When There Are Workplace Conflicts Over COVID-19 Prevention Practices

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Nov 11, 2020
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When There Are Workplace Conflicts Over COVID-19 Prevention Practices

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, people are getting tired of the restrictions and procedures in place to help prevent the spread of infection. Many are anxious about dealing with the virus and flu during the long, cold winter months and continuing mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. 

Additionally, many people have strong feelings about wearing masks, both for it and against, with conflicts covered in the news and on the Internet. With confusing information and guidance about mask-wearing, and strong personal feelings about individual rights and duties to conform to public health and safety requirements, public confrontations over this issue have become commonplace. 

Conflicts over COVID-19 Prevention Practices are Workplace Violence

Workplace conflicts over wearing masks fall under the umbrella of workplace violence. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines workplace violence as “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” 

As businesses continue to comply with public safety requirements and enforce prevention policies and practices, the CDC reports that threats and assaults over COVID-19 requirements, like mask-wearing, are more likely to occur in public customer- and service-oriented businesses. However, workplace violence can occur in any place of business. When there are threats and verbal and physical assaults, workplace violence policies should be followed to address and resolve the issue. 

can an employee refuse to wear a mask

CDC Recommendations 

The CDC recommends providing employee training on how to recognize warning signs of workplace violence, and how to respond to potential or unfolding conflicts and violent situations. Have employees attend all workplace violence training, report threats or acts of violence according to company policy, and support those involved in threatening or violent situations. 

Communicate to employees not to argue with someone who is engaging in threatening or violent actions, and try to get to a safe area that locks from the inside and has a phone. Employees should also be instructed not to try to force anyone who appears threatening or violent to comply with prevention policies such as mask-wearing. If possible, employers can install security equipment like panic buttons or silent alarms for when assistance is needed.

What Employers are Doing 

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that employers around the country are doing different things to protect employees from threatening and violent incidents over COVID-19 prevention policies. Big Lots Vice President of Asset Protection Robert LaCommare said that employees are given de-escalation scripts with strategies for dealing with those who don’t want to comply. Walmart is putting a positive spin on mask requirements by training “health ambassadors” to greet customers at entrances to remind customers to wear masks. The home-improvement big-box store wants to protect employees from conflicts about the mask mandate by not enforcing it. Some smaller employers like coffee house owner Lily Damtew in Alexandria, Virginia, just close temporarily when they experience violent conflicts over prevention practices like mask requirements. 

SHRM recommends employers update policies for pandemic conditions, communicate why they are implementing policies such as mask requirements, and ensure that employees understand who they can talk to when there are questions or concerns about compliance. Employers can encourage employees to work together to help prevention and compliance efforts by welcoming comments and questions and providing all necessary information. Good communication and resources help ease fears and uncertainties that can lead to escalating conflicts.

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