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How to Talk About COVID-19 at Work


August 10, 2020  |  John Wiese


By now, we’ve learned that the COVID-19 pandemic is about so much more than just the virus, especially in how it has affected our work lives. Misinformation, fear, politics, and pre-existing beliefs and mindsets  make it hard for employees to know what to do, what to say, and how to act towards their colleagues. Regardless, the workplace is a community and we have to find ways to come together as such. That means complying with your companies’ basic requirements (whether or not we think they are necessary) and being willing to engage with each other without causing harm. When having difficult conversations about COVID-19, even with those who might disagree with company policies, we need to remember to make an active effort to build bridges, not blow them up.

When should you get involved?

If someone is in disagreement with company policies intended to mitigate the spread of the virus, or if they don’t believe masks are effective, then is the opinion of a colleague going to change that? If your company still has employees working from home, there is no need to engage. If employees do not agree with  company policies but adhere to them, there is no need to engage. If an employee strongly disagrees with company policies that they choose not to adhere to, then it is  time to have that difficult conversation with them. Let your workforce know that your door is open and any complaints they might have about another colleague’s actions and their strong misgivings on company policy is kept anonymous.

Here is where we draw the line between engagement and enforcement. It is neither the responsibility nor the prerogative of the average employee to enforce company policies amongst each other. However, if someone in the workplace is not adhering to safety procedures intended to slow the spread of the virus and keep your workforce healthy, then you might want to politely remind your employees  of the policies that have been set in place. Employees might also have other options when engaging with co-workers on this matter, depending on their relationship with that person.

How Employees Can Engage with Colleagues 

The entire workforce must know that just because they might not be worried about the virus, there may be people on their teams who are in high-risk groups or live with people in high-risk groups. The “I’m healthy so I don’t have anything to worry about” mentality is both harmful to our aim to flatten the curve, and potentially damaging to those people who are vulnerable to infection or have loved ones who are high risk. It’s also incredibly important to remember that some employees  may have lost loved ones; or have been hospitalized themselves, due to coronavirus complications. 

When engaging with colleagues, one might be tempted to point to statistics provided by the CDC or another reputable health reporting agency, but creating a dialogue is critical here. Advise your employees to avoid patronizing their colleagues with a lecture about their deception. That is a one-way ticket to end the conversation and damage a working relationship. Instead, say things like “Interesting! Where did you find that data?” Offer an exchange of information in a non-accusatory way, in which they send you some of their sources, and you send your own.

Engaging with people who don’t share our perspective about the pandemic can be difficult, just like conversations about politics, BLM, or #MeToo. Remember, members of a workplace community come from different backgrounds and life experiences.Our life experiences shape our  point of views about social and political topics. When someone says something you don’t agree with, remind your employees to engage in a non-adversarial, constructive manner. Do not resort to condescending or scornful behavior. Though, if a friendly conversation and a gentle reminder of company policies do not incite change, it may be time to go to HR. Remember: if a co-worker or even a manager/supervisor repeatedly violates company policy, employees should report it.

Enforcing company policy

Suppose your company is returning to the workspace. In that case, you’ve already put together an agreement or policy about the steps that the company is taking and how employees must comply to  prevent the spread of the virus. Employees will have consented to a Return to Work Policy, requiring that they wear masks, social distance, or even get tested. If an employee refuses to follow the procedures the organization has laid out for them, then disciplinary action may be necessary.

Your company’s new health and safety protocols for preventing the spread of coronavirus are the rules of the road. While they may seem unnecessarily detailed, everyone needs to follow them for them to be effective. If your employees are concerned about your organization’s preventative measures or how you are supporting employees from home, you may want to encourage them to follow up with their leadership. HR might consider sending out an anonymous survey to understand employee perception about COVID-19, working from home, and returning to the office. This will inform future preventative measures and help gauge employee sentiment about those taken thus far. 

The key thing to remember is that you are part of a community in which everyone needs to do their part to keep each other safe and healthy. We are all in this together, and nobody is exempt from this virus. What we do to protect ourselves, we also do to protect those around us. For more information on how to talk to your team about coronavirus in the workplace, check out our new micro lesson: Preparing for the Return to Work.


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