A friend of mine asked me to ask this on his behalf.

A company he manages employs ~900 employees. The company does not perform essential services and has thus been forced to shut down during a 21 day government imposed lock down to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The company is paid these employees in full for the lock down period and all employees were instructed to stay home. These employees were even paid early as to allow them to stock up for the lock down. It has now come to his attention that certain employees are ignoring the lock down and in his view are disobeying a direct company instruction.

Would it be fair to institute disciplinary action against these employees?

Edit: Our lock down rules state that only movement for essential supplies are allowed such as food & medical supplies/treatment.

These employees referred to are visiting friends and hosting social events which is currently illegal and may result in a prison sentence of up to 6 months. These employees are getting away with it due to the fact that the South African police is heavily understaffed and have a fairly high percentage of corrupt officials.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 11:53

9 Answers 9


Would it be fair to institute disciplinary action against these employees?

It might be the right thing to do, for their own good. Depending on the work and external culture and how much you value them as workers.

A lot depends on the action taken. Personally I'd ring them and tell them off. Because any discipline is best done now not when they get back to work suitably repentant later or find themselves locked up or sick. Discipline after the fact is not a better option in my opinion and they should run out of money well before they restart work.

Many people in some cultures and locales cannot handle lump sums of money responsibly and will go on a drunken spending spree disregarding any consequences if someone they regard as an authority figure doesn't give them a swift kick.

I've never been to South Africa, but apparently they have 30% unemployment. This gives employers a lot of power and responsibility. We have similar problems, but no one is handing out lump sums because it's a given that a chunk of people will immediately go off the rails (some still do but they run out of money pretty quick). Too late for your friend though.

At any rate this is a judgement call only your friend can make. Hopefully he makes a good one based on good reasons. If he wants to do it out of pique then thats a personal reason I would not think a good one. If he wants to do it out of concern for his workers then that would be fine in my books. If he wants to save the country, the World and the Universe, then that is just a weak rationalisation, because disciplining them after they return is too late.

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    This seems to be the only answer mentioning S. Africa. Kudos and +1.
    – guest
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 16:38
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    Nitpick: unless I've overlooked something, OP did not specify the reprimand would be after work resumes. The boss could send an angry email already making the rules of any such reprimand clear. Like anyone seen breaking the rules will have to stay in unpaid quarantine for two weeks even after government lockdown is lifted or such. That way, he could already have an impact now to save the world and the universe (at least the human part^^). Still upvoted because I agree with the gist of it. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:24
  • @FrankHopkins Reprimand was just in the title... the actual action was ' institute disciplinary action' which seems more formal punishment. The reason I said ring rather than email is a personal experience one based on the fact that in many places people do not have access to work email at home, and their private emails may not be known if they even have them Even in the first World it's not unusual for most staff not to be able to access their work email outside work or even outside their LAN. Plus a call targets the person rather than mass threatening everyone.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 22:53
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    I worked for a company that, let us say, depended for labor on the less sophisticated portion of the labor force. The company was able to pay the workers on Thursday, but paid them on Friday in order to prevent payday absenteeism.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 23:28
  • For the record, I hate the idea of pressuring an employee because of high unemployment. Just seems like a scum thing to do. At the same time, not a big fan of people who contribute to a global pandemic. Some weight in both hands I suppose...
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 23:52

To be honest, what his employees do outside of work hours is their own business (provided it's not negatively impacting the company).

The best he can do is send a company wide email reiterating the government guidelines but unfortunately (as Tymoteusz said) this is not a work issue so it would be inadvisable to do more than that.

Side note: Not sure how the lock-down is being enforced over there but the police are dealing with it in the UK and I know some people are reporting others who are not following guidelines.


Lots of discussion about this one in the comments so I thought I'd just add a little bit here.

