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How to Talk About Social Distancing and the Coronavirus at Work

I have a nanny who works in my home. She isn’t afraid of getting sick with the Coronavirus. She was going to the gym, before gyms were closed. I couldn’t tell her not to, however badly I wanted to. I could tell her not to come to work, but that doesn’t help me. How does a nanny work from home?

You are likely in a similar situation. You canceled your spring break trip, your direct report didn’t. You are practicing social distancing, your coworker who sits in the desk next to you isn’t. You’re keeping your kids at home; your next-door neighbors are not. Your kids want to play together.

You can’t legally tell an employee or coworker what to do when they’re not working, but you can tell your coworkers, friends, and family members that you’re uncomfortable. You can make requests and express concern.

My son is on the cusp of the cutoff to go to kindergarten in September. He just makes the deadline. I’ve been asking his preschool teacher how I decide if I should send him to kindergarten in September. His teacher’s criteria for determining if children are ready for kindergarten is self-advocacy. Can children ask for what they need and get their needs met. This is an interesting criterion that I see adults struggle with all the time.

Do we (the adults) regularly ask for what we need and want? Are we willing to be uncomfortable on our own behalf, on our employees’ behalf?

The coronavirus is testing all of us. It’s testing our patience, resilience, and self-discipline. It’s also testing our personal courage in the area of speaking up.

Here are a few ways to talk about the coronavirus at work:

Share your concerns. Tell the people you work with, “We work closely together. I’ve heard you talking about attending parties and other events with groups of people outside of work. I am very nervous about contracting the coronavirus virus. This is making me uncomfortable. I can’t tell you what to do outside of work. Can we talk about what types of social distancing we’re both willing to practice so we’re both comfortable?”

This will take courage. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who will?

Make requests. Tell your boss, “I’m really committed to the project I’m working on with _______. I’m working very hard to stay healthy and practice social distancing. I’ve heard _________ talking about going to parties and gatherings with other people outside of work. We’re working closely together and it’s making me uncomfortable. I want to be a good coworker and employee and protect myself. Can you help me?”

Self-advocacy takes courage.

Caveat – Vet any conversation you plan to have with your HR person or in-house counsel. Make sure what you ask for is legal in your home state.

Share your positive intentions:  “I want to be a good coworker.” “I want to do good work on this project.” “I want to be easy to work with.”

Share your concerns:  “I’m concerned about getting sick. I’m trying to limit my exposure to the coronavirus.”

Share your observation: “I’ve heard you talk about spending time with groups of people outside of work.” “I’ve noticed you spending time with groups of people.”

Share how you feel: “This is making me uncomfortable.” 

Make a request: “Can we talk about how we can keep each other safe?”

Creating a safe workspace and working environment requires the courage to speak up. Plan, practice, and prepare your conversations. Don’t speak off the cuff. Vet what you plan to say with your HR person or in-house counsel. Speak from your positive intention. Be courageous. Be safe.

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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