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How to Avoid Mistreating Employees During COVID-19

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko

Many employees feel mistreated by their employers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some ways to support your employees and boost morale amongst your workforce.

Employee mistreatment is a common issue that plagues workforce morale and increases employee turnover. Ensuring your employees feel supported, especially during a public health crisis like the novel coronavirus pandemic, is an essential aspect of running a successful business. If you avoid the mistakes other employers have made that make employees feel mistreated or unsupported at work, you can improve your business's employee morale, retention and productivity. 

Survey shows employees largely feel mistreated during COVID-19

In a recent TopResume survey of 1,033 professionals nationwide, 68% of employees said they would consider leaving their job because of the way their employer treated them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the employees surveyed, which included furloughed workers as well as those who continued working during the pandemic, 48% cited poor communication from corporate management about major issues – including layoffs, furloughs and wage reductions – as a reason for their discontent. An additional 12% said a lack of flexibility to care for their families contributed to their feelings of mistreatment.

"Many companies have tighter budgets, are cutting employees, instituting furloughs, cutting hours and wages – many are in survival mode," said Amanda Augustine, a career expert at TopResume. "In survival mode, one of the first things discounted is HR stuff, perks, little things to keep people happy and feeling part of the company. While those things tie back to bottom line, it's not most obvious."

However, the pandemic might only have exacerbated existing issues in the workplace. The survey also reveals that one-third of employees were already unhappy with their employer prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that employee mistreatment was already a significant issue for the U.S. workforce. According to Augustine, these feelings tend to surge near the end of the year, when many companies conduct performance reviews or determine whether employees will get raises.

"Typically, at the end of the year is the beginning of performance reviews, annual evaluations, finding out if they're going to get that raise or promotion," Augustine said. "Unhappiness often stems from not getting the raise, not getting the promotion, not liking the feedback on their review or seeing the writing on the wall. COVID-19 only exacerbated the situation."

What classifies as employee mistreatment?

Employee mistreatment could be anything that makes employees feel management is infringing on their rights. However, employees often feel hesitant to complain, fearful that the management they would complain about holds the power to terminate their employment.

In many cases, employee mistreatment ultimately leads to "constructive discharge," which means an employee's resignation is not voluntary and is legally considered a termination. Two criteria must be met to constitute constructive discharge:

  • An employee reasonably finds the working conditions intolerable.
  • The employer mistreated the employee with the intention of forcing them to quit, or could reasonably foresee that their mistreatment would lead to the employee's resignation.

If an employee resigns and it is found to be an example of constructive discharge, your business could be open to wrongful termination lawsuits.

Not all employee mistreatment rises to the level of constructive discharge. Job reassignment, a reduction in wages or benefits, public humiliation, or harassment of any kind could also represent mistreatment. While these forms of employee mistreatment don't necessarily lead to an end of the employment arrangement, a repeated and willful pattern of mistreatment could constitute a hostile work environment.

Can employees quit because of a hostile work environment?

"Hostile work environment" is a legal term for the behavior of any individual in the workplace – management or otherwise – that makes other employees feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or afraid. A hostile work environment can be defined simply as "unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared or intimidated in their place of employment."

These are a few such behaviors:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Workplace bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Retaliation
  • Negative working conditions
  • Favoritism

Managers needs to be aware of how not only their actions could constitute a hostile work environment, but also the actions of other employees. Federal laws governing hostile work environments are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates complaints by employees regarding discrimination or retaliation at work.

Employees who quit their job voluntarily because of a hostile work environment are still considered to have resigned. However, employees could file a grievance with management, which could open up employers to civil lawsuits if not adequately addressed. To prove a hostile work environment, employees must demonstrate the following:

  • Discrimination based on age, sex, religion, race or disability
  • Severe hostility that was disruptive to their work and productivity
  • Ongoing and regular hostility over a period of time
  • Failure by the employer to intervene in the situation and address the hostility
  • A reasonable belief by the employee that tolerating the hostility had become a precondition of continued employment

If an employee can prove these criteria in court, an employer could be on the hook for a significant financial liability. Employers can protect themselves against a hostile work environment lawsuit by proving management made a prompt and reasonable attempt to correct the hostility or that the employee failed to engage in the corrective steps offered by the employer.

How to avoid mistreating employees during COVID-19 (and beyond)

To avoid employee mistreatment that could lead to a constructive discharge or constitute a hostile work environment claim, your company should learn from the mistakes of other management teams, as well as the many supportive policies some employers have implemented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These range from simple on-the-job protections, like employer-provided personal protective equipment, to direct cash bonuses.

1. Extend flexible hours for employees to focus on family and personal matters.

Many employees' lives have been upended since the pandemic began. Some employers, like UCF Restores, implemented a policy of flexible working hours to give employees room to take care of their families or take much-needed time off.

