How to Handle Mask Shaming in the Workplace

Mask shaming is on the rise. Here’s how to tackle it at the office.

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How to Handle Mask Shaming in the Workplace

COVID has been politicized in the United States from the start. But with the reversal of the federal mask mandate, mask shaming seems like it’s reached its highest point yet. From airplanes to office buildings, mask shaming can be found everywhere.

Mask shaming interactions can be awkward for almost everyone who has experienced or witnessed them. But mask shaming that happens at work is the same place where employers are charged with providing a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace.

So, what are employers to do when mask shaming happens among their employees? Here’s a crash course on what mask shaming is and how to combat it at your business.

What is mask shaming in the workplace?

The thing with mask shaming is that it can take a variety of forms. Some of those forms are more obvious than others. Some offenses (like “face diaper” comments) are clear and obvious. But there are plenty of more subtle ways that mask shaming can make workers feel ashamed of their choice to wear a mask.

One example of a less obvious offense is a presenter asking 1 person who is wearing a mask if they want everyone else to put one on, too. There are also seemingly innocuous instances of reminding people that masks aren’t required anymore. Even coworkers inquiring into why someone is (or isn’t!) wearing a mask can lead to uncomfortable interactions.

Mask shaming can happen both intentionally and unintentionally.

Ultimately, mask shaming happens when someone who is still choosing to mask (or not mask!) is made to feel bad about their choice. The central takeaway is that mask shaming can happen both intentionally and unintentionally.

Why are some employees still masking at the office?

To understand mask shaming, you first have to understand why some people wear masks. First, there’s still a pandemic taking place. Numbers go up and down, but some people simply aren’t comfortable going without a mask. Some people may never be comfortable going without one and that’s OK because it’s their choice.

Others are still masking because they need to. People who are immunocompromised or are otherwise high-risk are still encouraged to wear masks. Many people living with people who are immunocompromised, elderly, or otherwise a member of a high-risk category still mask.

There are many reasons that people choose to mask and all of them are legitimate.

People who are unvaccinated are encouraged to continue to mask. Many people with long COVID prefer to continue to wear masks. Some people with small children who are unable to be vaccinated continue to wear masks. Even experiences like losing a friend or family member to COVID can prompt people to prefer wearing a mask.

The important takeaway is that there are many reasons that people choose to mask and all of them are legitimate. On the other hand, in COVID-conscious workplaces, people who don’t mask anymore can feel harassed for their choices as well. It’s essential to understand that mask shaming goes both ways even if it’s often more directed at those who are masking.

How to handle (and halt) mask shaming in the workplace

To handle mask shaming in your office, it’s best to tackle it on a number of levels.

First, make a policy about it. Be clear that mask shaming will be considered harassment at your business. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it can help keep discrimination and harassment lawsuits at bay as well.

Next, lead by example and require all management to do the same. Managers or other leaders who conduct or participate in mask shaming make it OK for others to do the same. It’s essential that proper conduct is exemplified by everyone in power.

Then, when handling any mask shaming issues, be sure to address them without disclosing sensitive information. Be sure to maintain privacy around the masked employee’s personal information such as their health information, cultural or religious affiliations, disability status, and the like.

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Integrate the policy on mask shaming with training

Finally, integrate your company’s policy and stance on mask shaming into all relevant processes. You should update your employee handbook with the policy on (and consequences of) mask shaming. Mask shaming should be covered not only in diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings and efforts, but in other trainings as well like those on bullying and harassment.

When it comes to training, it’s important to try to cover all the ways — intentional and unintentional — that mask shaming can happen. People who explain that the mask mandate is over or who ask someone to drop their mask because they’re hard of hearing might not have ill intentions.

However, the result is the same. It’s critical to have your employees understand that masking is a personal choice. Everyone’s personal choices are to be respected.

It’s also a good idea to prepare management and leadership for dealing with mask shaming on their teams. Even among the best of teams, mask shaming can still happen. The more leaders are prepared to handle it in an appropriate way, the better. Plus, the best bet is to have a clear and consistently enforced policy so that everyone is on the same page.

It might seem like the pandemic is fading, but even when it’s moved to an endemic there’s still going to be a lingering impact. Health concerns and feelings of fear that people have about COVID are not likely to disappear even if the pandemic does. As the United States continues down its path of polarization, issues similar to masking and the shaming that has come with it are likely to arise.

Consider this an opportunity to lay the groundwork for how you’ll handle future divisions as they come up. It’s an investment in creating and maintaining an inclusive work environment for all.

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