Personalized masks could potentially create a hostile work environment

July 4, 2020

There has been much conversation about wearing masks in public and at work.

Standards have been set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the types of masks that should be worn depending on the risk hazard.

And now, with universal mask wearing, businesses must consider the likelihood that employees will use their newly found workplace mask attire to engage in behaviors that would be otherwise unacceptable and potentially create a hostile work environment.

Consider the following statements or symbols on masks: All Lives Matter; White Lives Matter; Blue Lives Matter; Confederate flag; American flag; police flag; #Trump2020; and #Biden2020.

Are you offended by any one of these? Likely someone takes offense to at least one of these symbols or sentiments and would be highly offended if a coworker sported one in the workplace.

These are just a tiny fragment of a whole host of personalized masks that could trigger someone to be offended about something.

For example, a Utah mom raised more than $50,000 for a charity after posting on Facebook she was making masks with a phallic image to remind people to back off.

Do you want that in your workplace? It’s for charity, the employee might say.

Thus, while in theory employees should be able to wear their own homemade or purchased masks to suit their needs, we know that at some point the personalized masks are going to cause unnecessary disagreement or, worse, claims of harassment.

To avoid the risk of this occurring in the workplace, employers should offer to provide employees masks that meet the OSHA and other standards for their industry.

Ideal are masks personalized with the business logo, or ones that meet your organization’s message or ones that are solid in color.

Some employees might prefer to wear their own masks. In those situations, employers should set the boundaries of what is appropriate.

Employers should already have a policy in place prohibiting political messages or political solicitation or images on the premises or during working time, and this would include a mask.

To avoid other messages that could be objectively offensive, employers should make clear that if a worker is wearing his or her own mask that the mask must meet the safety guidelines for the industry, and must be solid in color with no patterns, pictures, statements or images.

Some employees will maintain that the image on their masks aren’t offensive (for instance, breast cancer awareness or some type of charitable cause).

But companies should be consistent and not tolerate any messaging that is contrary to the guidelines set — whatever those are.

For businesses where employees come in direct contact with the general public, companies will need to consider masks worn by customers that have images or statements that might be viewed as offensive.

Employees have a right to go to work and not be subjected to harassment by anyone, including third parties such as customers.

Thus, employers should treat messages on a mask that a reasonable person would find offensive based on the protected characteristics of race, gender, national origin, religion, color, disability, age, gender identification, sexual orientation or pregnancy as if they were worn by a coworker and take action accordingly.

General messages promoting a political party from a customer will likely not fall within these considerations.

Employers should have alternative masks available to customers whose personalized masks cannot be worn in the workplace.

These are uncharted waters and employers will need to get ahead of the issues by setting clear expectations.