With vaccinations becoming more common and COVID-19 infection and death rates steadily decreasing, several states are sunsetting mask mandates. This creates new questions for employers as employees return to work in higher numbers, and we increasingly move from Zoom and Teams to in-person. As we resume a bit more (and welcome) normalcy in our work lives, you will face critical questions about mask wearing in the workplace. And, we know the answers to those questions will not be one-size-fits-all for every organization.
What are other employers doing?
First Person recently conducted a survey of our clients and social media followers, asking whether they would require or stop requiring facemasks when state and local mandates expire. As of publication of this blog, 119 employers responded, and here’s how the numbers shake out:
- Require face masks – 55.5%
- Stop requiring face masks – 18.4%
- Not sure yet – 26.1%
Those that will continue requiring face masks constitute only a slim majority, bringing visibility to the fact that this issue is not a settled one for organizations. Many considerations come into play when settling on an approach.
What factors should you consider in adapting a mask-wearing policy in your workplace?
Depending on where your organization is located, the answer may be simple. If state or local authorities mandate mask wearing in public venues and businesses, the policy should not change. But, when those mandates lift, you must consider multiple factors in determining next steps.
What is your liability risk?
One of the greatest factors is the risk of liability if an employee is infected with COVID-19 at your workplace. While federal legislation has been introduced that would limit employer liability, this was a Republican-led initiative and is unlikely to get passed by the new Congress. Some states, including Indiana, have also introduced legislation to protect employers from undue risks.
Without new laws specifically addressing this issue, employers will likely be judged on a negligence standard. This means that the precautions taken to protect against undue risk of harm will be key. This includes following CDC and applicable state departments of health guidelines, which currently recommend we continue wearing masks.
Are you a multi-state or multi-location employer?
Mask mandates are determined on a state and local level. This means that the location of your offices will dictate how you approach the issue, due to differing state and local mandates. It will be important for you to become familiar with the requirements in each location where employees reside, and even where they travel. If you desire to create a uniform policy for all employees, the policy will need to be based on the location with the strictest mandate in place.
Do your employees have contact with clients or with the public?
If your organization has client-facing employees or employees who serve the public (i.e., hospitality industry), you must consider yet another set of risk factors. Those factors include both the risk of spreading infection to a client or customer, and the risk that not requiring a mask will be perceived as reckless or unsafe and harm business relationships.
Do you have other safety protocols in place to reduce the risk of transmission?
Workplace safety protocols that reduce the risk of transmission can bode well for relaxing mask requirements. If you’re able to design your workplace such that employees are properly distanced while working, allowing those employees to go without masks could make sense. Protocols that require vaccination certainly make the concept of eliminating mask mandates more palatable. Incentivizing employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine through cash rewards, additional PTO or other strategies can have the same positive impact without the potential negative backlash of a vaccine mandate. Whether required or encouraged through incentives, proof of vaccination for workers in contact with each other or the public certainly weighs in favor of loosening worksite mask requirements.
What is the impact of your mask policy on employee morale and company culture?
Much like vaccine policies, workforce mask wearing requirements will undoubtedly stir strong opinions from employees on both sides of the spectrum. The issue has repeatedly been examined in the media as a battle between public safety and individual liberty. For this reason, it’s critical for you to understand the rationale behind your mask policy regardless of whether masks are mandatory or voluntary. And, it’s equally important you communicate your company’s rationale to help employees understand the steps you’re taking to ensure their health and safety at work.
We recommend following these internal communication best practices as you roll out your approach to masks, vaccines and other COVID-19-related policies:
- Address individual preferences using different communication methods and channels, so you’re meeting your employees where they are, capturing their attention and reinforcing positive messaging.
- Create a campaign so communication and messaging is consistent, persistent and expected. Remember the communication “rule of seven” – people need to hear things seven times and seven ways before they will absorb the message.
- Leverage technology so important messages are accessible to employees wherever they are.
- Customize your strategy in partnership with leadership to be sure employees are getting the right message at the right time, with buy in at all levels of the organization.
- Include personal, empathetic stories to draw in employees and increase impact.
- Identify success measures and be ready to adjust your communication strategy as needed.
Regardless of the approach you choose, the message to employees that their health and safety, as well as that of their coworkers and families, is of highest priority must be loud and clear.
As we begin to navigate the business world post-pandemic, the changing state and local landscape is bringing this important issue to the forefront. We created a Mask Policy Toolkit to help you walk through all these important considerations as you design your policy. As you consider your options, please reach out to me or a member of our advisory team and we will help you design an approach that fits your company’s culture and goals.