Coronavirus Confidential

Yesterday, Charlie in Accounting had the sniffles.  He hasn’t come into work today.  Tomorrow, he calls you in HR and tells you that he tested positive for coronavirus.  Does this bit of information change what you’ve been doing?  I posted a poll on Twitter yesterday, and here’s the result:

IMG_F9D42C9A6B03-1

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve learned a lot more about the coronavirus and how to prepare for a possible pandemic.  We know we should be washing our hands, not touching our faces, preparing for folks to work from home when they can, researching business interruption insurance to see if it will cover payroll if coronavirus requires us to shutdown, reevaluating if we can afford giving pay increases in light of financial outlooks, and communicating to employees how to prepare.  All of these are important steps to take.

It’s awesome to be prepared.  It is also important to look at our obligations as an employer.  As a worry-wart employment lawyer, one obligation leaps out when we start talking about coronavirus – the obligation to keep medical information confidential.  In a normal, non-pandemic situation, we would not be able to share that Charlie has cancer, arthritis, or any other medical condition.  A pandemic doesn’t change this.  If Charlie tests positive, we can’t share that with employees.  The fact that we know shouldn’t change what we’re doing.  Prepare as though it will hit your neighborhood so that when it does, you don’t violate the ADA.

Now, you might be thinking about moral obligations.  Shouldn’t we be able to tell Suzy because her elderly mother lives with her or Jamal because his kid gets sick a lot?  The answer is still no.  We should tell employees now that when coronavirus gets to our area, they will need to make decisions, like working from home or taking increased PTO, as they are necessary and that we’ll be doing everything we can to keep our workplace safe and healthy, like telling people not to come to work when they’re sick.  Yes, this is hard.

Review the EEOC’s pandemic guidance.  It’s from 2009 but recently re-upped given coronavirus.  Here are some key takeaways for you:

  • You can and SHOULD increase infection-control practices like handwashing and increased cleanings of offices and surfaces
  • You can’t take every employee’s temperature as they enter your offices unless the CDC tells you to
  • You can’t ask employees if they have a disease that makes them more susceptible to the virus
  • You can’t require employees to get a vaccine as religion and disability may prevent it for some employees
  • You can tell employees not to come to work when they’re sick and you can send them home

Instead of waiting for Charlie to get tested, let’s get prepared.  Here are some great resources that may be helpful for you:

  • Check out the University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP center for all the news and maps that you might need
  • Check out Dan Schwartz’s blog for updates on how to prepare
  • Joey Price has a webinar on Tuesday (3/10) for HR on how to prepare
  • HR Bartender posted some tips
  • Listen to Heather Kinzie and I talk about practical tips on how to handle coronavirus on Thursday (3/12) at 4 pm CDT/1 pm AK – no registration necessary!
  • Jeff Nowak has a webinar on Thursday (3/12) on preparedness, the ADA, and FMLA

Now, go get some more soap!

The NLRB’s Bad Decision

About a third of the work I do is workplace investigations – everything from culture reviews and employee misconduct to harassment.  I love them!  Recently, the National Labor Relations Board issued a new decision that greatly affects employer policies around investigations.  Essentially, the Board overturned a decision that allowed employees to talk about an ongoing investigation.  Now, employers can prohibit employees from talking about an investigation.  In fact, employees can now get fired for talking about it.

I’m not going to lie.  I really don’t like this decision.  I know, I know.  My perspective is the polar opposite of nearly every other investigator out there.  But hear me out.  I’ve got two reasons why this decision is bad for employers and employees.

First, #metoo took off when women talked with each other about their experiences.  When Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow started meeting with women in Harvey Weinstein’s sphere, the more women they spoke to, the more harassment they found.  Once one person came forward on the record, it was easier for others to come forward and share how much a monster Harvey really was.  Now, there are 90 women who have come forward.  The same thing happens in companies that don’t end up in headlines.  When one person comes forward, others follow suit.  (Pun not intended.)

Harassment targets fear speaking out alone, and intentionally, harassers isolate and separate their targets so they feel all alone and that no one will believe them.  When targets know someone else has had a similar experience and they’re willing to report it too, they may even come forward together.  So, knowing about others and talking with them gets targets to report.  Something employers want, right?

Second, during an investigation, it is incredibly common to have reluctant witnesses – those who give you one-word answers and are all jittery when they sit across from you.  You listen to them and know they’re not sharing everything.  No matter how much prodding you do, they clam up.  If the investigation lasts long enough, the witness may come back, ask to speak with you again, and this time, they share more.  They may even share everything, including their experience being a target of harassment or provide the evidence you’ve been looking for.  When you ask why the change of heart in coming forward, the answer is often that they spoke to someone else and they felt they needed to “do the right thing.”  It makes it more difficult to evaluate them as a witness, but if they didn’t speak with anyone, we’d never get their information.

Now, other investigators have argued that they don’t want employees to chat with each other because they could “sync” stories or lie and that would interfere with their investigations.  I get that, but I’d rather have employees come tell me everything knowing that they’re not the only ones sticking their necks out.  And, if employees sync their stories, the investigator will hear the phrases suggesting they’ve colluded and are not genuine.  We’re trained in this.  We have experience in this.  We see it a lot.  We should be able to handle this separate from a policy prohibiting employees talking that puts their jobs at risk.

In their new decision, the Board argues that we can’t offer employees confidentiality in what they tell us if the employer doesn’t prohibit employees from talking about the investigation.  But no investigator says, “Well, Suzy told me XYZ” – we don’t share what people tell us.  In most cases, I don’t even share names with decision-makers.  If I told decision-makers exactly who said what, retaliation would be a real possibility.  So, I tell folks I interview that I don’t share names, and this comforts them, freeing them to open up.  If they talk with coworkers, they’ve picked people they’re comfortable with.  I share the important facts with decision-makers that they need to make any decision they need to.  So, the Board’s argument is hooey.

The National Labor Relations Act protects employees from discipline (including termination) when they get together to talk about the terms and conditions of employment.  This was the basis of the decision the Board overturned.  In some ways, the Board’s new decision feels like a response to the #metoo movement and an attempt to keep employees from talking about their experiences by allowing employers to have strict policies against employee talking about an investigation.  And, this is a shame.  Employers, trust your investigators to handle the information you do not need to adopt a policy in accordance with the Board’s new decision.  I recommend against it.

 

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash