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Friday, October 23, 2020

All the Reasons You Shouldn’t Prevent Employees From Discussing Who Has the Coronavirus


Rumors can send people into a panic. Additionally, some people are super nervous about exposure to Covid-19 that even if they don’t meet the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of exposed, they are concerned if they’ve had any peripheral contact with someone who tested positive. So, naturally, businesses want to keep things under control.

This backfires, and it may be illegal (depending on how you do it). Big-named companies, such as Amazon.com, Cargill, McDonald’s, and Target, have told employees to keep Covid cases hush-hush, according to Bloomberg. Companies don’t want employees to panic and they don’t want customers to stay away. But, here’s where you get in trouble: The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) grants employees the right to discuss working conditions–which includes safety-related discussions.

This means you can’t stop your employees from discussing their concerns surrounding Covid. Employment Attorney Jon Hyman of Meyers, Roman, Friedberg, & Lewis explains

Employees have the right under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected concerted activity, which usually includes the right to post on social media about health and safety issues at work, including concerns about Covid-19. Legalities aside, instead of thinking of creative ways to retaliate against employees who bring to light Covid-related safety issues, employers should view it as an opportunity to figure what they are doing wrong that has caused employees to go public with their concerns. It should be an opportunity to engage and improve, not to retaliate and punish

Here’s how you can follow Hyman’s advice.

Follow all CDC and state guidelines. 

Not only does this keep your place of business safer, it gives your employees little to complain about. If they complain that they have to wear a mask or there is hand sanitizer everywhere, it won’t make you look bad. It will also help protect you from any legal liability. 

Promptly notify anyone exposed to Covid. 

The CDC and World Health Organization define exposure as:

  • Living in the same household as a person with Covid-19;
  • Having direct physical contact with a person with Covid-19 (e.g., shaking hands) or with their infectious secretions (e.g., being coughed on or touching used tissues without gloves);
  • Being within 1 meter for 15 minutes or longer with a person with COVID-19 (e.g., meeting room, workspace, classroom, or traveling in a conveyance)

If an employee or customer tests positive for Covid, you will need to notify the exposed people.  Alisa Cohn, writing at the Harvard Business Review advises this dialogue:

“Someone in our workplace has tested positive for Covid-19, and they have identified you as a close contact according to the CDC definition. We are here to support you. If you are at work, please prepare to leave as quickly as you can. Once you get home — or if you are already working from there — find a place to self-isolate, monitor yourself for any symptoms, and talk to your doctors. How can I support you in doing all this?”

Encourage people to speak up

You want to know about concerns and safety violations, so let your employees know that you want to know how you can make things safer. Take all safety concerns seriously. Don’t punish minor violations–just work to correct them. 

The customer is not always right

If your business involves customers coming in the front door, some of them may object to your safety procedures. You can absolutely deny them service. Do not instruct your front line people to require customers to wear masks and then allow your managers to override that decision. It makes your employees feel unsafe and disrespected.

Remember, keeping things out in the open prevents rumors rather than fomenting them. If your employees are confident that you will keep them informed and safe, you’ll have a loyal staff and a safe working environment.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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