I was updating one of our older posts on 5 Easy Ways to Get Over a Cold and thought it might be interesting to discuss — what do you think is the business etiquette these days around head colds? What standards are recognized by your office for calling in sick; if a coworker or client were sick at a meeting, what situation would you find offensive (if any)? How common is mask-wearing and elbow-bumping in your business meetings at all right now, either inside or outside the office?
I feel like the general sentiment has changed from the “come in to work unless you’re dying” to “just stay home if you don’t feel well” — at least for general work in the office, especially since so many offices are still remote for part of the time. But for meetings, has the business etiquette changed?
My family and I have been much more on the cautious side of things during the pandemic, and most business meetings for me are unnecessary (or at least not dire) — so I would probably be annoyed to show up in person and find the other person sick without at least a head’s up or offer to reschedule. (Especially since every head cold we’ve had in the past two years turned out to be COVID-19…) But that said, I know that at any given day my kids are probably in school with at least 20% of their classmates sneezing or coughing. So maybe we’re just back to pre-pandemic expectations regarding head colds — part of life, and absent a fever or a positive COVID test, sneezing or coughing doesn’t matter that much if it’s a must-attend meeting.
But, obviously — this level of annoyance is going to vary from person to person and community to community, especially at this stage of things. I know there’s a huge variety in readers’ situations right now — many are still working mostly remotely, while others are back to work like it’s 2019 (and maybe have been since mid-2020). And it may be assumed that people who are high risk or otherwise concerned are still social distancing and just not attending meetings like this.
So I’m curious to hear from you — what are you observing in your office, job, and/or career about head colds and business etiquette in 2022? What guidance have you gotten from management? If you were working with a new client or coworker and you were sick before a must-attend meeting, how would you handle the situation? (Do you discuss beforehand what people’s comfort levels are, or otherwise signify it, such as with conferences where you could choose a different color lanyard to express your social distancing comfort level?) How common do you find masks in business meetings outside your company — e.g., would you expect someone sick to wear a good quality mask like an N95 and skip shaking hands?
This calls to mind an older post of ours about shaking hands while you’re sick — the reader who wrote in noted that she was annoyed when people gave a little spiel about not shaking hands during recruiting season because they were sick.
The reader comments in response were kind of interesting — it was 2010, not long after the big swine flu scare, and readers seemed equally split between “of course you don’t shake hands while sick,” and “just wash your hands before you shake.” A few people noted that they would find it awkward if someone declined to shake hands, and that it would taint their entire perception of the person. (Especially not good for recruiting season!) Alternatives to shaking hands that were mentioned included fist bumps and “grasping the upper arm warmly” and explaining why. (I suppose elbow bumping would also be an option these days?)
Psst: regardless of whether you’re at work or home, I love the recent(ish) movement to sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand, as pictured in the stock photo at top. I heard someone call it a “vampire sneeze,” like a vampire pulling his cape around him with a flourish before disappearing in a puff of smoke, and now I can’t unsee that.
Stock photo via Stencil.
My level of annoyance is now, and has always been, don’t come to work if you’re sick. You are not that important, the business will not go down to drain if you miss one meeting in person. Dial in. Don’t spread whatever it is that you have to others. This is a basic, basic level of courtesy.
What is sick though? I get it if one is SICK or has a fever. I have allergies and for since 2019 have gotten So Much side-eye. I have an allergist and an ENT guy and a sinus guy that the ENT referred me to when he gave up. I consider myself to be a really healthy person, other than from my sinuses down to where-ever they drain. If I were truly ill, I’d have died a long time ago. Is there a forehead tattoo I can get so that people calm down? Or some bracelet or something else?
Just wear a mask when you are sniffly.
I agree with you 100%. In theory. But what about when I have to choose to either come in for stuff in person or take PTO, of which I have literally none? I feel like I can’t afford unpaid leave for a head hold, but my infant daughter gave us all a raging norovirus my first week of work in August and I’ve been in a leave deficit ever since.
Do you think you should have gone to the office with norovirus? Why is it different for a rhinovirus? Talk to your employer about WFH when you’re sick so you don’t have to take PTO. Everyone understands we don’t want sick people in the office now, post 2020.
Servers and housekeepers can’t work from home. I know this is a professional womens’ site but the privilege is just too much. WFH. ha!
It’s especially important for servers and housekeepers to stay home when sick! How do you think diseases are spread?
