Sick co-worker spread­ing germs

Is there a po­lite way to ask your cold-rid­den col­leagues to stay home and rest up?


Dear Ellen,

I work in a busy of­fice, and lately, a lot of my co-work­ers have been get­ting sick with colds and the flu. The per­son who sits next to me seems to have a ter­ri­ble cold. He is blow­ing his nose all day, cough­ing, and touch­ing ev­ery­thing, like the pho­to­copier and door han­dles. I am dis­gusted at the thought of all his germs around. I want to tell him to go home, but I have no au­thor­ity over him. Is there a po­lite way to deal with sick peo­ple at work? Ger­mo­phobe

Dear Ger­mo­phobe, Here’s a film you’d love: Vin­cent Ward’s 1988 film The Nav­i­ga­tor: A Me­dieval Odyssey,

in which healthy towns­folk see boats of plague vic­tims ap­proach­ing their shore and wade into the surf with long poles to push them away, then shoot flam­ing ar­rows at their sails so the af­flicted men, women, and chil­dren burn to death at sea.

In real life, in France, dur­ing the plague of the 1300s to the 1500s, towns like Troyes

ban­ished the sick and their fam­i­lies to the coun­try­side for at least three months, and burned their homes to the ground. Lon­don au­thor­i­ties, dur­ing the Black Death of 1665-66, took the op­po­site ap­proach: as soon as some­one got sick, the whole fam­ily was sealed in­side their home un­til ev­ery­one died, or mirac­u­lously sur­vived.

As ap­peal­ing as you might find all these sce­nar­ios, I can­not, as your eti­quette ex­pert,

rec­om­mend any one of them as they are all highly im­po­lite and il­le­gal.

What you can do is look at the sit­u­a­tion re­al­is­ti­cally. Yes, it’s ter­ri­bly rude of sick peo­ple to ven­ture onto pub­lic tran­sit and into the work­place, spray­ing their loath­some germs all over the rest of us. But con­sider that some of them are con­ta­gious be­fore they re­al­ize it, some of them might be risk­ing their jobs if they don’t show up for their shift, and some low-in­come work­ers might be un­able to af­ford miss­ing a day’s pay.

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, you are per­fectly jus­ti­fied in ask­ing your co-worker to cough into his sleeve, wash his hands fre­quently, con­sider stay­ing home till he’s bet­ter, or wear a face mask at work.

But let go of any fan­tasy that you can con­trol any­one else’s be­hav­iour, for the sick (like the poor) will al­ways be with us.

Need ad­vice? Email Ellen: [email protected]­

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