Sunday, February 04, 2018

When flu hits, employees deserve privacy

Flu season is upon us and apparently this year's flu is an even more virulent strain than some of those in the recent past. In late January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that all "states but Hawaii continue to report widespread flu activity." Stories of friends and colleagues being felled by the flu are running rampant.

A small business owner in the Midwest reported on his social media feed that a worker had been out with the flu for several days. When he returned to work, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Concerned, the business owner wrote a short cautionary note to his social media followers that they make sure to take care of themselves and not to rush recovery. He reported that he planned a thorough wipe-down of surfaces in his office with disinfectant in hopes of derailing the flu from spreading among his owner workers, or him.

A reader of the column brought the post to my attention, wondering if the owner might have gone too far with his post. Of particular concern was that he mentioned the employee's first name.

"Even if he posted out of concern for others," the reader wrote, "isn't his post some sort of violation of privacy?"

The reader wants to know if the owner was wrong to make his post. But he also wants to know if he should say anything to the owner since, while he doesn't work for him, he's known him for many years.

I preface my response by disclosing that I am neither an attorney nor an expert in state or federal health care disclosure laws. While it might be illegal for a health care worker to disclose a patient's information, it's not entirely clear to me that it would be illegal for an employer to let others in his workplace know that an employee was ill.

But even if there's no legal violation, the right thing is to respect an employee's privacy, particularly if a post is made to a social media account that is available to the public. If he wanted to caution others by posting about his workplace experience with the flu, he could have done so without mentioning the employee's first name.

While my reader has no obligation to do so, he would not be out of line to call or text his acquaintance and suggest he might want to edit his post and remove the employee's name. Granted, the deed is already done and those who have already read the owner's post cannot now unsee what they've already seen. But the right thing for the owner to do would be to either take down the post entirely or to edit it so that his employee felled by the flu is not identifiable.

Having an employee out sick is always a concern for a small business owner. Having an employee return to work, only to collapse and be rushed to a hospital emergency is a real concern. But even if in a moment of panic and concern, the owner felt it necessary to post a warning to others, he should have taken the time to respect the privacy of each of his employees. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I ordinarily subscribe to strict privacy, especially in a school situation, but the teacher in my opinion was going out of his way to protect the students. Using only a first name to identify the ill student seems hardly a major error or breaking of privacy.