Recently, our founder and CEO Michelle Craig had the honor of speaking to the alumni of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small business program about navigating the reopening of businesses and the return of employees. “As an alumni of the program and a graduate of cohort 19, I enjoyed speaking with my fellow alumni about the issues we are all facing during this time,” said Michelle.

As most organizations have started the process of reopening, many are dealing with the issues that arise from an employee’s fear of returning to work. As a continuation of our Return to Work Series on the best practices for reentering the work environment, we wanted to provide you with some guidance on talking to employees about the return and what that means for them.

Can My Employee Choose Not To Return?

In recent weeks, businesses of all sizes have been calling their employees back to work and many are surprised when the answer is “No”. Several reasons for not returning, as cited by employees included: receiving more in unemployment than in wages, fears or concern about returning and catching the virus at work, and/or fears about bringing the virus home to family.

This response is perplexing to employers and left them asking if there is any recourse against employees refusing to return to work for any given reason. While this issue is complex and layered, there is clarity at this point: employees cannot choose unemployment over returning to work and still retain their unemployment benefits. If an employee refuses to return to work, their employer can report that to the Department of Labor, and the employee could lose that benefit.

However, threatening to cause an employee to lose these benefits, or actually reporting them to force them to come back to work is not a good course of action and will undoubtedly lead to a bad relationship between the employer and employee. So, before doing this, it benefits both people to take a look at the situation and determine if there is a better path for them to work through these issues.

How Do I Ensure Safety And Alleviate Employee Fears?

One way to determine a better path is to determine the real source of the reason for refusing to return. If it is fear, it is possible that it can be addressed. During this troubling time, it’s not a surprise that people are fearful of returning to work for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones. Many employees are also fearful due to a lack of communication about what returning to work would look like. The following tips can help in the discussion with employees about returning to work.

  1. Communicate your return to work policy early and often. In our previous blog, we discussed the need to have a written policy in place that explains the policy for returning, the safety precautions being taken, the people/person in charge of discussions/concerns, and repercussions for not following the policy. This is important, and it is important to remind employees that this is in place and is there to keep them safe.
  2. Continue to follow through with safety precautions. If you promised frequent sanitation, masks, hand sanitizer, and other precautions, continue to follow up on them. Make sure employees see you or your sanitation company engaging in the items that you said you would perform. Send out emails updating employees on the status of the safety measures in place and updating them on any new changes to that policy.
  3. If you are requiring people to wear masks, make sure to have extras in the office. Clients and employees will forget them. Having extra in the office ensures that people will have no reason to disregard your policy. Please also note that no one has a constitutional right to not wear a mask in your establishment. You can establish whatever rules you need to create to keep your workforce safe. The goal is to enforce those rules consistently for everyone.
  4. When an employee has concerns and requests accommodation, even when it may not be required under the law, listen before saying “no”. For instance, an employee may request an accommodation because they fear the virus. If they are not “at-risk” they may not be eligible for accommodation. However, engaging in a dialogue to see if there is a way to assuage their fears while achieving the business objectives of the company, might go a long way in showing employees that you understand their concerns.
  5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate! Employees know that you are dealing with a lot as you work to restart your business. Acknowledge the fact that your employees are doing the same in their personal lives. The employer that can handle the trials of this time period with grace and understanding is the one that is most likely to weather the storm with dignity, integrity, and a strong workforce on the other side of this pandemic.

This is a summary of a webinar discussion held for the Alumni of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program. If you are an entrepreneur interested in building your business the program is now accepting applications for the fall 2020 cohort until June 11, 2020. You can apply at