Q: I overheard a breakroom conversation last week and learned several employees were planning to get together with families for Thanksgiving. One employee was letting another know that if she didn’t “have any place to go,” she could join their family gathering. I honestly couldn’t believe this given the uptick in COVID in our community, so I decided to call an all-hands meeting.
I held the meeting in the downstairs lobby so we could physically distance. I started with the Center for Disease Control’s guidance that we celebrate virtually or within our household. I added that the CDC specifically says those who don’t currently live in our household, even if family members, need to be viewed as members of different households.
I reminded everyone that one exposure to an asymptomatic individual could give any of us COVID, and that eating would require removing masks. I quoted the spiking COVID numbers in our community.
My meeting was a failure. My employees, while masked, looked down and away while I talked. I finally stopped, realizing I hadn’t gotten through to them. They apparently intend to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.
After the meeting I talked with the individual who’d invited a coworker to her house. She asked, “If I interact with her all week long in the workplace, why is it worse to interact with her for an hour or two on my own time?” At that point, I gave up. How are other employers handling Thanksgiving? What am I missing here?
A: COVID-19 infections surged after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, and will likely surge after Thanksgiving. Most employers don’t address the issue, hoping and expecting their employees to make wise choices.
Some employers have enacted Thanksgiving and Christmas advisory policies modeled on the CDC’s guidance. These include each individual bringing their own food, drink, plates, cups and utensils; opening windows to allow fresh air flow; wearing a mask and safely storing it while eating and drinking; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and items between use.
One organization I know asks employees to advise HR if they plan to attend a Thanksgiving dinner involving individuals from more than one household. If an employee answers “yes,” the employer asks that employee to take leave until the employee can confirm they didn’t have close contact with anyone who had COVID-19 or showed COVID-19 symptoms.
The policy also states that if the employer later learns the employee attended a Thanksgiving gathering but didn’t own up to it, the employer may discipline the employee with an unpaid suspension.
Although employees generally have freedom of action when off-duty, even when this may exposure to COVID-19 infected individuals, employers may mandate that employees quarantine if the employee has potentially been exposed.
While employers often feel concerned about employees’ off-duty activities that may affect job performance and the workplace, employers need a compelling reason before asking employees intrusive questions about personal plans. The exception — when the employee’s off-duty conduct might endanger the employee’s coworkers, customers or the employer’s business. COVID-19 may give employers that strong reason; an infected employee could endanger others.
Employers that take actions related to employee’s off-duty conduct need to show a solid link between the off-duty activity and the job. As one example, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Hilton Hawaiian Village after it fired a bellhop who pled guilty to selling an undercover agent a stolen handgun, in part because this bellhop possessed a master key allowing him access to guests’ rooms. In another example, an arbitrator ruled in favor of an employer that fired an employee who worked in an institution for emotionally disturbed young people after the employee was involved in a shooting incident and argument at a friend’s house, as her presence at work made residents nervous.
Finally, don’t misinterpret what you saw. Because you focused on what you wanted to present, when your employees looked down and away, you assumed they closed their ears. It may have signaled their internal struggles with how to talk with family members who insist on family gatherings. Your employee who reached out to her coworker ticked you off; however, she showed human caring.
What was missing? You care about your business; your meeting showed that. You honestly reported the facts and asked employees to do the right and wise thing. Did you also let your employees know you were thankful for them, and that you cared about them, their health and the health of their families?