19

At my workplace, we are required to wear face masks throughout the day and to do our best to keep a six foot distance from other coworkers to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A few days ago, I noticed that one of my coworkers came into work carrying a plastic bag and that he quickly threw the bag into a drawer beneath his desk.

Over the past few days, I have noticed that whenever he comes over to talk to me there is the smell of cough drops in the air. This is really worrying me because I suspect that he may be trying to suppress a bad cough that he has due to him having the COVID-19 virus. He coughs for a couple of seconds about every 15 minutes. I believe that the plastic bag he had brought in on Monday morning contained one of those big bags of cough drops.

I am planning to approach my manager today to tell him that I suspect that my coworker has COVID-19, but I am very concerned about my coworker getting angry with me for snitching on him and him then retaliating against me in some way in the future, especially if he is sent home this afternoon. He is not the friendliest guy in the world and I think he is someone who could really benefit from taking an anger management class.

I have considered leaving an anonymous note on my manager's desk informing him that my coworker has been taking a lot of cough drops and thus may have COVID-19, but I'm pretty sure that my manager will know it is from me since I work in close proximity to my coworker. I am thinking that my manager may have to tell my coworker, due to legal/workplace policy reasons, that it is I who suspects him of having COVID-19.

The other option I have is to say nothing about it and to mind my own business, but I think it would be very irresponsible of me not reporting someone who very likely has COVID-19.

Should I notify my manager that a coworker has been taking a lot of cough drops over COVID-19 concerns?

UPDATE

Based on the answers that I have received, I decided not to talk to my manager today about my coworker. I think now that it is in my best interest to just concentrate on my work and to hope that my manager eventually notices him coughing and decides to talk to him about it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Nov 19 '20 at 12:44
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    Recently I have personally developed a dry cough that I medicated with cough drops myself and my doctor recommended I take a covid test so I was able to be around other people without them feeling nervous, which I agreed would be a good idea and my test came back negative which also made me feel good as well because even though I know why I developed the cough (side effect of blood pressure medication) I couldn't be 100% sure of its origin
    – Mikesplace
    Nov 24 '20 at 7:05
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I'm going to disagree with everyone and not give you a flat "no". I think you should do something. It's possible your co-worker has some other ailment, and perhaps they even have good reason to believe their cough isn't an indication of covid-19, but it's important we play it safe to get this pandemic under control.

You stated in a comment that you don't know the guidelines about when you should stay home and when it's okay to come to work if you're not feeling 100%. This lack of clear direction may be partly to blame for your co-worker coming into work to begin with. I suggest you do go to your manager, but instead of "ratting out" your co-worker, ask what the guidelines are. Obviously you shouldn't come to work if you lose your sense of smell or have a fever, but what about sinus or stomach issues? If the response indicates they don't care about a cough or leave it to the individual's discretion, then you can thank your manager and leave without even mentioning your co-worker.

However, if they do indicate a cough is something they'd want someone to stay home for, then you can follow that up with a question about what you should do if you notice someone coughing a lot. If your manager makes it clear they'd want to know, then tell them. This isn't some petty infraction; it's a health and safety issue.

The other possibility is your manager will say they don't know the guidelines or maybe even that none exist. In that case I'd ask for them to get the management team to come up with some and clearly communicate them. I'd then mention you're asking for this because you've noticed some people at work seem a bit ill and it's not clear whether they should be at work or not. Hopefully that will alarm your manager enough to spur them into action. It won't do anything about your currently potentially sick co-worker, but at least you'll have clarity going forward when the situation inevitably arises again.

These tactics will allow you to speak up and report an issue if it's something they've decided is risky and they're willing to take action on, but you avoid seeming overdramatic in the case where they wouldn't consider it an issue.

I will add one last thing: if your manager or workplace seem unconcerned with someone having a cough, you may want to refer to De Novo's answer for resources to convince them to take it seriously. The science is on your side here, and you are completely correct to be concerned. Unfortunately, using science to inform decisions has somehow become politicized here, so you may or may not have any luck. You may also be able to report your employer to OSHA if they refuse to take it seriously.