"Being adaptable and dynamic is the name of the game," said Deborah Beidel, founder and executive director of UCF Restores. "Employers should evaluate their operations and, to a certain extent, ease their worry about certain rules or practices we would follow under more normal circumstances. For example, we lifted the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time restriction to allow our team members to work through all the other challenges in their lives."

A lack of flexibility in work schedules was a major reason employees in the TopResume survey felt mistreated. Such flexibility, especially in times of crisis, can go a long way in boosting employee morale and helping employees avoid workplace burnout.

2. Communicate support to furloughed workers.

Many companies have been forced to furlough employees during the pandemic, but that shouldn't mean leaving them out in the cold to fend for themselves. Chelsea Sullivan, vice president of cultural development at Power Home Remodeling, said her company felt obligated to extend support to furloughed employees.

"During the pandemic, we had to make the difficult decision to furlough 85% of our employees, but one we knew was the right decision to make in order to protect and take care of our people. We knew we had to maintain this strong culture we've built and continue to show up for employees to support them, keep them engaged, and make them feel connected during an isolating time."

According to Sullivan, Power Home Remodeling commissioned a survey of its furloughed employees to determine how well the company's support efforts were working and what it could do better.

"We found that more than 94% felt supported through the furlough experience, felt that they have received enough communication from … leadership, and felt cared for," Sullivan said. "We learned that through transparent communication and creating entertaining and educational virtual programming for our people, it had such a positive impact on employee morale."

Power Home Remodeling's example points to the concerns respondents in the TopResume survey expressed regarding corporate communication. First and foremost, especially in trying times, crystal-clear communication and expression of support and flexibility are much needed and appreciated by employees.

"For other business owners looking how to best support their employees, transparency is always the way to go," Sullivan said. "There are a lot of unknowns in the world right now, so communicating early and often – even when you don't know exactly what to say to your people – shows a level of honesty and authenticity that I believe a lot of employees value when it comes to their employer." 

3. Offer a companywide stimulus package.

Even employees who were able to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic felt pressured by the public health crisis and its economic impact. Carla Yudhishthu, vice president of people operations at ThinkHR and Mammoth, said extending a small cash bonus to employees as her company shifted operations to a fully remote work model helped ease the transition.

"In March, we announced a $50,000 companywide stimulus package," Yudhishthu said. "We distributed funds to every employee as a cash bonus of $250, and our only ask was to use the cash to cover any incidental costs in the shift to working from home, and then spend the rest of it supporting small businesses in the local community."

Beyond the cash bonus, the company hosted grief workshops for managers to help them better understand how to create an open, safe space for employees to work through their emotions and personal challenges.

4. Protect your employees' physical and financial health.

Many businesses experienced a decline in revenue due to the economic shutdown and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that doesn't mean employees need to feel the squeeze in their paychecks.

"As a demonstration of their commitment to the employees they serve, our entire senior leadership team unselfishly volunteered a 25% pay cut in order to avoid salary reductions or layoffs in their respective departments," said Thomas Aronica, founder and CEO of Biller Genie. "While many businesses were forced to lay off and furlough their employees, we gave bonuses and added new people to the team. As a result, employee morale, productivity and creativity [are] at an all-time high." 

Aronica added that bringing employees back to the physical workspace must include stringent safety measures to protect their health and demonstrate that management understands the challenges of the new normal.

"As we begin to consider a reopening plan, our focus has shifted towards ensuring that our physical location meets all CDC guidelines and that we continue to safeguard the health and wellness of all those that enter our facility," Aronica said.

Why workforce morale and employee retention are key to successful business

Employee mistreatment can hamper a workplace's productivity and collective morale, ultimately harming a business and its brand reputation. Employers that go the extra mile to extend support to employees, whether during a crisis or just as a routine policy, are likely to reap the benefits of a happy, low-stress and productive workforce.

While disgruntled employees and high turnover can eat into key business metrics like productivity and revenue, content employees help drive success. As your small business continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, success must start with direct communication with and support for your workforce.

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko,
business.com Writer
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Freelance editor at business.com. Responsible for managing freelance budget, editing freelance and contributor content, and drafting original articles. Also creates product and service reviews to assist business.com readers in buying decisions for their businesses. VP and co-founder of CannaContent, a digital marketing company dedicated to the cannabis, hemp, and CBD industries. Focused specifically on the content marketing arm of the company, creating blogs, press releases, and website copy for clients spanning the entire supply chain. Avid fan and indispensable ally of the feline species. Music lover, middling guitarist, and unprompted vocalist. Miniature painter who loves sci-fi and fantasy. Armchair political philosopher with a tendency to read old books written by men with unusually large beards. Ask me about all things writing!