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Without Desire, Policies are Useless

The other day I spotted a sign in a shared public restroom intended for restaurant employees. It read: “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work”

A study by the Bradley Corporation found that while 92 percent of Americans say they believe it’s important to wash their hands after using the restroom, only 66 percent actually do. And as for washing with soap, almost 70 percent admitted to skipping that step of the hygienic process.

Another study, by Stanford University, found that hand washing rates increased by 23 percent when another person was present. This proves that most of us know that washing our hands after using the restroom is the right – and socially acceptable – thing to do but if we don’t want to wash our hands, then we won’t wash our hands.

Sadly, many restaurant employees skip using soap (or washing their hands at all – especially if no one is present to hold them accountable). And while it has nothing to do with policies, protocol, or signage, it has everything to do with desire.

The challenge is to persuade restaurant employees to raise their own commitment level – to want to honor the standard of expected behavior – by tapping into empathy and self-interest as the primary motivation to consistently wash their hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.

Daniel Pink writes in his book, To Sell Is Human, that emotionally intelligent signs are more effective than their more punitive counterparts. As an illustration, he shared a sign intended to curb the incidents of dog owners not picking up after their pets in a public green space. One sign read: “Pick Up After Your Dog.” The other read: “Children Play Here. Pick Up After Your Dog.” Which one do you think was more effective?

By reminding people of the reason for the rule and trying to trigger empathy and a desire to “do the right thing” on the part of dog owners – making it purposeful – the sign-makers increased the likelihood that people would behave as directed by the sign.

Consider how much more effective those restroom signs might be if they read: “Character is what you do when no one is watching. Please wash your hands. Thank you” or “If you could see the germs, you would always wash your hands!”

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