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    The most sensible response. Nov 19 '20 at 4:31
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    The OP stated they are in the US, which is currently in an expanding epidemic. In many communities in the US at the moment, a cough happens to be (slightly) more likely to be COVID-19 than not. If your workplace does not have a policy of "stay home if you are sick" and in particular "stay home if you have a cough", they need one.
    – De Novo
    Nov 19 '20 at 6:01
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    @ Kat, I have decided to follow the advice given in your answer and I will talk to my manager about it sometime today. I think I have been too concerned over how my coworker will react to be accused of having COVID-19 and instead I should be more concerned about my workplace being a healthy work environment to be in, not just for me but for everyone in my company.
    – user115675
    Nov 19 '20 at 14:30
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    @user255577 I totally understand not wanting to make waves. Lots of people are not taking this seriously and cling to their belief that the whole thing is a hoax until their dying breath (literally). I recently spoke up to management in my own workplace about something similar, and now I have a one-on-one on my calendar with upper management to "touch base". It's scary but, like you said, controlling the pandemic is too important for us to stay quiet.
    – Kat
    Nov 19 '20 at 19:01
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    And even if this particular co-worker doesn't have COVID-19, it's not a good precedent to have people coming in while showing COVID-like symptoms. Nov 19 '20 at 20:47
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Should I notify my manager that a coworker has been taking a lot of cough drops over COVID-19 concerns?

Yes.

Your question states you are in the US.

CDC guidelines for businesses:

Actively encourage sick employees to stay home:

  • Employees who have symptoms should notify their supervisor and stay home. Sick employees should follow CDC-recommended steps.
  • Employees should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, in consultation with healthcare providers.

Your state and local public health authorities may have more specific guidelines.

Yes, not all cough's are COVID-19. Currently, however, nearly all jurisdictions have an expanding epidemic. Among community members presenting for SARS-CoV-2 testing in a community with an expanding epidemic, a cough is (slightly) more likely to be COVID-19 than not.

A coworker with a cough is something you have a right to be concerned about during a pandemic, specifically because it impacts you. You observed this coworker coughing in the workplace you share. It does not violate his privacy to bring up this concern and your observation to your supervisor, and no reasonable policy would cause you to "get in trouble with HR" for bringing it up.

You don't have a right to ask for a specific diagnosis, or test results from a coworker. That would violate their privacy. But you do have a right to bring your concern to your supervisor, and I would encourage you to do so.

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At the very least get some actual first hand information beyond the faint smell of liquorice.

Ask your colleague if he has a cold or something. Then at least you can decide what to do on actual information.

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    LOL in the US most smell of eucalyptus.
    – Damila
    Nov 19 '20 at 5:59
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    The OP stated they observed this coworker coughing, that he has an anger management problem, and describes behavior that seems like an attempt to conceal the illness. I'd agree that dealing with a colleague directly is a good idea in most cases, but I think this is one of the exceptions.
    – De Novo
    Nov 19 '20 at 6:37
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    @DeNovo waste of time going through life being scared of everything, if someone might be sick, ask them direct before creating drama, if they can't answer civilly then walk away, no big deal, just asked a simple question.
    – Kilisi
    Nov 19 '20 at 7:27
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    @Kilisi What's the point of asking the coworker directly if their behavior suggests that they're trying to conceal an illness? It's not the OP's responsibility to confront the coworker, it's the manager's. Furthermore, the manager will have authority not only to direct the coworker to stay home if necessary, but also to offer both the OP and the coworker accommodations that keep everybody safe(r).
    – Caleb
    Nov 19 '20 at 20:10
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    @Caleb because 'suggests' means little, and asking a question is not 'confronting'
    – Kilisi
    Nov 20 '20 at 5:10
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Should I notify my manager that a coworker has been taking a lot of cough drops over COVID-19 concerns?

No.

People were taking cough drops before COVID-19 and people will continue to do so in the future. There is nothing out of the ordinary of someone taking cough drops to relieve their coughing and coughing or taking cough drops does not mean that someone is infected with COVID-19.

Now, if this coworker is violating any protocols your company has put in place to protect the employees then you can go ahead and let your boss know. Of course, you should first remind the coworker that he should be following X protocol, if he continues to blatantly ignore protocol you can communicate his behavior to your boss and let him deal with it.

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    "Why worry? The gun might not be loaded." Nov 19 '20 at 20:51
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The answer will largely depends on your company policy and local laws about employees medical conditions.

As a general advice, the first step would be to check your company policy about an employee presenting symptoms of a contagious disease. You may already have this information in a general communication (in your inbox or employee web portal) but you can always check directly with your manager or HR representative.

As an exemple, a general policy where I live is something like this : "The details of an employee's medical condition are none of our business, but if an employee presents symptoms of a potential contagious disease, we can ask em to stay at home (either work from home or take a sick leave) and come back with a medical certificate stating he's not contagious."

Once the policy is clear, there's multiple lines of action :

  • If the employee is a direct report of yours (not the case here), apply the policy (e.g. request a private meeting and ask him to stay at home or provide some medical certificate)
  • If the employee is not your direct report (which seems to be the case), request a private meeting with the employee's manager to express your concern. It is the responsibility of the employee's manager to apply the policy and it is possible the employee already complied with the policy (e.g. provided a medical certificate, etc.).
  • If you have already expressed your concern to the employee's manager without success or if you're not in a position to do so, ask a private meeting with your own manager to address the issue.

