Stop Employees from ‘Mask Shaming’ Colleagues

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. April 4, 2022
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An employee wearing a mask

​Employers have observed an increasing lack of respect in the workplace, including so-called mask shaming—insulting colleagues who, out of concern over COVID-19, continue to wear masks.

"Many people have decided that, either having had COVID or receiving the vaccine, no further precautions are needed. However, there are others who for many reasons still choose to wear masks and clean their hands frequently," said Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C.

"Employers should communicate to their employees the expectation that either choice is valid and should be respected," Helms said. "It may be a very good time for employers to address the overall expectation of respect in the workplace."

She stated that, "We, as employment attorneys, are seeing more issues generally with regard to respect in the workplace, or, more accurately, a lack of respect."

Different Forms of Mask Shaming

Mask shaming can take many different forms from staring to eye rolling or asking, " 'Why do you have that on, COVID is over?' " Helms noted.

"I still wear a mask, and I recently attended a meeting with about 10 people. The host looked at me in front of everyone and asked if I wanted everyone to put on a mask. I know she was being gracious, but it was unnecessary," she said.

Acts of mask shaming can run the gamut from rude to passive aggressive, said Cindy-Ann Thomas, an attorney with Littler in Charlotte, N.C. It may include an employee telling a colleague, "I can't believe you are still wearing those ridiculous things!"

But an attempt to shame a co-worker can be subtler, she added, such as, "We would have included you for our team lunch yesterday, but the restaurant had no patio and you're still masking."

Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work in Chicago, said examples of mask shaming have included sharing such hashtags as #SheepWearMasks on internal communications.

In one specific case, he noted that ill-intentioned pranksters added pacifiers and baby food jars to a basket of free masks in a company break room.

Some statements may create discomfort and constitute a respect or privacy policy violation, he added. These statements might include telling a masked colleague: "You must be really immunocompromised, right?" or "Lower your mask a bit, so I can see that warm smile of yours."

Mask shaming may include such negative comments as masks aren't working, that the mask wearers are bowing to pressure from politicians or giving up important freedoms, said Maura McLaughlin, an attorney with Morgan, Brown & Joy in Boston. It can include "helpful" reminders that masks aren't required as well as verbal and even physical assault, she said.

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Why Do Some Employees Continue to Wear Masks?

Employees may continue to wear mask for a variety of reasons, Thomas noted, including:

  • The pandemic's continued existence, despite a drop in COVID-19 infections. "The sight of masks for some people is a reminder that the pandemic is not over, and some people are so anxious for this virus to be in the rearview mirror, they frankly get irritated when they are confronted by these literally in-your-face reminders that we are still in it," Thomas said.
  • Personal health reasons, including weakened immune systems.
  • Personal experience as a COVID-19 survivor or COVID-19 long hauler coping with an array of persistent symptoms.
  • Loss of friends and family members to COVID-19.
  • Concern about family members with whom they live. If family members are not eligible for the vaccine—such as the very young, are undergoing cancer treatment or are immunocompromised, or are elderly—employees may be exceptionally careful to safeguard the members of their households.

Thomas said that historically marginalized groups may engage in mask-wearing in response to COVID-19 more than their white co-workers because:

  • People of color and people living with disabilities have higher COVID-19 infection and death rates, so their mask-wearing tendencies reflect their experiences and vulnerabilities.
  • Black and Latino individuals in some instances have more medical vulnerabilities, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
  • People of color in the U.S. tend to have more multigenerational households than their white colleagues.

Employers' Response to Mask Shaming

Thomas recommended that employers integrate mask shaming as a form of bias in implicit bias and anti-harassment training initiatives by specifically including scenarios that include "mask bias" for discussion so employees understand expected standards of conduct. "I think we need to treat masks in the same way we treat glasses: We don't ask co-workers why they are wearing them," she said.

"Don't limit the topic of masks to your DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] and anti-harassment training initiatives," she said. "Make sure that it's also part of your return-to-office onboarding messaging … at least while we are all still living with COVID."

Thomas added, "Recognize that there may be some employees who will choose to mask well past our current pandemic status—when it is officially declared an endemic—and perhaps beyond."

"The best advice to employers would be to set the tone and example for the office," said Jackie Gessner, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. "If management is acting professionally and allowing voluntary mask-wearing, staff will have an example to follow."

"A person who is mask shaming another may be making assumptions about the mask wearer's political beliefs, disability or health status, cultural affiliations, or similar characteristics," McLaughlin said. "An employer should address the mask shaming without discussing any employee's personal health information or confirming or correcting assumptions about an employee's protected status."

Regardless of whether an employee's protected status, such as age or disability, is the reason for continuing to wear a mask, "employers would do well to nip any mask shaming in the bud to avoid claims of actual or perceived unlawful discrimination or harassment," McLaughlin said.

Workplaces increasingly have policies against bullying or harassment and even nonprotected forms of workplace harassment, Helms noted.

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