Whoops, You Stepped In It: Messy Situations & Answers: New Rules for Workplace Behavior

The mask, the nose, the question

When the mask on the coworker I was talking with kept slipping, leaving his nose uncovered, I asked if he was vaccinated.

He got huffy, saying, “That’s none of your business.”

I said, “But your mask keeps slipping.” He gave me an angry look and said, “I have a beard. If I talk it pulls it down. Just don’t talk to me.” He turned his back on me.

How close is too close?

When I walked into the conference room for our first “back in the office meeting,” I grabbed a seat next to a coworker whose company I’ve always enjoyed. She looked horrified, and then embarrassed as she moved to a chair three feet away. I looked around the room and realized everyone was physically distanced. “Sorry,” I called out, and felt everyone’s eyes on me. A guy seated across the room shook his head.

These two situations were given me by blog readers who asked for a post on “the new workplace rules”. Here’s what I told them:

The “are you vaccinated” question

You’re allowed to ask your coworker if s/he’s vaccinated? It’s not a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violation, but a legitimate issue given the public health crisis. You can use your knowledge of his/her vaccination status to know whether to physically distance and wear a mask around him/her. You might soften your approach with “Are you willing to talk about your vaccination status?”

Don’t expect your manager to answer a similar question about your coworker’s vaccination status as the manager needs to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act provisions that prohibit managers from disclosing an employee’s individual health information.

The slipping mask

Your bearded coworker needs to wear a better-fitting mask; plenty of bearded individuals have figured out how to accomplish masks that protect those with whom they talk. If you need to interact with this team member, try a Zoom call from your separate offices or mention the situation to your manager.

How close is too close

Until someone invites you closer, physically distance from others, whether at meetings or in the elevator. While some coworkers feel fully comfortable at the office, many others worry they’ll inadvertently bring illness home to at-risk family members.

Would love to hear stories and solutions — what interesting situations have occurred now that you’re back in the office?

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3 thoughts on “Whoops, You Stepped In It: Messy Situations & Answers: New Rules for Workplace Behavior

  1. Lynne, I appreciate this column and the information in it. ‘The workplace’ has become one of the most significant ‘life minefields’ in the history of this 7-decade old guy. And I’ve also ‘survived’ a positive COVID experience – I was tested and positive but never knew I had it as I never had any symptoms. The doc said I apparently just “shrugged it off” – I believe, due to the fact that I had both shots (and since have gotten a booster).
    But the lack of concern and consideration by the ‘non-believers’ is reprehensible. The FIRST concern and courtesy should be to protect the rightful concern-for-health for those who are potential. Farting in church doesn’t only effect you – it can more seriously effect those around you.
    And/but you mention ‘talk to your supervisor.’ The problem here is…some of us ARE supervisors. And you didn’t ‘help US out’ with any means of coping or dealing with the problem of dealing with the problem employees.

  2. Dan, thanks! And I agree. This post doesn’t focus on dealing with problem employees. I have a number of short posts in the “Discipline” section of the blog, but the articles you might find most helpful are in my three books (Won by One, Solutions & Managing for Accountability). I’ll write one in the blog soon, so you (and others) don’t have to buy the book.

  3. Thank you so much for these helpful comments. Especially the comment that asking someone their vaccination status is not a violation of HIPAA–with the qualifier that your employer talking about another employee’s vaccination status with other employees is a privacy violation. I like the etiquette suggestion that instead of being direct and out with it perhaps take a step back and ask the coworker if they are comfortable talking about their vaccination status. As for the employee who had to be reminded about social distancing, then did it and apologized, there’s no need for the head shaking. Everyone is still getting used to transitioning back to work and what the rules are. And guess what, at some workplaces, it will be unmasked and side by side. These also may be places where there’s a lot of reluctance around vaccine mandates and employer-imposed testing. There’s a lot of variety out there.

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