The Mask Debate Shifts to the Office

As more people return to the workplace, some leaders may find that not everyone is on board with mask rules.


After three months holed up at home, the manager couldn’t wait to return to the office among her colleagues—at a safe, six-foot distance. But there was a problem her first week back: she noticed that not every employee was wearing a mask, despite the firm’s requirements. She confronted these workers, each of whom had a different reason for skirting the policy. The manager gave them a warning, but with each conversation, she realized getting employees to wear masks may be a bigger challenge than she anticipated.

Arguably, no other topic has been as hotly debated during the COVID-19 pandemic than whether or not citizens should wear masks in public. And now there may be a new arena where it’s an issue: the office. Indeed, as firms slowly try to reopen headquarters and branch spaces, managers find themselves in an awkward spot. Sure, experts say enforcing policies around mask-wearing, along with other measures like social distancing and hand sanitizer use, are necessary if leaders want to ensure those who prefer masks feel safe. But the nuances of how these rules are applied are still unresolved—for example, whether all employees should wear a mask even if they’re alone in their office or on the sales floor. 

“There may be inequities leaders are going to have to deal with,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Human Resources Center of Excellence. “There’s a decision there that needs to be made by management about the kind of culture they want to create.”

The issue, of course, has turned into the kind of political football that firms generally dread. Some top politicians eschew masks as overkill or infringement on their rights. But others point to studies that show wearing cloth masks over the nose and mouth can reduce the spray of respiratory droplets from cough, sneezes, and talking that spread the virus. For their part, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization now recommend people wear cloth masks in public and around people not part of their household, particularly when they can’t maintain other social distancing measures.

Even so, Radhika Papandreou, sector lead of Korn Ferry’s Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice, says a patchwork of ever-changing rules across different territories makes it “really hard to come up with a uniform policy throughout the company.” One solution: model company protocols based on the highest standards among the regions and applying those requirements across the board, regardless of different governmental rules. “Companies have to come out and say, ‘This isn’t about following the different rules. This is about our mission to keep people healthy and safe,'” she says.

Of course, restaurants, retail outlets, and other businesses face different issues enforcing mask policies with customers, Papandreou adds. Leaders, especially in the travel and hospitality space, have to balance the need for safety with the need for profitability, which can be a difficult dynamic to manage. “You turn somebody away, and you’re turning away revenue in an industry that’s hurting,” she says. “It’s hard to be so stringent when you need the revenue.” (In one famous recent case, a Starbucks server got thousands of dollars in tips after insisting a customer put on a mask.)

To this end, experts say that open lines of communication will also be critical in order to mitigate potential challenges with compliance, whether from employees or customers. Leaders will need to engage in frequent and active conversations not only about the rules and how they may change, but also why the rules are what they are in the first place. “It’s incumbent upon companies to synthesize the best public health data that’s available and share it with employees,” says  Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. This is especially critical now, he adds, because people are becoming overloaded by the daily data dumps about the virus and are starting to shut off from the news.

Perhaps more important, though, are leaders who walk the talk. Experts say a CEO  walking around the office in a mask sends a profound message to employees. “The best leaders don’t enforce rules,” Kaplan says . “They inspire the right behavior.”