Jim Beam & Bathroom Breaks
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Jim Beam & Bathroom Breaks
Jesus asked the multitudes in Luke 14:28 (NKJV), “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it?” Similarly, in the modern world of automation, downsizing, and efficiency, many organizations are counting the cost. They analyze the financial costs and benefits of hiring humans instead of purchasing machines. Levine stated a truth with which many businesses and their employees already quite familiar, “Automation typically does reduce prices.” While human ingenuity and creativity are a tremendous benefit to organizations, the machines that replace people never rest or request a day off. Many organizations try to mitigate this difference in efficiencies between humans and machines in a variety of ways. One example is a Jim Beam manufacturing facility that developed a bathroom-break policy to maximize employee productivity. Unfortunately, the policy caused unintended negative consequences for several employees who believe it is unfair. Considering the controversial policy provides the opportunity to examine the organization and its decision from various perspectives.
Roles and Issues
Scott and Davis identified three primary levels of organizational evaluation: social psychological, organizational, and ecological. Each level contains roles relevant to this issue.
Social Psychological Level
The roles at the heart of this issue are all present in this level. These include the individual line workers and those who developed and implemented this policy. Additionally, the smokers, although not explicitly identified, are also present at this level and relevant to this issue.
Roles at the organizational level include the production plant itself, the local union, the consulted urologist, and the Labor Cabinet. These organizations are somewhat independent of one another, but are all part of larger entities.
The ecological macro-interactions are between business, employees, government, and labor organizations. The actors at this level are the Jim Beam corporation, the Labor Department, the Justice Department, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
This policy exposes several interrelated issues, the foremost of which is whether employers can legally regulate their employees’ bathroom schedules. Secondarily, can they control other off-task behavior (e.g. conversations, smoking, web surfing, etc.)? What are the implications of such a decision on those working as teams, military service members, medical personnel, first responders, law enforcement, or those supervising children or prisoners? At what point do the organization’s interests outweigh those of the individual?
This issue lends itself to evaluation through many organizational theories. The title suggests a closed-system, rational approach, such as those espoused by Taylor and Fayol.
Taylor’s Scientific Management
Ultimately, this issue is rooted in maximizing employee productivity. Taylor’s work focused on rationalizing “the human element in production” by “produc[ing] maximum output.” A loss of personnel, particularly in a production facility, slows or halts productivity. Unlimited “unscheduled breaks throughout the day” decreases productivity. Jim Beam approached the problem similarly to how Taylor or Henry Ford would have, by standardizing the break time to maximize productivity throughout the day.
Fayol’s Administrative Theory
In his explanation of Fayol’s theory, Mooney stated that “the task of… …management, is the co-ordination of all human effort necessary to” complete the job. Jim Beam’s policy aims to coordinate its workers’ efforts to make bourbon. Fayol’s theory is quite applicable to this case.
While Taylors’ and Fayol’s closed-system, rational approaches apply to Jim Beam’s controversial bathroom policy, there are other perspectives that merit consideration.
Closed System or Open System
Buckley explained, “That a system is open means, not simply that it engages in interchanges with the environment, but that this interchange is an essential factor underlying the system’s viability.”The Jim Beam plant is operating in an environment which consists of government oversight and regulations, competition, labor relations, and other external interactions required for its continued viability. As such, the plant meets Buckley’s criteria for an open system.
Rational System or Natural System
While rational approaches address an organization’s specific goals and formal structures, natural approaches focus on complex goals and informal structures. Scott and Davis stated that all organizations have these complex goals and informal structures. Consider Merida’s account of the girl who led Naaman to Elisha: “She had been taken away after an Aramean raid. Perhaps her parents were dead. She probably had no hope of returning home. She was living out her days in the service of a foreign person in a foreign land… …[Because she was] concerned for [Naaman’s] welfare and confident in God’s work through Elisha, she tells her mistress that someone can cure the commander.” This nameless servant’s specific goal was to serve Naaman’s wife, but her complex goals included sharing God’s goodness with whomever was around, wherever she was. Formally, she was an orphan, a prisoner-of-war, and a slave; informally she laid the groundwork for a miracle that made it into the Old Testament and that Jesus recounts in Luke 4:27.
Similarly, the Jim Beam employees also have complex goals and an informal structure. They want autonomy and dignity, and while many of the quotes come from “line workers,” one can see that they are also articulate, organized, and prepared for corporate martyrdom in exchange for a litigious victory. The situation fits the natural approach well.
As previously noted, this controversy contains several interrelated issues. Certainly, these employees are not the only ones impacted by bathroom policies. Bae et al. found that “approximately 45% of staff nurses reported that they typically worked more than 10 hours per day, and nurses very often skipped meals or could not visit the bathroom due to work.” Similarly, McGregor, in her discussion of challenges faced by menstruating teachers and students, cited a 2015 American Federation of Teachers survey which found “nearly half of teachers… …do not get adequate bathroom breaks, and 44% say they are not able to use the breaks they get.” McGregor explained that “one of the reasons that teachers don’t use the restroom is that they cannot get to it – it is literally not possible to get from the classroom, to the teacher restroom, and back in the brief time between classes.” While Hartigan et al. found that individuals may make the personal decision to avoid using the restroom “in an effort to maximize… …productivity at work,” they also identified ““gatekeepers” (i.e., individuals who control access to toilets) as a barrier to restroom use.”
The controversy surrounding this policy makes Jim Beam seem as if it is prioritizing employees’ productivity over their health. While this is likely not the case, the organization now must defend its policy to the Labor Council, overcome the negative perception this policy has caused, and either rewrite the policy or terminate a few influential employees. The leaders of this organization would do well to take an open, natural perspective and utilize the plant’s informal structures and complex goals to help achieve their specific goal of eliminating wasted time. They may not achieve peak efficiency, but they will come closer working together than with their current approach.
Bae, S., Hwang, S., & Lee, G. (2018). Work hours, overtime, and break time of registered nurses working in medium-sized Korean hospital. Workplace Health & Safety, 66(12), 588-596. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165079918769683
Hartigan, S. M., Bonnet, K., Chisholm, L., Kowalik, C., Dmochowski, R. R., Schlundt, D., & Reynolds, W. S. (2020). Why do women not use the bathroom? Women’s attitudes and beliefs on using public restrooms. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(6), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17062053
Levine, D. I. (2019). Automation as part of the solution. Journal of Management Inquiry, 28(3), 316-318. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492619827375
McGregor, K. (2020). Material flows: Patriarchal structures and the menstruating teacher. Gender and Education, 32(3), 382-394. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2018.1451624
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
Scott, W. R. & Davis, G. F. (2016). Organizations and organizing: Rational, natural, and open system perspectives (6th ed.). Routledge.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Thomas Nelson, Inc.