COVID-19 Workplace: Employees In-flux and Safety Protocols

Our way of life has been impacted in ways we never imagined or anticipated. COVID-19 has created an economic and emotional crisis unparalleled in modern history, especially in the workplace. Even as I write this blog, there is controversy on how COVID-19 spreads. The ambivalence of mixed messages and public sentiment about wearing masks has overflowed into the workplace. Some employees feel that mask wearing, and social distancing guidelines have infringed on their civil liberties and have drawn lines in the sand. New bouts of incivility and workplace clashes have supervisors in the crosshairs, and some supervisors are even reluctant to enforce company policy.

We know from various scientific agencies that COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs. There has been mounting evidence that the virus suspends in aerosolized particles in the air and can be transmitted to people even more than 6 feet away. Recent studies indicate that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19. Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay at least 6 feet away from others when possible, so why is this knowledge so difficult to communicate and manage at work. Rebellion is natural but resistance is futile.

Remind Employees to use Common Sense

Employers must hold employees accountable for compliance with new and updated COVID-19 workplace policies and work rules (just the same as attendance or harassment in the workplace policies). These rules need to be in writing and disseminated to all employees, onsite and remote. Oftentimes, during times of in-flux, employees become overly comfortable with work rules and supervisors become lax in “supervising” when employees deviate from work rules and expectations. We need to use common sense during these challenging times, everything is not black or white. Based on your business operation, it may be fine to implement a casual dress code and offer flexible work schedules but given the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis, there should be consequences for an employee’s failure to follow the essential rules. Wearing masks, practicing social distancing guidelines and following workplace hygiene protocols must be adhered to by all employees. This is not the time for supervisors to turn a blind eye and look the other way. In business terms, the most important assets we have are our human assets. If you need to take corrected action such as a written warning and even possible termination based on the severity of the infraction, then do so. We must reinforce desired behaviors and extinguish unsafe and in-civil behaviors.

Obligations and Safety Protocols at Work

The fundamental method of protecting workers during COVID-19 is controlling exposures to occupational hazards. The CDC and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have developed clear guidelines, Hierarchy of Controls. The hierarchy of controls is a means of determining how to implement feasible and effective control solutions. To reduce the impact of COVID-19 outbreak conditions on businesses, workers, customers, and the public, OSHA has also prepared a thorough guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19. According to OSHA, employees can refuse to work if they reasonable believe they are in imminent danger. Also, employees have the right to report COVID-19 related safety concerns without fear of retaliation.

Plan for Uncooperative Behavior

Anxiety, feeling helpless and behaving badly are all unwelcome consequences during times of uncertainty. With so much turmoil, health concerns and fear of lost income, many employees engage in destructive thinking without realizing how they may be coming across to coworkers and supervisors. We need to plan for these types of encounters and try to be proactive versus reactive. Difficult employees test everyone’s patience, but the worst thing you can do is to retaliate with hostility. My best advice is to gather the facts with overreacting. We are all human and sometimes just by listening, not talking – not telling, we can really find out what the underlying causes are for said behaviors. You can really help change someone’s perspective by staying mentally strong and taking care of your emotional health.

Communicate Desired Behaviors

Whether your workplace is brick and mortar or has moved to a remote work environment, or a little of both. It is more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open. Use clear, consistent and transparent messaging. Employees need regular coaching and guidance on safety protocols and workplace culture. Policies are written so everyone knows how to handle certain situations and what is acceptable and what is not. Don’t have a perfect storm of everything going wrong. For example, employees may be prohibited from bringing children into the workplace in response to social distancing, and then after the fact - when they are told, they may become resentful and harbor animosity to the employer, because they don’t have childcare at home.

Make decisions in the best interest of the entire organization. Those who demonstrate honesty and integrity in their work lives are people who demonstrate the same values in their personal lives, because they understand that it is the “right” thing to do.

Below, are tips taken from my blog on 10 steps to a Respectful COVID-19 Workplace:

1. Wear a mask at work, practice social distancing, and adhere to company guidelines, regardless of your personal viewpoints – that shows respect for others.

2. Embrace a stigma free workplace; learn the facts and don’t spread fear; follow the science and CDC guidelines, especially if you or one of your colleagues test positive.

3. Always consider the impact of your words and actions on others – watch your first thoughts.

4. Practice strategies to counter unconscious bias and cultivate common ground – spend “virtual” time with people different from you; keep an open mind.

5. Respect employee rights and entitlements under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), don’t retaliate or get angry for employees taking leave.

6. Raise awareness to keep the workplace safe and accept personal responsibility to display appropriate workplace behaviors .

7. Practice mental resilience to take decisive action and don’t allow problems to languish.

8. If you see or hear destructive behavior at work, say something – otherwise your silence makes you complicit.

9. Practice constructive thinking: remember one’s thoughts produce one’s emotions.

10. Do random act of kindness for others; help others live better lives; focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.

With so many challenges in the workplace, we can all breathe a sigh of relief (through our mask) when employees are happy and feel safe. After all, we are all in this together, and how we handle challenges is how we show our character!

Carol Flynn is president of HR Solutions Inc and is a subject matter expert in sexual harassment, organizational development and workplace integration. She has over 25 years in human resource management and is a professor and educator with a Master of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology; life-time certified senior professional in human resources (SPHR); certified EEOC trainer; and past investigative member of the Florida Bar Grievance Committee (FBGC). For further information, see www.hrsolutionsfl.com

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