June 17, 2020
Striking the Right Balance on Coming Back to the Office
Are workers ready for a new level of information-gathering, especially when it comes to their health? How do you get a reluctant employee to wear a mask, especially when there are people who turn violent, or threaten violence, at simply being asked to put on a mask?
These are just two of the many questions organizations are grappling with as they begin to reopen their facilities and get people out of their homes and back into the office.
I moderated an LRN webcast last month that focused on these topics, and featured three top ethics and compliance executives, who offered their insights into the subject.
Kristy Grant-Hart, chief executive of Spark Compliance, and a former chief compliance officer for Universal International Pictures, said the most effective plans to move forward will be centered on the organization’s values, and the idea of caring for people at work.
One of her clients asked its employees who are at risk of COVID, or live with someone who is, to step forward and become the faces for the message of doing what’s right to protect those around you.
“So that you’re connecting to a person, and you’re helping to respect them,” said Grant-Hart. “Almost every code of conduct has a section on respect, so the more you can pull it back to that idea,” the better the buy-in and support will be.
“The least effective is you have to and I will make you, but we kind of have to get to there with some people,” she said.
Stephanie Davis, chief ethics and compliance officer for Volkswagen North America, said the company did a survey and found 56% of employees are either vulnerable themselves if they contract COVID, or someone they live with is.
Because more than half of the people who work at the company are vulnerable, “that is important in helping people to understand why all of this is necessary,” she said. “We are going to provide masks, we are going to take temperatures, because it is a service we are providing to our vulnerable. It’s really appealing to the humanity in all of us.”
But there are ethical considerations companies need to confront as they move toward reopening, and set rules for what that will look like, and what will be required, said Katie Lawler, global chief ethics officer for U.S. Bank.
One of the biggest issues is balancing that need for privacy with the need to protect everyone, so by telling the stories of vulnerable colleagues and making them available to people is really going to help people realize the ethical thing to do is to protect people. “It is amazing at how many people have someone at home who is high risk,” she said. “We have to be able to find ways to balance that.”
Organizations will have to decide how much information they are willing to share. For instance, Lawler said if there is a confirmed case, how much should coworkers be told? Do they need to let those people know they may have been exposed? “Then that may reveal who the person was that is sick, she said. “We’ve got to be able to figure that out.”
What about the medical privacy rights of the person who comes down with COVID? Sharing their personal information can violate federal rules. And how much information will workers be asked to provide, about themselves, about at-risk family members or loved ones? If coworkers don’t know why someone is staying home, they sometimes will think it’s for the worst possible reasons, and that could lead to some instances of shaming. “And that’s not OK,” said Lawler.
From a risk standpoint, companies that don’t get the transition back to the office right face the prospect of litigation from employees or others who may feel they are being put at risk by the policies and decisions being made.
Not everyone is going to feel comfortable returning, said Davis. “That is going to be a risk,” she said. “We’re not healthcare officials, so we’re guessing that it’s OK to be in the office. So, if there is a liability associated with that, if we tell you to come back…we have to take all those things into account.”
Lawler said there are things that can be managed, and organizations will have to decide, based on their values, which side they are going to fall on. “We’ve been working with public health officials and other experts to help us with the planning,” she said. “We are relying on true experts because we’re not healthcare providers, we’re bankers, but we want to be sure we are getting guidance from well-respected, knowledgeable people.”
Grant-Hart asked if the unique circumstances associated with COVID result in a change in liability, in this instance, especially as there is some talk of a federal law to prevent companies from being sued for COVID-related matters. “You can end up with a pretty big nightmare pretty quickly, and that may take a long time to decide in the court system,” she said.
Grant-Hart said she would continue with a risk-based approach, be reasonable and try to develop standards where companies can say, “We’ve considered all of these things, we’ve looked at guidance, we’ve listened to experts’ opinions, and that’s a reasonable amount of what we could have done.”
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