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Fighting AIDS with facts and compassion.

Fighting AIDS With Facts and Compassion

Sound AIDS policy and employee education are imperatives in today's workplace.

Statistics make it painfully clear that almost every employer in the United States sooner or later will have to deal with AIDS in the workplace. It's no longer a question of whether your association staff or members will face this problem--it's a question of when. How prepared is your association for this inevitability?

What would you do if someone you supervise confided she had AIDS and then started to date a co-worker? What if you overheard employees gossiping about her health--and several refused to share office space with her? How many association managers even realize that this could happen among their staffs?

Odds are, most don't--if associations are at all a reflection of corporate America. A recent survey by the American Management Association found just 17 percent of U.S. companies have AIDS policies.

Yet 1 in 250 Americans currently is infected with the virus that causes AIDS, based on recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. And the rate of infection is increasing among women, minorities, and youth--the core of tomorrow's work force.

The fact is AIDS-related illness and death could cost U.S. industry more than $50 billion this year in lost productivity alone--and even more in health care expenditures, which average $40,000-$85,000 per case.

Faced with these realities, many employers, nevertheless, continue to look the other way and hope this tragic disease will go away before it hits their workplace. It won't. When an AIDS case does occur, these same employers may face worker paranoia. But they can avoid making the kind of "knee-jerk" decisions that arise from stressful and counterproductive conditions by following a few basic steps.

Preparing a strategy

The keys to developing a successful strategy for dealing with AIDS in the workplace are preparation, education, and compassion.

The managers who adapt most successfully will be those who are prepared. To a large extent, this success will depend on whether the association's top management has given its supervisors the information needed to be effective and compassionate--information that can flow only from establishing clear guidelines and procedures.

In developing a strategy, an association confronts a host of complex benefits, legal, safety, and employee relations issues. There also could be tough ethical questions involving confidentiality, safety, and risk. In large associations, benefits administrators and legal experts will handle many such issues. In small associations, executives are more likely to be directly involved.

Consider, for example, how AIDS fits into your association's medical coverage and leave policies. What are the legal protections for workers with AIDS and for their co-workers? Are flexible schedules and part-time jobs available for sick employees? What are proper interviewing techniques to avoid AIDS discrimination? How should rumors and fears be handled? How can managers help victims and co-workers cope with stress and grief?

In the fall of 1988, in response to a spontaneous surge of requests from member companies, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, D.C., became one of the first major associations to develop and issue AIDS policy guidelines--to staff and members alike--dealing with these types of difficult questions.

To develop a strategy, large associations may want to draw on many of their in-house resources. NAM, for example, formed a broad-based group comprising staff from the legal, personnel, and communication departments. The guidelines were partly based on the progressive thinking of such leading member companies as IBM, Mead Corporation, and Chevron. They also received the NAM board's endorsement. Whether the association is large or small, participation and support from the chief staff executive and other high-level managers and officers are critical.

To frame the strategy, NAM developed a straightforward statement for incorporation into its existing medical policy. The statement offers assurance that AIDS will be handled like any other disabling and life-threatening illness; that employees with AIDS are considered handicapped and as such are protected from discrimination under federal, state, and local laws; that AIDS victims will be permitted to work until their condition otherwise prevents them; and that confidentiality of all medical information will be honored.

Once an association has established guidelines, employees need to learn them. One sound approach is first to educate supervisors and managers and then ask them to discuss the guidelines with their staffs. To lend authority, the guidelines may be outlined in a memo from the chief staff executive to all employees.

Fighting fear

It's critically important to educate employees about AIDS. Though you may consider yourself well-informed, don't assume that your colleagues are, too. The New England Journal of Medicine, Waltham, Massachusetts, reported that 25 percent of the respondents to a 1988 survey still believed AIDS could be transmitted through coughing and sneezing; 22 percent thought it could be transmitted from a drinking fountain; and 25 percent would refuse to work beside a person with AIDS.

In light of these startling findings, it seems clear that workers need correct information before they have to cope with an AIDS case in the workplace. Some association managers shy away from broaching the subject before a case is present in the office for fear of setting off rumors and inciting panic among workers. But NAM strongly believes in the value of AIDS education to maintain a productive workplace free of unjustified fears. And its experience with educational sessions has produced purely positive results.

One method for educating employees is to distribute materials from health or government organizations and to offer informal briefing sessions featuring medical or public health experts, allowing ample opportunity for questions and discussion. NAM, for example, employed the American Red Cross to present workshops and air its "Working Beyond Fear" videotape (see Bringing in the Experts).

The briefing included the latest statistics on the number of AIDS cases in the community and the nation, who makes up the high-risk groups, and how the disease can and cannot be transmitted. It also advised employees of legal protections for AIDS victims.

