Face Masks: A New Source of Employee Conflict

A controversial topic facing our members is the use of face masks in the workplace. Some states and communities have issued health orders that mandate face masks; in others, it is recommended. Fueled in part by these inconsistent requirements, conflict is flaring between employees who advocate for mask-wearing, and those who resist masks. Advocates cite public health officials and scientific evidence to support the use of masks. Those who resist mask-wearing may do so based on medical reasons, physical discomfort, feelings about personal freedoms, religious beliefs, or assertions of civil and political rights.

What can employers do to manage conflicts over the use of face masks?

These are essential steps employers can take to establish a more harmonious environment and minimize all forms of interpersonal conflicts in the workplace:

  • Establish consistent face mask and social distancing protocols based on legitimate business considerations;
  • Provide reasonable accommodations as necessary for medical conditions;
  • Communicate the need for such protocols as essential to business operations, and clarify consequences for noncompliance;
  • Train employees on proper processes and techniques on the use of masks and related protocols;
  • Encourage ongoing dialog with employees and provide a method to report concerns;
  • Hold employees accountable to established protocols;
  • Thank employees for their commitment to safety and the organization’s overall mission/ goals.

Additionally, employers may coach employees to work through interpersonal conflict. Here are some “dos” and “don’ts” to empower employees to self-manage and navigate conflict of any sort:

Do:

  • Set an intention to assume the best in the other person. Misunderstanding or misinterpreting another person can lead to unintended offense.
  • Think (about the potential impact) before you speak.
  • Understand your own emotional “hot buttons.”
  • Be a role model of civility.

Do not:

  • Make assumptions and judge others.
  • Label people or name call.
  • Forget that you are at work – remain professional at all times.

Employers must identify what health orders they must comply with based on factors such as location, employee count, and industry segment. Generally speaking, employers may impose dress code, uniform, hygiene, and PPE requirements in the workplace; face masks may or may not be defined by OSHA as PPE depending on the industry of the employer.

At all times, employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace and to protect employees from known dangers; Covid-19 poses such a threat, and thus employers must take reasonable measures to minimize the threat of workplace infections. Helping employees understand this requirement may go a long way toward reducing potential conflicts. For assistance with workplace challenges, contact Employers Council.