I rely on disability support workers and am super strict about them not coming if sick (and being paid of course) as well as not coming if I’m sick so I don’t give it to them and endanger their other vulnerable clients.
I work in healthcare finance, and everyone I work with had colleagues lost to covid, so I acknowledge the culture may be different than other industries. That said, with even a vague suspicion of a cold coming on I would cancel or reschedule to remote, and would have no compunctions about abruptly ending a meeting with someone sick. If someone had a meeting scheduled with me and showed up unwell and unmasked, I would have serious doubts about their judgement. It has taken a long time to get back to meeting in person, and we’re trying to protect that.
“If someone had a meeting scheduled with me and showed up unwell and unmasked, I would have serious doubts about their judgement”
So much this.
I would end the meeting and I would forever lose respect for that person if they are a peer or superior. If they are junior, I’d first ecplain nicely that this is not needed and indeed dangerous and they should go home and then end the meeting, lose respect at the second offence only.
And I would never work for a place that penalises people for staying home sick, including with pay/vacation time loss. FWIW I am in Canada in the tech sector where it is utterly doable to never work for crazy employers who want buts in seats even if sick. In other countries and sectors your mileage may vary.
Ha — I declined a lunch meeting last month based on “I have COVID” and was sort of waived off. Like I’m not going to go to a lunch and not eat, but I can’t eat though mask. And I’m not going to go to a meeting at lunchtime and just watch other people eat; that would be weird. TBH, it was in day 6-10, but I didn’t test negative until day 10. Whatever.
“If someone had a meeting scheduled with me and showed up unwell and unmasked, I would have serious doubts about their judgement” +1 million
There’s a spectrum of “definitely stay home” to “it’s likely just allergies,” but, regardless, if someone isn’t feeling 100%, I want them to be wearing a well-fitted, high-filtration mask around me.
I would really appreciate someone disclosing mild symptoms that are likely contagious, letting me know that they tested for Covid, and offering to move the meeting outside (still masked) or online or just postpone.
I would be livid. These days just the annoyance factor of any cold needs to be tested to ensure it isn’t covid means spreading your bug to others takes on a whole other level of rudeness. Add in that I have a high stroke risk and live with an immune-compromised family member means anything that could be covid is a huge deal. We all learned how to Zoom, so Zoom. You’re not that important. In 2019, I left a meeting where a coworker showed up with the flu due to a family member’s surgery that was soon to be scheduled and concern of not picking it up Everyone else in that meeting got sick. I’d do again today without hesitation only be truly vocal about it rather than passive like I was then. That’s the big difference.
+ 1 also livid.
The norm in my company seems to be that if you have actual covid you cancel meetings (or take them remotely if you’re feeling okay…every one of my bouts of covid has been incredibly mild) but anything other than actual covid, you go forward. Honestly, as the parent of a preschooler and a person with allergies, I am have the sniffles so much of the time that if I cancelled meetings or moved them to remote every time I had respiratory symptoms, it would probably impact a quarter of my meetings. People just don’t have patience for that (in my company and industry).
I see you 25% and raise to 50%. It is unreal. Kiddo had a fever for days last week. I always have a symptom or two at least (sort of how if you are driving a car, you are probably breaking some law or other). It is unreal. I stop for fevers or something that is a bit WHOA vs background symptom noise.
You’re not essential. Stay home!!
But that does not work for people with no PTO. Mine is incredibly limited and I used it up having Covid over the summer. If I take more time off now, I do not get paid and I risk getting fired.
If employers want us to stay home they either need to provide more PTO or be more flexible on work from home.
Sort of how if you are driving a car, you owe it to others on the road to have proper brakes, proper steering, etc…..It’s not all about you.
If covid has taught folks anything, it should be that a background symptom for you isn’t a background symptom for others. No one is that essential that a fever caught from your kid means you take it to others, especially these days.
That’s a really good analogy.
A background symptom is lethal for me.
And that’s how things keep spreading. Stay home, work remotely and keep your infections away from other people.
Who knows what a “mild case” is? Covid is covid, and in my view, it bites the big one, mild or not. End of story. Stay the F*** away from me if you have COVID! PTOOEY!
I think this is kind of like the definition of obscenity – you know it when you are too sick but you also can’t articulate an objective community norm for when someone else is too sick.
I had a cold this summer that passed quickly but left me with a residual raspy voice that made me sound like death and would make me cough whenever I talked at any length of time. This was also right after I had Covid with no discernible symptoms and well after I was contagious with the cold/cough (i checked with my doctor). It lingered for about 2.5 weeks though and there was no way to do all my work remotely for that long when I wasn’t actually sick.
