Office Flu Etiquette

With flu season in high gear, here are a few commonly asked questions for those in the corporate environment:

1. Should I refuse a handshake from someone who has sniffled or sneezed into their right hand?
No. In business, the most professional greeting is a handshake and it's extremely "risky" to refuse an extended hand. Here are two options:
  • Shake and then wash or sanitize, but not in front of your client.
  • Say, "I'm trying very hard to stay healthy this flu season and I'm going to respectfully greet you without a handshake." While this still might come across as offensive, it's a reasonable request from someone who is recovering from a serious illness, or has a compromised immune system.
2. Is there an etiquette to using a tissue?
Yes, your hankie should be held in your left hand. This is another attempt to avoid giving a germy handshake. Admittedly, the rule in business is to shake hands when you are out in public, but there are many people who would much prefer, and appreciate someone saying, "Please forgive me, I am not feeling my best and would like to protect you by forgoing a handshake today." I know I will hear from some naysayers on this tip, but I am sure you will understand the logic, especially if it's YOU standing across from a drippy nosed, feverish client or colleague.
3. Should I say something to a coworker who is coughing in the next office, and not covering his mouth?
The last thing you want is to come across as adversarial. But, it would be most courteous to offer them a tissue and say in a polite tone of voice, "It looks like you need one of these - I'm often caught off guard too, here you go." This is a nicer way to encourage your co-worker to be aware of their behavior. Keep a spare box of tissues in your cabinet for just this occasion.
4. Is it better to go to work, or to make a doctor's appointment?
No, don't wait to see the doctor. People tend to go to work sick because they don't want to let their work suffer, or put extra pressure on their colleagues. Neither is a good reason to come to work sick. If you can't get in to see your regular doctor, consider a medical clinic rather than the emergency room, where you will sit and wait twice as long. No matter what, staying home from work when you are ill is the most courteous approach to the flu.
5. Where should I sneeze?
You can either sneeze in your left shoulder, covered by your left hand and a tissue, or the crook of your arm (least desirable). Most adults have a difficult time getting all the way to the inside of the crook of their arm, but school children and teachers are often taught to cough and sneeze in this location. Wherever you choose, arm or shoulder, cover your mouth, use your left hand, left arm, and sanitize your hand immediately. The most professional approach is to use a handkerchief or tissue and sneeze into your left hand, left shoulder.
6. Should I get a flu shot?
A flu shot is not a 100 percent guarantee you won't come down with the flu, but at least you are being proactive and your chances of staying healthy are better than without one. Talk to your doctor to see if the flu shot, pneumonia shot, or possibly both are the best option for you. If you are healthy, and your doctor recommends one, get it to hedge all of your bets.
7. Can I post a sign on the office sink, "Please wash your hands"?
Yes. When working in close quarters with others and sharing office space, telephones, computer keyboards and writing pens, you may have the opportunity to spread unwanted germs. Some may argue it's difficult to spread germs by touching another person's keyboard, but there is no need to take the chance. Also, an errant cough or sneeze that is covered by your hand needs to be washed. And please, don't reuse the same tissue you have been holding in your hand. As soon as you use the tissue, toss it and pull out your hand sanitizer. Feel free to post a sign -- kitchen, bathroom, anywhere!
8. What is the best way to handle a lingering cough when I have a client meeting?
Keep a stash of cough drops nearby. When out to a business lunch, it will not only calm your cough, but the nerves of coworkers, clients, and fellow diners who may fear you are still infectious.

9. Should a boss encourage an employee who is ill to go home?
Yes, a boss should be supportive and proactive with sick employees. As a supervisor, he or she should encourage those who are sick to go home. It's a courtesy to those who are healthy and working in the office. Ask your employee to seek medical attention, and work remotely from home until he or she is fever free and feeling better.

10. Do I shake, hug or fist bump?
Even during the flu season, a handshake is expected when meeting and greeting. A hug is less likely in business, but even if you generally would hug a long time client, refrain if you are feeling ill. If someone proactively extends their knuckles for a fist bump, that is a clear signal they are not interested in shaking hands (think Howie Mandell). Feel free to follow their lead, but in business, don't initiate the first knuckle bump. Some school principals, coaches and teachers offer the fist bump to keep their environment as free from germs as possible, but always wait to watch the other person's body language before going in first.

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