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Oct 14, 2001

how important is HIV/Aids education in the work place?

Response from Ms. Breuer

Why is the question called "sexy"? If there's one thing that HIV education in the workplace isn't, it's sexy. After my seminars, people usually say they think they'll curl up that evening with a movie and some popcorn. And I don't think that's just me.

How important is it? Let me cite some examples, all from my sixteen years of providing workplace HIV education:

1. A workplace where productivity tanked completely because someone brought in donuts for the group and a person known to have HIV stuck a finger in each one to see what the fillings were. The company lost an entire day's work from everyone because of the outrage and sense that he was trying to infect them. Unsanitary and annoying, but not a risk of transmission. When I worked with them, I realized it must have been the HIV positive person's way of getting back for all the small and not so small slights he was experiencing from his colleagues. Very effective technique. (Company: large, multi-branch California bank)

2. Or the manager who was refusing to allow a Houston-based employee to take a promotion because the new job would be New York-based, and "everyone knows New York is dirtier than Houston" and he thought the HIV-positive employee's health would be threatened. First of all, ever BEEN to Houston? Second, that reflects all kinds of misinformation about what AIDS is and how it affects someone. Third, paternalistic meddling in an employee's medical status is not the legitimate arena of a direct supervisor. (Company: multinational oil company)

3. Brace yourself. A wire mill where a gay employee who was presumed to have HIV (but didn't) was so feared by ignorant co-workers that they made three attempts on his life in the workplace. The third one was the worst, and nearly killed him. He's permanently disabled, not by the attack, but by the emotional damage. (Company: multinational energy conglomerate)

In none of these cases could the employer claim there was any lack of resources to address the issues. They just didn't realize that ignoring this is like ignoring racial discrimination, or sexual harrassment, or a small fire in the warehouse.

If you happen to be a supervisor or manager, do you know what your rights and responsibilities are when an employee has HIV? How would you respond if an HIV-positive employee requested reasonable accommodation? Do you have the right or obligation to answer co-workers' questions if they ask what the diagnosis is? Must an HIV-positive employee disclose that condition to you, either in the job interview or on the job? What should you do if someone discriminates against your HIV-positive employee, and what are the risks of doing nothing? Does an employee with what is commonly called "full-blown AIDS" pose any threat to your other employees' health?

Any business owner, manager or supervisor who does not know the answers to these questions is a large walking legal liability to any company doing business in 2001.

Very scared, bloody tissue
Lifespan with HIV

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