Associations should plan to offer refresher courses, since it takes time and repetition before facts replace fears.

Coping with the real thing

How do you respond when a staff member confides that he or she has AIDS? Your association has helped prepare and educate you, but the third key tool--compassion--is up to you alone.

First, understand that the employee is struggling with a host of fears, ranging from being shunned by co-workers, to losing his or her job, to incurring high medical bills, to dying.

Show the employee that you care--and are not frightened. Stay calm, demonstrate empathy, allow the employee to field concerns, and bear in mind that as a manager, you may represent a strong link in the employee's support system. After that, the association's guidelines and procedures will help shape your response.

Ideally, you should explain that * he or she will receive the same treatment as any other employee who has a life-threatening illness that is not communicable in the workplace; * employees with AIDS are protected by the same local, state, and federal laws and regulations that govern the handicapped; * the association will not fire the employee or discriminate in any way; and * the information will be kept confidential, consistent with the association's policy and applicable state laws.

The confidentiality issue is very important. You may be required, for example, to confer in confidence with an employee assistance counselor or, if the employee becomes unable to perform normal duties or needs special accommodations, to consult privately with the appropriate personnel officer or manager.

In addition, you may want to recommend that the employee seek counseling. It is helpful to ask how the employee would like to handle job duties and if he or she has any specific questions or requests. Be prepared to explain how the association handles job accommodations for employees with serious diseases such as AIDS, cancer, or heart disease.

As for dealing with rumors, ask how the employee would like you to respond. It's your responsibility to stop rumors; if you don't, you could expose the association to liability risks. To stop hearsay, firmly let the involved employees know that rumors will not be tolerated. If your organization has done its work to educate staff, rumors aren't likely to be as much of a problem.

If asked, you may not legally tell other employees whether another worker has AIDS or release any medical information--except on a "need-to-know" basis related to the employee's ability to do the job. Your response to direct inquiries should be that no manager has a right to discuss an employee's personal life with anyone other than that employee.

If you notice an employee's job performance is declining, you may ask if a medical problem is affecting work performance and whether he or she needs special accommodations, but you may not ask if the employee has AIDS.

If word does leak out, employees who refuse to work alongside a colleague with AIDS risk their own jobs; the association has no legal responsibility to accommodate them.

A communication challenge

Communicating effectively and compassionately about AIDS presents some very special challenges. The subject is controversial, uncomfortable, and, for many, downright frightening. If the challenges are difficult for your association, chances are they present the same problems to your members.

Consider, for example, whether your members employ workers in factories, where physical contact and the possibility of accidents is high. Do your members work in hospitals or other settings where they are likely to encounter AIDS victims? Are your members unconvinced that AIDS is a problem they will encounter in the workplace?

The association can take a leadership role in helping members educate themselves and their staffs about AIDS. NAM found its members to be very receptive to the model AIDS guidelines sent them. The fact that NAM had taken steps to develop its own AIDS strategy and educate its staff enhanced the association's credibility.

Model AIDS guidelines can be a tremendous member service, as well as an effective way for associations to take a leadership role in this age of AIDS crisis. By setting a solid policy and sharing it with staff and members, associations not only help ensure that they deal with AIDS within legal boundaries but also reduce ignorance and fear among staff. A good policy could save you, your employees, and your members a lot of trouble and heartache.

Bringing in the Experts

The AIDS educational materials an association distributes to its employees should carry the imprimatur of a reputable health-oriented organization. Because of its reputation as an unbiased, highly credible public health group, the American Red Cross was NAM's choice.

The Red Cross offers a two hour-long workshop with a 30-minute AIDS educational videotape entitled "Working Beyond Fear" for groups of up to 30. A Red Cross facilitator, specially trained to generate group discussion and help employees understand the impact of HIV/AIDS, leads the program.

The videotape provides up-to-date information about AIDS, explains basic medical facts, including how it is transmitted, and includes scenarios dramatizing actual AIDS-related workplace conflicts. One case study, for example, explores the resentment and fears of employees forced to pick up the workload of a frequently absent colleague with AIDS. The Red Cross facilitator answers questions and leads group discussion following each scene.

The presentations at NAM were tailored for different audiences. The Red Cross suggested separate presentations for top management. Issue emphasized at the managers' session included confidentiality, rumors, legal rights, absenteeism, and requests for work transfers. The program offered NAM managers an excellent nonthreatening setting in which to strategize their rsponses to an AIDS-related event at work. At other sessions, issues centered more on casual contact, personal prevention, high-risk behavior, and myths.

The cost for the program, available throughout the country, is $195 per presentation; $150 per presentation for orders of five or more. For more information, contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross.

Laura L. Brown is director of media relations, National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes realted article
Author:Brown, Laura L.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Leadership close-up.
Next Article:Peer to peer.

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