Hidden camera called all wet Amoco set up surveillance in shower room.

Working women

March 30, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Everyone knows men's rooms in offices and factories nationwide rank even higher than golf courses as the place where some of the best business deals are made. Many women believe if they could only get in the men's room, they would be well on their way to running the company -- or the world.

But in the 1990s, the women's room also is becoming known as an important facility for the exchange of information among female members of the staff.

The fact is, in our competitive society, washroom facilities for women and men are more than what they seem. And they are being joined in importance by another workplace facility, a place that most of the great unwashed would dismiss as a total washout: the women's shower room.

The importance of women's shower rooms came to a head recently as the subject of a $10 million lawsuit filed by Local 7-776 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union against the Amoco Corp. plant in Wood River, Ill.

When it rains it pours, and allegedly there was a torrent of complaints from female workers who objected to the fact that Amoco considers their shower room so important the company put it under surveillance by installing a hidden camera.

The camera was placed there, the company says, to trap a man making unauthorized visits to the shower-room area. The culprit was indeed detected and the camera removed.

But the eight or so female laboratory workers who use the facility were outraged at being spied on and claim their privacy was invaded.

Howard Miller, representative for Amoco, says the hidden camera was not in the shower area itself but mounted in a fixed position in the entrance to the locker room. It was there four consecutive days and only for a portion of each day, Mr. Miller says. "Five to eight people were photographed -- and they were all head shots only," he added.

The flood of publicity about the case has resulted in the camera caper's being labeled in women's rooms and men's rooms alike as shower surveillance.

If you don't care a lot about people's constitutional rights, the idea of a hidden camera is not so bad. A camera complete with sound is even better. If women bumping up against the glass ceiling were allowed to train a video camera on the men's room in every major corporation in the world -- from the shoulders up, of course -- they would be privy to corporate wheeling and dealing they have always been excluded from.

A typical men's room conversation, preserved on concealed video with audio, might sound like this:

Joe: "I'm going to be transferred to headquarters in a couple of months."

Jim: "Congratulations! That's an important step upward."

Now, that may not sound like very important stuff, but to Betty, who later views the tape of this casual conversation, it could make a big difference. Betty has been at the company as long as Joe and has the same credentials. In fact, she remembers training him for the job over her when he reported to her a few years back. But now he ranks above her, has more responsibility and makes more money.

The transfer is a few months off, and it is possible Joe's replacement has not yet been named. This gives Betty a chance to apply for the job, and in one possible scenario, the boss might thank her for applying and offer her the job, saying, "I had no idea you were interested."

Without shower surveillance, Betty might not have known there was an opening until Joe's replacement moved in, a done deal. And Amoco might not have been able to identify the shower invader, either.

But, let's face it, shower surveillance really doesn't smell good, and it's not entirely ethical to be a snoop. Even if you pick up needed information, it's an invasion of privacy. There has to be another way to get information, whether you are a woman bound by glass ceiling and walls or a Fortune 500 corporation.

In fact, shower surveillance, whatever the end results, is all wet.

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