There is a fine line between protecting employee privacy and protecting employees—and in a post-COVID-19 world, that line is blurring like never before.

As offices begin to reopen, organizations are deploying a host of new health and safety measures to protect employees that go well beyond wearing face masks and reorganizing workstations for social distancing. These measures range from guidelines for off-hours activities, such as avoiding mass gatherings, to high-tech devices that can detect possible symptoms of COVID-19.

But experts say that for employees already nervous about going back to the office, these measures could represent the point of no return. “While the intent behind these practices is positive, they can quickly feel invasive and untrusting,” says Kirsta Anderson, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and the firm’s global expertise lead for culture and engagement.

For instance, many companies are requiring office-bound employees to take regular COVID-19 tests and daily questionnaires to inquire about symptoms. Others are advising employees to avoid public transportation and requiring them to sign liability waivers that prevent them from suing if they contract the virus.

Other companies are going more high tech, making employees wear devices that can monitor if they’ve come in contact with an infected person. Several trial partners are testing a wearable device called “Bump” that sends an alert when employees come within six feet of each other, while some office building owners have licensed camera systems with thermal scanning technology that can send alerts when it detects someone with a fever.

Though many of the new technologies to help blunt the pandemic’s spread anonymize data and adhere to standard privacy protocols, the fear of a data breach, accidental leak, or even just gossip about one’s medical condition is omnipresent. Moreover, with work already invading employees’ home lives more than ever, the notion of having to report to the boss about personal time may not legally be a privacy violation, but it could certainly be taken as a personal affront.

Already, 50% of respondents to a new Korn Ferry poll say they are afraid to go back to the office when it reopens, and 25% say they are skeptical of their organization’s ability to keep them safe. Experts say some of the stricter practices could make employees even more anxious and further stress their emotional and mental health.

To be sure, most companies aren’t taking such drastic steps. In fact, many of them are hiring chief medical officers and chief wellness officers to help ease the transition back to the office, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “The best organizations are connecting with medical experts and mental and emotional health experts to guide employees through this,” says Kaplan. 

Anderson says keeping employees safe in a way that doesn’t feel invasive comes down to communication. Instead of asking an employee to detail their weekend plans, for instance, she says to reiterate that the company’s social distancing policies apply outside the office as well. “Most companies have codes of conduct that apply to behavior outside the offices,” she says, “and health and safety measures related to COVID-19 should be positioned as similar to those.”

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