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COVID-19 in the Workplace Can Erode Customer and Employee Trust

Toby Graham /

As of this writing, COVID-19 cases are rising once again throughout the United States

Are you doing everything you can to minimize transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace? 

If not, expect serious negative consequences—and not only in terms of your and your employees’ health.

In our last article, we discussed how COVID-19 cases expose employers to legal and regulatory risks such as litigation and Occupational Health and Safety Administration penalties. But lawsuits and fines aren’t the only ways in which the coronavirus can wipe out your organization’s finances. One or more positive cases of COVID-19 among your workforce can also damage employee morale, productivity, your reputation, and much more.

COVID-19 and Reputation Risks

When OSHA uncovers a work-related outbreak of COVID-19—or any workforce health and safety issue, for that matter—regulatory enforcement is frequently just the beginning. The Administration loves to punish its targets further by publicizing high-profile violations in press releases. It’s OSHA’s way of shaming other businesses into compliance—and it works. According to a study from Duke University…

  • One OSHA press release can reduce workplace incidents as much as 210 agency inspections would.
  • A typical OSHA press release leads to a 30% decrease in violations.
  • 73% fewer violations occur among employers in the same industry within 3 miles of the offending employer’s location.

Clearly, employers have an incentive to seize upon their competitors’ misfortunes and make themselves look safer and more trustworthy by comparison. After all, consumer trust is at a premium.

Keep in mind that these are pre-pandemic numbers we’re talking about. Trust is even more important now than it was a year ago—and earning it is even more difficult. News about a COVID-19 outbreak tends to cause intense, visceral reactions of fear and disgust. Many people would be reluctant to do business with a company after learning that one or more of the company’s employees got sick at work.

Poor coronavirus response measures can also make an organization look irresponsible or negligent. Don’t forget that OSHA enforcement is driven by employee complaints. If your company shows up in a negative press release or news story about a health or safety issue, it means that a) you didn’t have the situation under control and b) your workers didn’t trust you to handle it internally. It’s not a great look.

Broward County, FL maps businesses who have received COVID-19 complaints

On the flip side, if you have an effective health and safety program in place, you can distinguish yourself from your competition and build consumer trust. This is especially pivotal when a city or state in which you operate becomes a hotspot. Be proactive about your employees’ well-being and you’ll stay off the local business complaint and citation public websites (like the one pictured above) that have surfaced in recent months.

The Rest of the Iceberg: COVID-19 and Employee Attitudes

Beyond its direct and measurable financial effects, your COVID-19 strategy (or lack thereof) has a profound impact on workforce morale, retention, and productivity in your organization.

Let’s start with the obvious. No one wants to work somewhere where they don’t feel safe. Poor COVID-19 precautions cause confusion, anxiety, and dread. Compounded by everything going on outside of work, it can be too much to handle. Consider all the questions that may be swimming in your employees’ heads right now:

  • “Am I safe to go to work?”
  • “Do I still have a job?”
  • “What if I don’t have a job next month, or next year?”
  • “How will I take care of my family?”
  • “How will I balance work with virtual schooling?”
  • “How long can I continue living and working like this?”

At the same time, people are dealing with heightened demands at work. Limited staffing, remote communication, and other barriers to efficiency are difficult and demoralizing. If you push your employees too hard, you’ll create undue stress and bring people to the breaking point.

COVID-19-related stress has both immediate and lasting consequences. In the short term, employees may look for reasons to arrive late or leave early, or refuse to come into work altogether. Some team members might quit while others are sapped of the will to do their best work.

Over the long term, chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate destructive habits and mental health problems. Inadequate COVID-19 controls will cause people to lose enthusiasm in their jobs and faith in you as their employer. Perhaps they’ll grow to resent management and leadership or, worse, learn to mimic bad behavior.

Be careful with the messages you send and the decisions—or indecisions—you make. Employees will remember how you handled this critical time long after the world returns to “normal.”  Remember: you’re setting an example for your employees. Your policies and programs are the template for their actions and attitudes. Don’t inadvertently plant the seeds for a toxic workplace culture where secrecy and mistrust fester. 

Every choice matters—including the choice to stay silent. If someone takes off their mask or disrupts ventilation by closing a window, and no one else says anything, the message employees receive is that their health and safety doesn’t matter to you; that they don’t matter to you. Prove that they matter by taking care of them.

In our next article, we’ll show you exactly how to do that. In the meantime, you can find plenty of COVID-19 health and safety information in KPA’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

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