick glance inside, and noticed that there were no paper towels on the floor.

Stunned, Allen chased after the woman who had just left, and cornered her.

"Your washroom - the women's washroom.", he panted, "Are there paper towels on the floor?"

The female employee looked at him with confusion in her eyes. "No.", she replied, "Why would there be?"

Allen went to Brenda's office, where Brenda was putting the finishing touches on the signup sheet for her department's upcoming potluck lunch.

"Brenda", Allen asked, breathlessly, "How did you solve the paper towel problem?"

Brenda tilted her head and blinked, as if she wasn't sure what she was hearing. "What paper towel problem?", she asked.

"The women's washroom!", Allen exclaimed, "How did you get the employees to stop throwing their used paper towels on the floor?"

"Oh, that.", Brenda said. "I moved the garbage can next to the door."


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