Managing Employee Travel One Year Into the Pandemic
When the pandemic first hit a year ago, very few people expected that the travel bans that were put in place would still be active one year later. It was justifiable to ask employees to forego travel during the lockdown until things were under control, which most thought would be a few months. But here we are, one year later, and it is much more difficult to ask employees continue to forego travel when doing so might carry the same amount of risk of other activities that are not banned.
Employee travel situations present HR professionals with questions about how risky the travel was and whether the employee is increasing the risk of exposure within your facility. When trying to determine how to create policies and manage this issue, consider an important idea that underlies it — that HR professionals are being asked to take on issues that are the purview of doctors and scientists. Maybe someone, somewhere, is an HR professional that is also a doctor or epidemiologist, but other than that unique person, HR professionals should stop taking on problems that are outside of our abilities or expertise. The possible consequences of making an uninformed decision without proper support may be significant, and the stress that this adds for HR professionals is substantial.
Employees who do not travel can easily be equally or more risky in their exposure to the virus than those who do travel. HR is not in a position to make case-by-case judgment calls on every employee’s activity outside of work, and neither are the employees’ coworkers. Companies should create a policy and stick to it — whether it is to require quarantines after travel (as many did earlier in the pandemic), or acknowledge that travel is risky, recommend against it unless necessary, and then let it be. People are going to travel either way, and many will not disclose their travel so that they will not have to quarantine and use PTO or lose wages. Because it is outside of HR’s abilities to monitor every employee’s conduct, do not create a policy that is destined to fail.
If the company choses to have a policy about travel, consider this: Making judgment calls about what is unsafe travel and what is safe travel is outside of HR expertise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might have up-to-date information on infection rates, but are they reflective of the risk of any situation? For instance, what if the state of California has a very high infection rate, but maybe a town in rural California has a low infection rate. In that case, visiting that town may not carry the same exposure risks as visiting one of the major cities. Going there might not be any riskier than going to the grocery store in your hometown. Because hot spots are a moving target and HR simply cannot know the current status of different destinations, and because HR professionals are not epidemiologists, HR should not be making qualitative decisions about travel safety.
One last consideration is that making individualized decisions about what travel is okay, what travel is unsafe, who quarantines, who does not quarantine, etc., puts the company at risk of a discrimination lawsuit. For instance, if Latinx employees want to travel to Mexico to visit family and are required to quarantine — perhaps without pay — because it might be a hot spot on the CDC travel warnings, but other employees are allowed to visit family in domestic locations that have similar risk but are not on the travel warning list, there is a risk that these decisions may trigger discrimination allegations.
Instead of making decisions outside of HR areas of expertise of abilities, instead talk to the employees about their own conduct and to suggest that they should not be monitoring the conduct of others.
- Create a written statement or, better, a video from an owner or a trusted person in senior management. In that video, make an appeal for employees to behave responsibly.
- Mention the new variants of the virus and how they are even more contagious.
- Inform employees that the company has been fortunate that there have been few cases of COVID-19 and that it is wonderful that they have protected themselves and others.
- Understand that each person at the company is responsible for themselves, but also for their coworkers. Gently remind them how terrible it would be to lose someone on the team to serious illness or death, and that each teammate has loved ones that would likely also be exposed.
- Remind employees that federally subsidized paid leave ended on December 31st (or if you are voluntarily extending, it ends on March 31st). Consequently, it is in everyone’s financial interest to stay safe to avoid having to take PTO or unpaid leave.
- Try to reduce employee stress by focusing on following company protocols, which are designed to protect them even in situations where there may be someone who has been exposed or infected. Cite the success of these protocols.
- Encourage employees to be vaccinated when possible because the vaccines have a high success rate and will help them avoid illness.
HR professionals are making unprecedented decisions about many issues that were never considered. Manage the number of decisions by evaluating whether a policy or decision is within HR’s ability to monitor and enforce, or whether it is within the HR area of expertise. If the answer to either of these is “no,” then step back from creating the policy or making the decision.
As the pandemic has stretched much longer than nearly all of us expected, the role of HR must evolve to reflect these circumstances. HR professionals should rely on experts for decisions that fall outside of our zone of knowledge, which will be better for the individuals and the companies alike.
In this article, Harrison addresses employee travel during the pandemic. More information about directives such as these can be found at www.sgia.org, or reach out to Harrison should you have additional questions specific to how these issues may affect your business: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To become a member of PRINTING United Alliance and learn more about how PRINTING United Alliance subject matter experts can assist your company with services and resources such as those mentioned in this article, please contact the Alliance membership team: 888-385-3588 / email@example.com.
Adriane Harrison is Vice President, Human Relations Consulting at PRINTING United Alliance. Adriane assists members with a wide variety of HR matters involving statutes, regulations, policies, procedures, culture, and staffing, as well as the gamut of day-to-day HR issues. In addition, she supports professional development by conducting webinars, participating in panel discussions, and speaking at industry events on human resources issues. Currently, Adriane is the Chairperson of the Graphic Communications Workforce Coalition, a member of the Women in Print Alliance, and a founder of the Women’s Print Mentoring Network.
Adriane received a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago. As an attorney, Adriane practiced in both the public and private sectors. Her work was in the areas of Constitutional, commercial, securities, and criminal law. Adriane and her family live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.