Germs, and Germaphobes, in the Office

Last Updated Oct 30, 2007 9:42 AM EDT

I'm the president of a mid-sized company, and this spring we hired a new woman as an account executive. It became immediately apparent that this woman was a bit of a germaphobe. She uses tubs of hand sanitizer and avoids physical contact with other humans. This was all fine until cold and flu season hit recently, and this woman has become quite difficult.
Last week, several workers who were suffering from colds came to the office anyway because they had a big project to finish. The woman flew off the handle, claiming we were putting her health in danger by allowing germs into the office, and she has asked that she be allowed to use an empty office until the end of cold season. This strikes me as a wild request, but we're not using the office and she's a good employee so I'd like to keep her happy. At the same time, she's not in a position that would earn her an office, and I don't want her to hold me hostage while making other employees jealous of her new digs. Where's the line?
I have the flu. It's lousy. I've spent the last two weeks struggling to push a clear thought through my head. I've never had the flu like this. I barely got out of bed for a week. Yet I don't blame whoever it was that gave me this virus because I accept it as part of life.

I don't mention this to put myself in a higher position than this woman. I mention it to put myself in the same category of the millions of people who simply accept that cold and flu season are nasty incidentals of cold weather. You can take steps to avoid it -- washing your hands and avoiding physical contact are acceptable steps -- but you can't demand that you be held to a higher standard than your coworkers because of it.

As a boss, you should do your best to work with your employees and their little quirks. But this must always be within reason. Giving an employee an office because they're afraid of getting sick is not within reason. You need to find a way to appease this woman -- again, within reason -- but without engendering the ire of her coworkers. Don't let her turn herself into an office poison, the kind of person no one wants to work with.

I don't know what your office layout is, but if there's a possibility of putting her in an unused corner, instead of an unused office, I'd start and end there. Anything else is going to require her to see two doctors: one to check her immune system, and one to check her mental health. When she accepted her job, she was aware that it would require her to work in an office with other people. If she cannot handle that, then there are much deeper problems and you should talk to her about possibly getting some help.

Everyone works in an office with that person who is always cold, always fiddling with the thermostat, always bothering everyone else. This is an example of an eccentric, yet acceptable, office quirk. Your employee is past that line, and she's become a real concern for the health -- mental, not airborne -- of your entire office. You need to sit down with her and discuss the issue and tell her what you're willing to do and what you're not willing to do. If she balks or demands more, then it's time to have an even more serious discussion. If she is willing to admit that her behavior is irrational, talk to her about getting some help with a councilor. If she stands her ground, it's time to call legal and create a strategy for her dismissal that will not put you at threat of a lawsuit.

This is harsh, but if she's going to contaminate your office with her fears, it's time to disinfect the place.

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  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.