Employee Manual Lesson #1: The Boss is never in the Toilet

Guest Post:  David
– Partner/Friend, Infinite Wisdom Consulting

Somewhere in the longer or shorter of your career you may find yourself in the position of being the boss. I
found it most prominently as the President and CEO of a start-up advertising
venture in Seoul, Korea. And in that capacity, whether it be heading your own
company, managing a department at a larger one, or even just in charge of
administrating a particular task or discipline (Director of Customer Service)
in an organization, you might find the need for writing down a few instructions
for your staff. In my case, it was the following story that began the company
manual for our small enterprise.

September 1997, Seoul, Korea: I’m sitting
on the toilet in our small 4 person start-up in Seoul, Korea. Koreans,
generally a conservative lot in country at the time, have taken a while to warm
to the idea of a man starting a business in his house as many in silicon valley
had done. My house, which is really a full floor flat overlooking the Han river
at the end of a winding drive in the embassy residence area of Seoul called UN
Village, is international and professional, but personal in a way as well – not
an office tower space. The staff has found this transition interesting.

Walking into the lobby is essentially what
used to be the living room, but there is a conference table and a reception
area. To the left of that room is my bedroom and a bath. To the right is
another bath, a kitchen and three other former bedrooms. This is our office.
Account service in one room, design in another and accounting in the rear. I am
in the toilet – my office when I am not sitting at the conference table out
front in the days before Wifi with a cable stretching into the first office
across the floor. It’s a duct-tape operation, but it’s fun being a start-up and
I wouldn’t have changed any of it for anything.

Sitting in the bathroom directly across
from the hall from the receptionist I hear the phone ring. It is answered
dutifully by my young but ever so efficient Korean staff. “Mr.
Carlson?”, I’m sorry, he’ll have to call you back. He’s in the
toilet”. Click.

Something would need to be done. I finished
and exited to have a small chat with my receptionist. “Mee Hyun”,
I said, “The boss is NEVER in the toilet!”. “The boss can be
‘away from his desk’, ‘out of the office’ or just plain ‘unavailable’, but he
is NEVER in the toilet! She didn’t seem to understand at first, after all it
was accurate but not the way any company or individual wants to be perceived –
and this little bit of etiquette needed to be explained that day. And so
company cultures are taught. There are manners and customs to not only
different cultures but companies as well. And our company wasn’t above being
perceived as so small that we had to work out of the founder’s house, but
nobody wants to venture a vision of any boss on the crapper – it’s just not

This became Lesson #1 in our company
manual. And after that, many more pages followed. Pages to define billing and
collection procedures to accounting, how to refer media calls, what to say or
not say to different levels of different clients – all the little things we
learned along the way that helped give our business an image of self awareness
and consistency in our service policies as well as our products. We pitched
ourselves at the highest levels of craft in our industry and I wanted to make
sure that that was reflected in every measure of our business. But the
important thing is that we wrote it down, and after it was written down it was
illustrated on an as needed basis by our managers at every

After three years and starting with our
company with just minimal English, Mee Hyun would be my chief translator and
negotiating partner with both the Korean Ministry of Finance (MOFE), and
KOBACO, the Korean Broadcasting Corporation. She moved on to Marriott
Corporation and later received her Masters Degree in communication from the
Pratt Institute in New York city where she currently lives. It would be nice to
think that it all started with Lesson #1 in her first company manual but probably
not – it’s just written down that way.

Do your best to make sure your employees
know what’s expected of them – and you being in the jon is never one of those
things. You’re away from your desk 🙂

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