I do think it should go without saying that if you have a fever or Covid you stay home. Beyond that it’s hard to have any firm rules.
I have a colleague with terrible allergies who has been testing every single day before going in to the office or a meeting when his allergy symptoms flare up. I think he goes through about 15 tests a month. I very much appreciate this. I also appreciate it when people wear masks when they have lingering non-contagious symptoms. We do time-sensitive in-person work and cannot afford to be passing around germs.
“We cannot afford to be passing around germs” – exactly! Bad for business and bad for health.
Yeah I had a bad cold (? Seemed like more than a cold but everyone who had it tested negative for Covid repeatedly) in mid-September and still have a post viral cough but obviously not contagious. If I worked in an office I don’t see how I could have stayed home for a month straight because of a lingering cough. I think the rule of thumb should be that you try to stay home when you’re contagious which means 1) following CDC guidelines for Covid, 2) staying home for fevers and vomiting, 3) staying home for the first 3-4 days of new cold like symptoms.
My organization’s policy is that you can/should travel with confirmed COVID, so I think we are back to pre-pandemic norms.
This is horrifying. I hope you are successful in finding a new job somewhere more reasonable.
I think I’m going to be struggling hard with this this winter. I’m in a job where I regularly appear in local court on cases that have impact on actual people. We’re short staffed so if I’m out on short notice, it’s a bit of a scramble to find coverage, and many of our judges are old school and will treat a case differently if I appear on it personally or have someone else cover. It’s terrible. I’m a big believer in staying home if you have any symptoms that might make you contagious, but every time this conflicts with a court appearance that I’m nervous about missing, I struggle.
Masks are a blessing and a curse as well — I find that people are now starting to show up to things sick but with a mask on and saying, oh it’s fine I have a mask! No, it’s not fine!
My office has been back in person for two years now but has normalized zoom for this. People here just don’t care any longer if someone joins via video whether it is because they are mildly ill, WFH for childcare or service call reasons, whatever. It may not be as ideal as everyone meeting in person, but it works with minimal inconvenience and the world keeps spinning.
This is great and this is what we need: normalising staying away when sick. Working remotely is still working.
Even before COVID, I stayed home if I came down with something. I’m healthy, late 30s when COVID first started, and believe that something that has me feeling unwell could land someone else in the hospital. There is also very little need to infect the entire office – one person staying at home turns it into a viral dead end, rather than a situation wherein six people end up taking PTO.
Wish everyone was as rational as you. It’s so much better for everyone! Thanks for setting such a good example.
+1. And to the litigator above–if you come to court and get the court reporter, the other lawyer, the bailiff, and the judge sick, then a lot more cases are going to get continued than if you just stayed home.
I’m not sure it’s a matter of being “rational.” Lots of people don’t have PTO or have very limited PTO and even among those of us with generous PTO (me included) many employers aren’t going to accept an employee being out for more than a couple of days without a diagnosis of something more severe than “just a cold.” I posted above, but I had an upper respiratory infection in September that turned into what I think was viral bronchitis and has left me coughing for about a month now. It’s improving gradually but I still have bad coughing fits periodically. No employer is going to accept an employee staying home from work for a month without a doctor’s note, and no doctor is going to write a note saying someone with a post-viral cough who is feeling well enough to work can’t go into the office, because they’re clearly not contagious. It can’t be as black and white as “you must stay home if you have any symptoms at all.” I think it’s reasonable to suggest people should test for the big stuff (Covid, flu) and stay home if they have it, and to stay home for the first few days of a cold when they’re most contagious so as to minimize spread. And wearing masks when you have any symptoms at all should be normalized. But to suggest that everyone can stay home any time they have any symptom is preposterous.
I work in healthcare administration and our organization is still prohibiting coming in person with basically any symptoms. Moving toward can be in person symptomatic (cold type symptoms) with a negative rapid Pcr, but not quite there yet. Still 100 percent masked as well.
I got sick once because an office mate brought her sick daughter to work. Kid was too sick for school –but didn’t know to cover her mouth or clean her hands or just, you know, be considerate. Mother didn’t bother telling her. I came down with it and wore a mask and nitrile gloves for the client visit I *had* to make.
Years ago, in another office situation, someone came to work with PNEUMONIA. WHY?!