Dear Addi P.,
We are struggling with employee conversations that seem to end up with someone upset or offended — usually both. Someone was in my office distraught that a coworker asked if they were vaccinated against COVID-19. We've had similar issues with discussions of politics, protected classes, climate change and whatever is in the news that day.
How do we handle these kinds of employee conversations that seem to upset everyone?
— Drama in Denver
Part of bringing your whole self to work is bringing your opinions, and part of building team collaboration, trust and engagement (especially among remote employees) is having conversations about our lives and what's going on in the world.
That said, when there's a lot happening — from sports playoffs or politics to the pandemic and natural disasters — in terms of employee conversations, it can feel like every day is "bring your drama to work" day.
Politics has always been a sensitive topic because the issues are often controversial and people have strong feelings. I talked about how to handle political discussions at work a while back. Basically, treat these employee conversations as productivity and performance issues, and only intervene if they're disrupting the work environment or raising concerns about discrimination or harassment based on a protected class. If you're unsure of whether a particular issue rises to that level, get some guidance from your employment attorneys.
With regard to whether employees can ask each other if they are vaccinated against COVID-19, the short answer is yes, although as with all sensitive questions, I advise caution. And no, it's not a HIPAA violation for either employers or employees to ask someone at work if they have been vaccinated.
HIPAA only applies in limited circumstances and only to "covered entities." Covered entities are: 1. health plans, 2. health care clearinghouses, 3. health care providers that electronically transmit certain health information, and 4. certain "business associates" of covered entities. This generally means health insurers, medical providers and their contractors that actually transmit medical information.
Unless your organization is a covered entity and you are transmitting someone else's medical data, HIPAA does not apply. It definitely does not apply to an individual employee asking another employee about whether they have been vaccinated.
Also, an employer or employee simply asking about vaccination status does not reveal information about any disability or other information that would be protected by the ADA or individual privacy rights. It's a health and safety issue for people who work in the same indoor space, and the concern is valid. If, however, an employer asks why an individual is not vaccinated, that may get closer to interfering with personal, disability-related information.
That said, people feel strongly about it, as they do about the other issues you mentioned, such as politics and the latest news.
Here are some approaches that can help:
- Avoid edicts. Trying to create and then enforce rules about what people should or should not discuss at work can present a quagmire of legal and practical issues. It's hard enough getting people to take breaks and track their hours — nobody wants to be the employee conversations police. If people are being disruptive and arguing about things that have nothing to do with work, tell them to refocus on their work. If the problem persists and is interfering with productivity, treat it like any other performance problem.
- Listen with compassion. These types of discussions can get heated because we've all been through a lot, things are still in flux and people naturally want to grasp for certainty and a sense of control. The issue is rarely only about what it seems. Be kind, and gently remind them that we are all having perfectly normal responses to abnormal situations. Point out that work can be a place to focus on things we can influence and control and a place to get a break from other concerns.
- Know your resources. When someone's response is more severe than the situation would normally warrant, they may be dealing with other difficulties that are giving everything a charge and amplifying their emotions. Maybe they could use a mental health day. Perhaps some therapy or someone neutral to talk to would be beneficial. Be sure to understand and discuss your leave policies, coverage for mental health treatment, and any employee assistance (EAP) programs or benefits they can access.
- Understand the limits. If the drama is increasing and people aren't getting work done, it's time to let people know that they need to take a step back and refocus. Let the people involved know what will happen if disruptions continue, and then follow through. Keep the conversation professional and centered on what you want to happen: work.
- Protect against discrimination and harassment. There are some types of behavior that need to be addressed immediately. Personal attacks, name-calling, harassment and discrimination should not be tolerated. If these kinds of issues arise, get to the bottom of what happened as soon as possible and take appropriate action. Don't be afraid to call legal; it's why they're there.
Unless swift action is necessary, always try to deescalate and redirect people back to what they are there for. While we want people to bring their full selves to work, it's okay to ask them to leave extraneous baggage and drama somewhere else.
Visit our COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate info page for the latest updates and guidance for employers.
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