Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
During the Capitol riots last month, as some lawmakers took shelter in a small, windowless room, a group of Republican legislators refused to wear masks, infuriating many of their colleagues and leading to at least eight infections among members of Congress.
It’s a situation that’s being replicated in workplaces across the country, as employees are forced to deal with colleagues who won’t wear masks—and, often, bosses who won’t enforce policies requiring them to.
Take, for example, this person, whose company and state both require masks to be worn at work but whose co-worker refuses to comply:
I have asked him to wear a mask around me. I have told HR (who works remotely) that Bob doesn’t ever wear one, and they sent out a couple of company-wide reminder emails. I have told my boss (who also works remotely right now) that I feel unsafe with Bob’s lack of compliance, so his manager had a chat with him.
Bob now wears masks only when he sees his boss’s car in the parking lot (his boss doesn’t visit often, though), but he has still never followed the mask rules outside of that. … At least one other coworker that I know of has complained to HR about the lack of masks and nothing has changed. I hate that every day when I go in to work I’m potentially exposing myself to the virus.
That lack of support from management is frustratingly common in the accounts I receive. Organizations commonly announce that masks must be worn on their premises but don’t follow through with any real consequences when the rule is ignored.
Sometimes even managers who want to require masks aren’t sure what they can do when an employee refuses. This manager of an employee who thinks COVID-19 is a hoax seems deeply concerned about the risk he poses to the team but is still treating him with far too much deference:
We’re now phasing people back into the office, and he believes that all of the safety guidelines are violating his freedom. He still won’t practice social distancing without being told, he will not wear a mask without being told, and he even planned another vacation when the company has asked us not to travel except in the case of emergencies. … The rest of my employees have been wonderful at following the guidelines, and some have privately expressed fears about working with him again. My own boss has also spoken to him about needing to obey safety policies, but he still “forgets” to do so until someone tells him.
I am at an absolute loss regarding how to get this employee to take these safety precautions seriously when he still sees the coronavirus as a political issue instead of a public health issue.
This manager has options, or at least they do if their company hasn’t tied their hands. They can send unmasked employees home, and they can warn and fire repeat offenders. Those are serious steps, yes, but companies that aren’t willing to take them are defanging their own safety policies and putting the rest of their employees at risk.
Where’s the law in all this, you might wonder? Legal expert Donna Ballman, the author of Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired, says it’s not entirely clear yet, but there’s reason for employers to fear legal liability if they don’t maintain a safe workplace. “There are multiple lawsuits working their way through the courts and arbitration relating to employer liability, including wrongful death, negligence, violation of OSHA standards, and even some seeking injunctive relief to force employers to enact safety measures,” she says. “There are also many worker’s compensation claims being made by employees, and where they are allowed, employees may be limited to worker’s compensation. Some states are allowing them and some are not. In cases where employers intentionally violated OSHA and CDC standards, employees may be able to sue instead of bringing worker’s compensation claims. … [The] bottom line on legal liability is that it’s unsettled, but there is a huge potential for employer liability.”
Short of filing a lawsuit, what can employees do if their company’s not enforcing basic guidelines? One option is for concerned workers to band together with colleagues and pressure the workplace to change its practices. There can be power in numbers, and sometimes organized internal pressure can get companies to change. (That is, of course, the whole point of unions.)
Many workers, though, are left to try to defend their own safety as best as they can. That means assertively telling colleagues to put on masks, advocating to work from home whenever possible, declining to attend meetings where attendees are unmasked or aren’t following social distance guidelines (or insisting on attending virtually), and generally trying to hold the line against risks to their health.
That’s what the person above whose co-worker kept coming into her cubicle unmasked eventually had to do:
I ended up setting the firm boundary of “You cannot come in my cubicle without a mask” and asked Bob to stay six feet away from me at all times. While it did eventually work in the end, the conversation went horridly, worse than I imagined. He argued for 10 minutes while I kept saying “OK, but you still need to wear a mask in my cubicle.” Some of his arguments: he doesn’t want to (he dangled a mask in front of my face at one point while telling me he doesn’t want to wear it), he disagrees with me (“OK, but you still need to wear a mask in my cubicle”), “I don’t have to wear one at Walmart, so why do I have to wear one here?” (We have a mask mandate in our state so by law he is expected to wear a mask at Walmart, but I just said “my cubicle, my rules!”) BUT—the next day, he started wearing a mask if he needed to come near me. He avoids me like the plague now (lol, couldn’t resist that idiom) and has not talked to me socially since—and that’s totally fine with me, after how he treated me. He’s a bigger jerk than I thought and I no longer feel the need to be overly kind.
That’s far more burden than any one person should have to take on just so they can go to work safely, but in a lot of cases, that’s where we’ll be until vaccination is widespread.