How to manage the bullying and toxicity that can arise in the workplace if an employee contracts COVID-19

The pandemic has introduced an entirely new frame of social reference to the world. People are learning new ways of working, engaging with one another, and managing social interactions and engagements. These are not normal times. However, in many cases, workplaces have become toxic and unpleasant environments for people who have been diagnosed with the disease. Fellow employees turning against colleagues who have potentially brought infection into their space, and leadership discriminating against those who have presented with symptoms. According to Nicol Myburgh, Head: CRS Technologies HCM Business Unit, people are hyperaware and hypervigilant, which can lead to bullying or unpleasant workplace behaviour, but this can be managed with legislation and discussion.

“Any form of bullying in the workplace, be it due to the virus or any other reason, is a form of discrimination and the employee has legal recourse,” he explains. “Nobody is allowed to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of gender, race, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, sexual orientation, HIV status, political opinion or any other factor, including COVID-19.”

The Employment Equity Act and Disaster Management Act clearly indicate that the business has to “take steps to ensure that the employee is not discriminated against on grounds of having tested positive for COVID-19 (S6 EEA)”.  This section within the Act clearly discusses discrimination in terms of the pandemic, and indicates that employees are protected in the event of them contracting the disease. This equally means that the workplace has to put measures in place that protect people from being bullied by other employees, or managers, if they come down with the disease.

“If someone is experiencing discrimination or bullying, then they would have a really good case,” says Myburgh. “They could lodge a dispute with the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) and the outcome would likely be in their favour. To mitigate this – both the bullying and the risk of being taken to the CCMA – organisations should run an internal investigation to determine the legitimacy of the person’s claim, and make employees aware of the risks.”

For those who are experiencing discrimination, the process is clear and is designed to try to resolve the problem at the lowest possible level first, and then move upwards through the leadership chain until either resolution is reached, or the person seeks mediation elsewhere. So, if you’re experiencing discrimination as a result of being tested positive for COVID-19, start the process with your line manager or with the company’s dedicated COVID-19 manager (if you have one), and raise your concerns.

“If you’ve exhausted all internal dispute resolution methods, only then escalate your case to the CCMA,” concludes Myburgh. “This will allow you to resolve issues internally, minimise the toxicity, and potentially ensure that you retain a comfortable working environment. While discrimination against people with COVID-19 is still relatively rare, this is still an important factor for every business to consider and plan for.”


Nicol Myburgh Head: CRS Technologies HCM Business Unit

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