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It’s time to reopen – but your employees are scared to return. What should you do?

By June 15, 2020No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the next phase. Business was going great – and then the you-know-what hit the fan. The coronavirus shut you down. You sent everyone home. Some employees were able to work remotely, some weren’t. You gathered up your savings, maybe got a little help from the government, and hunkered down. For months. Now, things are starting to turn around. Finally, life can get back to normal.

But it’s not normal of course. There’s still a very real and deadly virus going around. You’re complying with all the necessary guidelines. You’ve got masks, sanitizer. It’s not ideal, but it’s what it is. So you tell your employees your company is open for business and you look forward to seeing them at work. And most of them come to work. Unfortunately, a few don’t.

Despite all that you’re doing, they still don’t feel safe. They’re afraid of getting sick. They’re afraid of getting their families sick. So what do you do? This is a growing dilemma among many of my clients. Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer.

On the one hand, you could accommodate. You can tell the employee to stay at home – with pay and benefits (or something reduced) – and keep doing their work from there, if that’s possible. That would certainly alleviate their fears and hopefully give reason for your employee to stay with your company because you know this won’t last forever and you’re going to need that valuable person in the future. But you’re not certain what message that’s sending to the rest of your team. Why does that person get to stay from home even when he or she isn’t sick? Why are you still paying them? Why are you treating them so special? By doing this you’re committing the cardinal sin of human resources: not being consistent.

On the other hand, you could take a harsher position. You could do the opposite and simply terminate that person’s employment. If the person is not sick from Covid-19 or not caring for a family member that’s sick or affected by the virus then the Families First Coronavirus Response Act doesn’t require you to maintain their jobs. Neither does the original Family and Medical Leave Act. So you may be within your rights to just let that person go and collect unemployment. Maybe that’s good for the employee. Maybe you weren’t so crazy about that person’s work anyway. Or maybe you just don’t care either way.

I’m not judging. This is not an easy situation. You’re trying to run a business. You want to do what’s best for everyone. You didn’t ask for this.

There is one bright spot here: you run a small business and not a large company. In a large company HR teams are drawing up policies – some of them kind, others draconian. There’s no doubt that not every one of their employees will be happy. Some may say bad things on social media. Others may sue. When you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of employees you’re probably going to upset someone.

But one of the greatest things about running a small business is that you have flexibility. Because your company is smaller it’s likely you have a closer relationship with your people. Together you can work out an arrangement that’s mutually acceptable. And when you do that you can personally communicate the situation – to the extent that you’re not violating any privacy rules – with other workers so they know what’s going on.

Case in point: after one client of mine recently reopened, an office manager refused to come in to the office. She was not sick, nor were her family members. But she has a young son with a medical condition and is at high risk. So if she did get sick it could seriously affect him and she wasn’t willing to take that chance. So what would you do? In a big company this explanation may not have been enough. But my client – who employs 30 people – understood the situation and is accommodating the employee. All of her other employees know the office manager and also understand.

So what do you do when an employee refuses to come back to work? That will be up to you and the relationship you have with your employees. One thing’s for sure: because you’re running a small business – and you’re a good person – I bet you’ve got more options than your larger competitors with nameless managers. And I really hope your employees also realize that benefit because in the long run it’s more valuable than just a higher salary.

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