In order to limit the spread of Covid-19 in workplaces, managers must ensure that employees are comfortable disclosing their risk. A potential solution, is to implement “random rotation” policies in the workplace. Random rotation ensures that workers who report exposure maintain plausible deniability vis à vis coworkers and direct managers. An employee being sent home can plausibly argue that he or she was unwillingly randomly-selected. Through this channel, workers concerned that they may be sick can safely ask to temporarily isolate. The cost of random rotation is that some employees will be sent home even if they don’t ask to be. This is a calculated cost. The fact that healthy people can be rotated out of work is the reason it is safe to self-report exposure.
As the economy reopens, employers are striving to adopt policies and practices that protect their employees from contracting Covid-19. It’s an especially pressing concern, given that infections continue to surge in many states.
Ideally, employees would proactively report that they, or someone in their immediate environment, is experiencing early symptoms as soon as they suspect they may have been exposed. However, employees may not want to reveal that they are a contagion risk. In spite of CDC and WHO guidelines on reducing stigma, reports of discrimination against Covid-19 survivors and frontline workers abound. This makes suppressing outbreaks early very challenging. It also means that as employers plan re-entry — or manage existing in-person workforces — they must ensure that employees are comfortable disclosing risk.
We have researched how safety violations and sexual harassment get reported in garment factories, as well as the effectiveness of different reporting protocols in generating actionable data. We believe that the lessons learned from those high-stakes contexts can help to ensure that workers to report potential Covid-19 exposure in a timely manner.
One approach is to implement “random rotation” policies in the workplace. In this scenario, all workers are regularly surveyed about their Covid-19 exposure and symptoms. Based on survey responses, a minimum share of employees, say between 5 and 10%, is systematically rotated out of the workplace for a week. Employees rotated out include all employees reporting Covid-19 exposure as well as a randomly selected group of employees who do not. At the end of the week, returning employees are tested for symptoms. Symptomatic or Covid-19-positive employees receive appropriate medical care.
Random rotation ensures that workers who report exposure maintain plausible deniability vis-à-vis coworkers and direct managers. An employee being sent home can plausibly argue that his or her selection truly was random. Thus workers concerned that they may be sick can safely ask to temporarily isolate. The cost of random rotation is that some employees will be sent home even if they don’t ask to be. This is a calculated cost. The fact that healthy people can be rotated out of work is why it’s safe to self-report exposure.
The methods described here can be used to elicit sensitive information beyond Covid-19 exposure. Mental health issues, burn out, and harassment are major threats to employee well-being that often go unreported because of fear of stigma. All of them have been made worse by the pandemic, confinement, and job insecurity. Investing in survey methods that ensure plausible deniability can help get information out and target support to the people who need it.
A Tested Methodology
Random rotation builds on “randomized response” survey methods that have been used by social scientists to collect sensitive data for decades. The key idea is plausible deniability. Surveys must be designed so that any sensitive answer can be attributed to random shocks in the survey procedure. This allows respondents to plausibly deny having submitted a sensitive answer regardless of the recorded response.
For instance, a researcher seeking to estimate illicit drug use among athletes may give survey respondents a deck of cards bearing different questions: 20 cards ask the question “Do you use performance-enhancing drugs?” and 10 cards say “There is no question. Just answer YES.” Each athlete shuffles the deck and privately draws a card. If an athlete answers “YES,” the researcher cannot infer whether the athlete uses drugs or is complying with the survey protocol.
While using randomized response in organizational settings is a more recent idea, research shows that these techniques can significantly increase truthful reporting. And laboratory evidence shows that plausible deniability improves whistleblowing, even under threat of retaliation. Outside of social science research, protecting sources is a familiar concern for military and law enforcement agencies. Part of the value of random “cordon and search” counter-insurgency operations used in Afghanistan and Iraq is that they allow military forces to act on information while protecting their sources.
How to Implement Random Rotation
HR departments can implement random rotation themselves, but it may be easier to contract with survey firms to collect workers’ self-reports and develop a list for HR that doesn’t disclose individual responses. It’s essential that a minimum share of the workforce be sent home in order to protect the identities of potentially-exposed employees. A plausible starting point would be to decide initially to rotate between 5 and 10% of the workforce, to survey workers on whether they feel comfortable enough to report exposure, and then to adjust the percentage depending on responses.
An important complement of random rotation is a paid sick-leave or work-from-home program that limits the potential financial losses from being rotated out of the workplace (the Families First Act subsidizes sick leave polices for small and medium enterprises). This is especially important for economically vulnerable employees. If managers are concerned that employees are abusing the system and systematically asking to be rotated out, the number of leaves per worker could be kept to 2 or 3 per half-year. Finally, random rotation is more useful when employees are knowledgeable about their contagion risk. For this reason, organizations should encourage employees to participate in contact tracing programs.
Is Random Rotation Right for Your Organization?
Whether random rotation is right for your organization depends on its ease of implementation and the magnitude of health benefits it brings. Random rotation is particularly easy to implement in workplaces that are not functioning at full capacity or have work-from-home programs. In these cases, the opportunity cost of sending a healthy employee home is low. In addition, implementing a random rotation policy expresses a commitment to public health that may help employees manage their re-entry anxiety.
Potential health benefits are high if employees are at high risk of Covid-19 exposure or if employees are economically vulnerable. Meatpacking plants are a good example. Close working conditions and cold temperatures facilitate contagion. Economically vulnerable workers, aware of high unemployment rates, may fear losing their job if they bring up potential illness.
Ultimately, it may be appropriate to tailor random rotation policies to individual work units. Economically vulnerable frontline employees may need a higher minimum rate of rotation to feel comfortable reporting they are a contagion risk. Companies that are interested in applying these policies can find implementation resources here.
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