In this case, you seem to share the same manager at the other employee, the course of action is simple : Talk (privately) to your manager, first about the general policy then about your specific concern :

  1. Ask him about the general policy regarding employee with symptoms and what you should do if you notice an employee with symptoms.
  2. If you're satisfied with the answer, proceed to follow the recommendations.
  3. If you're not satisfied with the answer, express your concerns regarding the safety of the workplace. Your manager may not be able to circumvent the company policy but he should be able to provide you with accommodations so you can work in a safe environment.

In any case, don't mention your coworker unless you're explicitly asked to do so.

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(This is one of the few times that I answered one of my own questions but I think I should let everyone know what happened after I spoke with my manager about this issue.)

I spoke with my manager after work yesterday about my concerns and he said that he would address it. He didn't say what he was going to do about it though. I feel better now that he is aware of my concerns and that he is going to act on it because the last thing I need in my life right now is to come down with COVID-19.

So, to answer my own question, I would say 'yes' to anyone who is wondering if they should notify their manager if they believe that someone in their workplace is taking medication to try to conceal the fact that they have COVID-19.

Even if it turns out that the person doesn't have COVID-19, I think it is worth having management talk to that person to let that person know that their coworkers are concerned about the person's health and the possibility that they may have COVID-19.

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If you can smell your coworker's cough drops, then you're breathing the same air and you're at risk for exposure if it turns out that your coworker is COVID positive.

Talking to your manager is a reasonable thing to do any time you feel that your work conditions aren't safe, period. In the situation you've described, you feel uncomfortable for two reasons: 1) your coworker's behavior suggests that he's hiding an illness; 2) your coworker's temper prevents you from discussing the problem with him. If I were your manager I'd certainly want to know about both issues. Regardless of what happens with/to your coworker, your manager may be willing to help you feel safer by moving you to a different desk, asking the team to increase distance at meetings or hold meetings in a better ventilated spot, etc.

I am very concerned about my coworker getting angry with me for snitching on him

If there's actually anything to "snitch" about, then you should be angry with your coworker for putting you and all your other colleagues at risk! It's completely possible that this guy has some allergy or other condition that's making him cough, and that COVID has nothing to do with his condition. But your concern in the midst of a global pandemic that sets records every day in the US is also understandable, and even if he isn't COVID-positive he should be aware of the appearance his behavior creates.

Note: COVID is the issue that's on everybody's mind this year, but coughing is a symptom of various other communicable illnesses (flu, cold, tuberculosis, pertussis, etc.). It'd be reasonable to be concerned even without the pandemic.

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One thing that I don't understand is why you don't simply meet that guy and ask him about the medicines he's taking:

Bob, I've noticed you've been hiding something that smells like caugh sirup... I hope you don't have covid and you'd inform us if you had, right?

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    I have considered asking him if he is taking cough drops and to then ask him why he is taking them. If he says something like "oh, I'm taking them for a cough due to allergies" or whatever, the issue then is do I drop it at that point, or do I still go to my manager about my concern that his coughing may actually be due to having COVID-19. I think my best option is to bring up the issue with my manager and to then let him decide how to handle this. I am going to talk to my manager today before leaving work.
    – user115675
    Nov 19 '20 at 21:34
  • @user255577 I guess you've got this kind of issues all the time in the US. ppl just being afraid of taking sick leave not only due to covid :-\
    – red-shield
    Nov 20 '20 at 11:40
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"No."

'Nuff said. If your manager somehow "missed the cough drops," that's (his)(her) problem – not yours.

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    our manager's office is located about 100 feet away from our work area and we usually only see him during weekly meetings or in the break room at lunch time. We usually communicate with him via instant messaging through out the day. So, our manager does not know that my coworker has been taking a lot of cough drops.
    – user115675
    Nov 18 '20 at 20:10
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    If you get COVID, just show it this post.
    – Studoku
    Nov 18 '20 at 22:44
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    "not yours"... Well, it is yours in fact if you get infected.
    – Calimo
    Nov 19 '20 at 6:08
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    How can not be your problem if your colleague is sick? I could agree with this answer if we were talking about a slacking coworker, but not when it's about someone potentially sick with an infectious disease. Nov 19 '20 at 10:30
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    "I'm concerned that my co-worker may be putting myself and others at risk of bodily harm." "That is not your problem." Huh? Nov 19 '20 at 19:31

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