My co-workers won’t wear face masks and it’s stressing me out

Reader: I recently started an entry-level job at a small nonprofit after two months of being unemployed. We work with students, and masks are strictly enforced for them. In my second week, one student tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Soon after I started working, the executive director (my direct supervisor) and another director started taking their masks off. A third director only wears a face shield, which is not recommended by the CDC as an effective alternative. People come into my office without masks. In staff meetings, people pull down their masks to talk. In addition to the health concern, I feel disrespected anytime I see the lower half of someone’s face. I feel like they’re saying, “I don’t care about you or your family.” (I live with my parents.)

I spoke with one of the directors and my boss about the lack of masks. They apologized and told me to “call them out on it” if I see them not wearing masks. Things got better for a few days, but unsurprisingly they slipped back into their old habits. There’s no HR and no office above my boss. I refuse to be the mask police, but I’m really uncomfortable, and the anxiety is weighing on me.

Karla: So essentially, your bosses are abdicating their responsibility to maintain a safe work environment, opting instead to nominate a junior staffer to be their shoulder cricket. No matter how politely or persistently you chirp, you cannot hope to pierce that kind of blind, selfish indifference. Not that they’re intentionally disrespecting you; it’s just that their convenience and comfort outweigh their sense of self-preservation or obligation to the greater good.

Your managers should count themselves lucky you haven’t tipped off state authorities (assuming they care), local media, and the community they serve about their lax behind-the-scenes coronavirus-prevention standards. But as you say, you’re not the mask police, and you have neither the authority nor the job security to fill that role. You also may not have the stomach just now for putting your paycheck in jeopardy by escalating the matter outside the company.

Fortunately, where common sense and self-awareness fall short, etiquette and social conventions can step in. In addition to being a key component in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, wearing masks has become shorthand for indicating respect for others. A whole system of “covidiquette” is evolving around face masks. And the time-honored way of dealing with those who refuse to adhere to etiquette is for you to adhere even tighter.

You can remind others of their obligations directly — “Oh hey, would you mind grabbing a mask before we meet?”— or indirectly, if you’re reluctant to call out their carelessness, by being relentlessly, visibly vigilant about your own habits. For example:

  • Always have your face mask on, and have extras available to offer.
  • Keep a giant pump of hand sanitizer and a container of wipes out on your desk, where you might ordinarily place a community candy bowl.
  • If telecommuting is not an option, stay in your personal workspace and out of common areas as much as possible. Arrange your seat and guest seating to promote safe distancing.
  • Ask your boss if you can join meetings by video from your desk. Even if he doesn’t allow it, he’ll have no excuse to act surprised when you sit or stand, masked, in the most isolated corner of the room.
  • Silently reinforce desired behavior through visual cues. Step back when someone approaches you to talk. When speaking with someone whose mask is down, casually touch or tug on the ear straps of your own mask, even if it doesn’t need adjusting. Smooth sanitizer on your hands before you pass a paper or pen to someone.

If you’re worried about seeming obsessive, you can laugh it off — “If I give everyone covid-19, I’ll never get promoted!”— or plead filial piety: “I promised my parents I’d be super careful.” Or just say straight out that because one case of the coronavirus has already been reported, you are taking no chances. Then keep doing exactly what you’re doing to protect yourself and your family.

I know it’s exhausting and unfair to have to make an antiseptic spectacle of yourself to compensate for others’ thoughtlessness. But when you can’t rely on the folks in charge to make the minimum effort to keep you safe, and you’re not ready or able to quit, the next most effective defense is in your own hands.

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