6 Steps for Promoting Mask Wearing at Work

By Karen J. Bannan August 4, 2020
6 Steps for Promoting Mask Wearing at Work

​You can't turn on a television or look at a social media feed these days without running into commentary about wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Scientists agree that wearing a mask can reduce the risk of catching or transmitting the coronavirus, but for some people, wearing one can be uncomfortable or feel like an attack on personal choice and freedom.

Melissa Peavey, human resources manager at Audemars Piguet, a luxury watchmaker headquartered in Le Brassus, Switzerland, knows the struggle well. She is at high risk for suffering complications from COVID-19 because she has asthma, but she dislikes wearing a mask because doing so makes it hard to breathe. Still, she knows it is important—for herself and for the company's employees. That's why she decided to figure out how to get employees to wear their masks while minimizing conflict and anxiety.

"I saw what's happening across the country with people refusing to wear masks and how it's making it difficult for people to do their jobs," Peavey explained. "I did a lot of research online, trying to figure out how to promote and encourage mask wearing and find ways to defuse any problems that might pop up in our building or in our boutiques."

There are ways to convince employees to willingly wear masks, as well as solid strategies for settling mask-related issues between co-workers and management. Here are six steps you can take.


1.       Create a Mask Policy

Mask conflicts often start when there isn't a clear company policy, said Vanessa G. Nelson, president of  Flint, Mich.-based HR consultancy and recruiting company Expert Human Resources and author of 101 Costly HR Mistakes (CreateSpace, 2017). She advises all her clients to make wearing a mask part of the official company dress code so there is no ambiguity. "It's just like saying an employee must wear a name badge," she said.

2.       Get Executive and Managerial Buy-In

Randy Potts, human resources manager for Rent-2-Own, a chain of retail stores based out of Lancaster, Ohio, oversees employees in 37 locations. When it came time to reopen, management decided that masks would be mandatory. To make enforcement easier, the company purchased cloth masks for each worker emblazoned with the company logo. Then it made sure that each store's manager was clear on the policy and why it was being implemented.

"We're family-owned and -operated, so our management immediately knew it wanted to take care of employees," Potts said. "Buying the masks and mandating their use is a way to make sure everyone stays healthy, and we told managers that."

3.       Communicate the Policy

Once management understands the policy, it's time to explain it to employees. Peavey created a memo about her company's mask policy and sent it to each of the firm's more than 130 North American employees. Along with requiring employees to wear masks, it included a message from the company's CEO, a PowerPoint presentation depicting a revised floor plan to show how the work environment had changed and details about how breaks would be staggered through use of a digital sign-up sheet.

Nelson said you can't overcommunicate when it comes to mask policies or expectations around personal behavior. She suggested that HR professionals host a video call to explain the policy to employees and send out written guidance asking all employees to sign off on mask-wearing requirements.

Employers should also give employees with bona fide medical issues information about opting out of a mask mandate.

"It is important for employers to consider ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements when dealing with employees who state they can't wear masks due to medical issues," Nelson said. "In most cases, medical documentation may be required. Additionally, employers should develop, discuss and distribute a civility-and-respect-in-the-workplace policy to ensure that employees are kind to one another and that verbal communications remain civil at all times."

Employees should know that yelling or name-calling will not be tolerated, and that they should step away from conflict before it spirals out of control—something that can be difficult to do when tensions and fears are running high.

[How have you adapted to the pandemic? Share your story with SHRM's Government Affairs team as they educate decision-makers on crafting policies on work, workers and the workplace.]

4.       Hold People Accountable

Managers aren't the only ones who should get involved if an employee forgets to wear a mask or is wearing it incorrectly. Audemars Piguet is asking employees to "gently remind each other to put on the mask," Peavey said. "It's been working out well. Someone even reminded me today after I took my mask off to blow my nose and forgot to put it back on."

This might not work in every situation. Employees who are friends outside of work may feel comfortable telling a co-worker to put on a mask, but others may get upset if they are told what to do by someone they barely know, especially if they feel strongly about masks one way or the other. Nelson suggested letting employees know that they can always bring problems or issues to management.

5.       Listen and Understand

Understanding is key. According to a recent article by management consultant Liz Kislik, when people defy company mandates about mask wearing, "most often, these behaviors are meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict, or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent."

Note that some people may not only feel that wearing a mask is uncomfortable, they may also be claustrophobic. Just listening to their feelings about wearing a mask may help boost compliance, Potts said. He finds the best way to deal with people who aren't wearing their masks, or who are wearing them incorrectly, is for the manager to calmly bring it to their attention and ask questions about what's keeping them from complying with the mask mandate.

"The worst thing you can do is say, 'It's in our handbook' or 'It's the rule,' " he said. "The biggest thing is to acknowledge their feelings and say, 'I understand how you feel, but we have the responsibility to do business the right way.' "

6.       Be Prepared to Take Action

At the end of the day, it's up to HR and managers to ensure that workers comply with mask mandates, especially if the organization is under a state- or county-wide mask ordinance, if employees cannot socially distance from one another, or if they work closely with the public.

Handle an employee who defies a company's mask edict the same way you would treat any type of insubordination, Nelson said. If you can accommodate someone refusing to wear a mask by letting them work from home or isolating them from others, that's great. But if you can't, document any warnings you issue and be prepared to terminate the employee. In addition, if the employee starts altercations with others over mask wearing, jump in right away.

"You might have to send them home or discipline them," Nelson said. "Make sure you're not being discriminatory, but do the job you need to do."

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.

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