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the swine flu and your workplace August 19, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Very Corporate Something, Management.
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swinefluYesterday, my doctor told me she believes H1N1 (or “swine”) flu is going to continue to be a problem in the U.S. and elsewhere, despite the relatively-small amount of news coverage it’s been getting lately. Also, over the last couple of days I’ve gotten two e-mails about there being swine flu in my office. I’m sure your company’s put out e-mails about flu prevention, handwashing, and sanitizing.

Amusingly, our Big Boss said, when he announced we had a swine flu victim, that he would ask the custodians to do a thorough cleaning of the building. They did, which begs the question: what do they do every day when I see them trundling through the building with their yellow buckets of doom?

The dilemma at every level has is how to deal with an employee who has swine flu.

Employee: You would think it’s not required for employees to disclose personal health information, but the Littler’s privacy blog says that under the ADA, they actually do in some situations. Plus, in the interest of being a good citizen, wouldn’t you want your co-workers to have knowledge that they might have been exposed to this illness? On the other hand, if you do reveal you tested positive for swine flu, you’ll become a pariah when you come back. People will actively avoid you.

Manager: When an employee calls in sick, the manager asks what’s wrong. If you say you want to keep it private, that raises a potential red flag, and the manager can always request a doctor’s note. Some businesses require it, as a matter of fact. There’s usually a privacy screen in that you can go to HR and say “this is what’s wrong with me, please help me keep it private”. After all, there are plenty of embarrassing diseases that you don’t want your boss to know about — and some not-so-embarrassing ones; one of my co-workers recently beat cancer, and he wanted to keep it private, so he didn’t tell anyone. His boss just said he was out on sick leave and when he came back, we welcomed him as we would anyone who’d been out for a long time. The company really can’t force an employee to reveal his/her sickness, but they can in the interest of general health request more information.

Other Employees: If an employee contracts an infectious disease (in the example above, my co-worker’s cancer was not infectious so it was well within his manager’s rights to withhold the nature of his illness), other employees need to know about it. Managers need to communicate the illness, the prognosis, and the general situation while protecting the employee’s privacy if s/he requests it. HIPAA comes into play in some cases — it did with my swine-flu-afflicted co-worker. Instead, we got a couple of e-mails from the Big Boss. The first warned us that an employee in the department had been diagnosed with the flu and would be staying home until s/he* had recovered and was cleared to return to work. Also, s/he would be getting a swine flu screening. Well, that screening came back positive and there was another e-mail stressing both that the employee was recovering well and that we should enact the protective measures being exhorted by the corporate office since well before anyone here caught it. They will not reveal who was stricken. I feel my company made pretty good choices here. However…

Gossip: When someone’s out for an extended period of time and an e-mail about swine flu goes out, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s afflicted. The day the first message was sent, most of us figured out which employee it was. She’d been out for a few days, and every day in the message queue it said she was out sick again. We can all correlate data, and we all know exactly who it is. We hope she comes back soon — she’s well-liked around here — but I’m curious to see how people react around her. Especially the person who shares her cubicle pod.

Corporate: At the corporate level, it becomes more about planning for trouble than dealing with the issue at hand. The company has to foster a positive environment despite the difficulty of dealing with this potentially-deadly illness that has everyone running scared and over-sanitizing themselves. They have to provide resources for dealing with potential outbreaks, and they have to keep the lines of communication open if anyone has concerns. Plus, if someone does catch the illness, there needs to be a policy in place to deal with employees who feel they cannot be around anyone who might have been infected — for example, pregnant women, who the CDC says should be first in line to be vaccinated once a vaccine is available. And not just them… what about parents of children with immune system difficulties, or parents whose children have another kind of influenza? How does the company deal with employees who have family members with swine (or regular) flu? The bigger the company, the bigger the potential for trouble if it’s not handled correctly.

The pandemic potential of swine flu** is bringing a lot of these issues out in the open. Despite the danger of the disease, I actually think it’s a good thing. This is stuff managers, employees, and corporations need to think about and plan for — preferably before it becomes a true pandemic.

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* The e-mail from the Big Boss was riddled with “they” and “their” in conjunction with singular verbs — “they are recovering well”, “their doctor said”, and so on. That acceptably-wrong use of subject-verb agreement has always driven me up the wall, and I felt it made our Big Boss look unprofessional. I wonder why his secretary didn’t catch it and change it to s/he and his/her.

** There has always been a potential for flu pandemics. I firmly believe we’re more worried about swine flu than any other in the past few years because it has a cool name. Did the media create this whole pandemic issue by using the name? I can’t tell you — I don’t have the answer — but I’m sure you’ve got your own theories.

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