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AIDS and employee knowledge
Aug 7, 2001

I am the general manager of a restaurant and one of my servers informed me and other managers that he has AIDS after being HIV-positive for 2 years. He has also informed some of his co-workers, so soon everyone will know. How do I address this issue with the staff now that he has told people about it? I do not want to break confidentiality in any way, but I want to allay any fears that staff members might have.

Response from Ms. Breuer

Really good question. Your employee would have done you a great favor if he'd worked with you to plan this disclosure, but since he didn't, let's go with Plan B. To avoid discrimination from co-workers, scaring off patrons and similar outcomes, I recommend arranging immediately for a session of workplace HIV education for the whole staff. Depending on your relationship with your staff and how far his disclosure goes, you may want to frame it as something you all need to understand better so that you can work successfully with your employee. Or you may want to frame it as information we all need in the current workplace because there are standards of behavior that you will hold everyone to regarding HIV or AIDS in a patron or an employee. You'll know how to frame it, I'm sure. Whatever you say, the two key messages are: 1. a person with HIV/AIDS, whether patron or employee, does not pose a threat to the health of others in the restaurant. 2. your business will treat guests and employees known or believed to have HIV/AIDS the same way you treat everyone else: with respect.

You can announce the workshop without linking it to the employee. That way you'll preserve confidentiality without giving up this golden opportunity to educate and prevent problems. Your employees may indeed make the connection, but that will be overshadowed by your proactive, appropriate response. Over and over, I have worked with employers who are surprised by how grateful their staff members are that their employer is providing reliable information on a topic that has worried them for a long time. Education takes the spotlight off the employee in question and puts it on the issue of how to respond appropriately to anyone with HIV/AIDS.

A poorly-handled disclosure can be very damaging to a restaurant. I urge you to arrange this right away. When you announce the workshop, you'll take some steam out of the "rumor" about his health and model a more appropriate response. Please let me know what city and state you're in; I know of good workplace HIV educators around the country. Someone who does general or community HIV education will not fit your bill. That person's training is unlikely to include applying the Americans with Disabilities Act, confidentiality of medical information, how to handle disclosure, how to negotiate reasonable accommodation and how to respond to discrimination on the job. Those are the workplace issues--and the potential areas of trouble for you.

Congratulations for tackling this head on. If you'll give me an e-mail address or other way to respond to you confidentially, I'll send along the referral that way. Please act quickly to avoid damage to your business.

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