  • I am not getting into a discussion about legality. I am not a lawyer and weather you can fire/reprimand someone for doing something illegal outside of work is out of the WP SE scope and probably highly region specific.
  • I was assuming OP was saying they were going out in the evening. I do get where people are coming from with the work hours thing. The boss could tell employees they must stay in during work hours but people are still going to go out in the evenings and it might even push some who are feeling they are being controlled to rebel more. In short, I doubt it will improve things.
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    what his employees do outside of work hours is their own business applies to legal activities, not to necessarily to illegal and imprisonable activities as we have it here
    – ig-dev
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 14:39
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    @ig-dev Disagree. It is not a company's business whether I do illegal activities in my free time - except in cases where those activities could reflect badly on the company. Most reasonable people would not expect a company to report its employees to the police for ignoring the lockdown. May vary by culture. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 15:11
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    Are we sure these activities are ACTUALLY ILLEGAL? Many countries have deployed emergency measures, but AFAIK some of them in some countries don't explicitly make it illegal, just give the police legal power to detain you or fine you or something like that. Consulting a lawyer before acting like these activities are illegal would be a good idea. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 23:28
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    @DmitryGrigoryev Depends on the locale and company. Drug abuse (perhaps even prescription drugs) is the first thing that comes to mind. There are lightly enforced (often civil) rules people routinely violate. I think the point is the company will try to prevent employees from doing anything that reflects badly on them because of PR or liability reasons. The legality of the act is coincidental. In the US you can be fired for Facebook postings, but I generally disagree with that too. Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 1:16
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    @Bee : "what his employees do outside of work hours is their own business" - what? the company is literally paying them money to stay at home. So it's not their own business. And if they think it was their own business what they do, the company would also be free to not pay them.
    – Val
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 4:19

After a telephonic conversation with the company union rep, my friend decidedthe following:

Having a job means performing tasks the company asks of you (provided it's within your abilities and the law) and you being paid to perform said tasks - That much pretty much everyone can agree on.

In South Africa, during an event such as lock down, no work no pay rules apply where employees cannot work from home. Many employers thought it well to use annual leave during lock down so employees still have an income, however it is not required by law to implement such a solution.

In this case the employer gave the employees a task and is paying them to perform said task. The task was simple - stay home and observe lock down protocols. (To minimize risk to your health and disruptions to the company once lock down is lifted.) and you'll still get paid.

By doing this, the company was being courteous to employees.

Since many of the employees ignored the company's instruction to stay home and observe lock down rules, the following was suggested by the union rep:

All employees who purposefully decided to ignore lock down protocols (and where the company can prove this) will be given the choice of having the lock down days where employees ignored lock down protocols being docked from annual leave or as unpaid leave.

Also a company wide email/sms was sent out stating that should any employee contract covid-19 as a result of purposefully ignoring lock down protocols of they will be charged with gross negligence and will be subject to a disciplinary hearing.

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    From an ethical point of view, I think that's fair. From a point of labor law, you will need to check with a lawyer, how you would provide proof someone purposefully ignored the lockdown. Hearsay is probably not the solution there.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:53
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    Plus how will you ever know where or when an employee even got sick. They might party all night and then get infected buying toilet paper the next day. It's not a like a virus only infects people when it's "fair".
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:56
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    How will any company prove that an employee contracted CORVID-19 during a party instead of getting essentials (like food and water). This wouldn't fly in most of the world.
    – Donald
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:17
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    The SA government is tracing every single case back to the point of infection and all those who were in contact since then. Thus finding out where/when an employee got infected shouldn't be that hard.
    – JustSaying
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:20
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    Good idea talking to the union rep, and a very reasonable response too. I'm sure other workers were annoyed about this
    – coagmano
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 5:31

The company should mind its own business, which does not include monitoring the whereabouts of its employees during non-work hours.

disobeying a direct company instruction

Are they coming in to company premises? Then, yes. For all other cases, no. An even better solution is to lock up the building so that no one can enter.

A small and interesting detail is that no one, except for a court of law, can force you to stay at home. This is important to remember in times of stress, even when your local, normally de-clawed up-and-coming representative wants to be seen as "doing something" and "taking action" and ends up undoing two centuries worth of civil liberties. Everyone is managing their own personal risk as they deem fit, and that is their right.

  • If the events are hosted during normal business hours, and they are paid by the company their full salary for that time, one could technically say that they are during work hours. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 13:34
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    "no one, except for a court of law, can force you to stay at home". This is very region specific. My state has enacted a State Of Emergency which, among other things, allows the Chief Health Officer of the state to give legally binding directions, many of which have restricted the movement of citizens.You can, of course, challenge such directions in court, but unless such directions are incredibly onerous, I don't think it's likely a court would rule in your favour. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 15:09
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    This answer seems to come from a specific locale. (the US? "two centuries worth of civil liberties") The question is tagged SA. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 15:15
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    "Everyone is managing their own personal risk" matter of fact, when someone goes out for fun and infects someone who had to go out for groceries or medical treatments, that's very much not "their own risk" they are managing.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:50
  • The company is literally paying them money to stay at home. So if they don't follow these instructions, why should the company keep paying them? It's that simple. If a company was paying me to visit city X in country Y, and I didn't go there, could I say that the company should not check whether I was really there but they should keep paying me nonetheless?
    – Val
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 4:23

Employers generally can't tell you what you can do outside work. The exceptions are typically prohibition of acts that have a negative effect on the operation or the reputation of the company. If one were to go out their homes during the lock down in the company's uniform, and the employer would learn about it, they could be subject to disciplinary action, as breaking the law in a uniform can damage the employer's good reputation.

If a company wants to interfere with the private life of an employee, they pay LOTS of money. This happens often with top tier athletes, e.g. they can't do extreme sports to protect the employers investment.

However if the employees should stay at home for on-call duty, that could mean they're not allowed to leave their homes during these hours – except for work reasons (if that applies).

  • This! An employer can't forbid employees to do what they want in their free time, but it sure can demand them to be on duty during paid time. Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 0:54
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    But the company is literally paying them money for staying at home! So it's not "their own free time". If they violate this, why should the company continue paying them free money?
    – Val
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 4:25
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    @Val Then assume for a moment that the workers stayed at home during the day and only went to the clubs after work hours,
    – Alexander
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 6:29
  • @Alexander : the company doesn't pay them to work from home. The company pays them to stay at home, despite not being legally obliged to do so, so the company could just say "well I'm giving you free money to you out of goodwill, but if you go partying in the night, I will no longer give you that free money". How could the employees complain about this? It's like a beggar complaining that a patron who gave him alms before, is no longer doing so.
    – Val
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 6:41
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    @Val I'm not sure the employees agreed to the terms, and as this is fundamentally different from what's in a typical contract, the instruction to stay home cannot be enforced by the company. If it'd be, other one-sided restrictive changes should also be legal. If the employees would have been presented with the choice of a) stay at home and never go out, and they get paid for 24 hours a day b) do whatever they want, but they'll be on unpaid leave or have to use PTO, this'd be a slightly different question. But even then, the enforceability of such company policy would be questionable.
    – andyz
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 15:41

If these employees are paid to stay at home (and do nothing) then they are still under orders of the company. If the company feels strongly about it, they can give employees a choice: Stay at home and practice social distancing, on full pay, or just stay away from the office, do whatever you want, on zero pay. In that case, disciplinary action would be totally appropriate.

I am currently paid to work from home, full time, and not to come in the office unless absolutely necessary. I’m not ordered how to live my life, except the standard thing not to put the company into disrepute, and not to risk my health needlessly. And not to get arrested by police - which is entirely possible.

PS. After update to the question: Quite implicit in my work contract is “don’t do anything to go to jail for six months”.

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    @JoeStrazzere: The first sentence isn't wrong when restricted to during paid work hours, which is what I suspect was intended (but not outright stated).
    – Flater
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 12:15
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    No, i am paid to work and not come to the office. If I was paid full pay to sit at home and not leave, that would be different.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:13

In addition to telling the employees that they should be on call at their home during paid time, you can also inform them that an internal investigation will be carried out regarding employees who get arrested for breaking the quarantine, and appropriate disciplinary actions will be applied to them if they are found to have knowingly damaged the business by disobeying the order to stay at home during paid time.

You will need to actually conduct an investigation and check with a lawyer before applying a disciplinary action to an employee (especially before firing them). But, depending on circumstances, this may not be an empty threat: in some cases you will be able to reprimand or dismiss an employee for deliberately getting prison time. If there's solid proof that illegal activities were carried while the employee was on the clock, the risk for such an employee to be dismissed for misconduct is very high.

Hopefully even a remote possibility to get a prison sentence and losing their job will be enough to convince most people to respect the rules.


These employees referred to are visiting friends and hosting social events which is currently illegal and may result in a prison sentence of up to 6 months.

"Mind your own business" does not apply to illegal and imprisonable activity, as we have it here. Illegal activity of employees is very much an employer's concern, which is one reason why background-checks are performed in the first place. Depending on your local laws you may have the right to fire or otherwise discipline these employees based on misconduct, either with or possibly without a formal conviction. Consult a lawyer.

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    ""Mind your own business" does not apply to illegal and imprisonable activity, as we have it here.' Why? Where are you? Is that based on a statute or part of your culture? Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 15:17
  • See updated question.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:16

As these none isolating employees will put other employees at risk when they return to work, maybe require all employees to have been in isolation for 21 days before they return to work, and not pay them for any delay in being able to return to Work.

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