World AIDS Day is December 1st. What has your company done to support employees with HIV? If you've never asked this question of yourself or your employer, now is a better time than ever.
Though the total number of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) diagnoses in the U.S. has decreased by nearly 10% since 2015, the HIV epidemic is still very much a concern for thousands of people every year. As World AIDS Day approaches on December 1st, HR is reminded of its unique role in the support, management, and education around HIV/AIDS in the workplace.
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We’ve compiled some key stats and tips for managing employees with HIV, as well as how to make the workplace safer for everyone.
HIV is still very much prevalent both in the U.S. and globally, and disproportionately affects certain populations.
More than 1 million people are currently living with HIV in the U.S., and 1 in 7 is unaware of their status
The HIV epidemic is driven by sexual contact, in particular (but not limited to) gay men and other men who engage in sexual contact with men
People living with HIV experience more severe outcomes and higher comorbidities from the COVID-19 virus in comparison to people not living with HIV
The risk of acquiring HIV is 25 times higher among gay men and other men who engage in sexual contact with men
23% of new HIV diagnoses in the US were among heterosexuals
HR Tips for Managing HIV-Positive Employees
Educate Yourself About HIV
Before implementing any programs or educational resources, it’s extremely important for members in the HR department and role to educate themselves on HIV and its potential impact on individuals. By keeping up with the scientific facts on the virus, as well as understanding privacy and confidentiality implications, you’ll better support HIV-positive employees should they choose to disclose this information to you. You should also understand how awareness fits into your company’s overall mission.
Here are a few key facts about HIV:
HIV is a virus that attacks the human immune system, and, if not treated, can lead to AIDS
There is currently no complete or effective cure for HIV -- meaning once an individual gets it, they have it for the rest of their life
HIV is controllable with proper medical care and treatment, and individuals can still live long, healthy lives and protect their partners
Most individuals who get HIV get it through sex, or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment (Source: CDC)
Contrary to many popularized misconceptions and negative stigmas, HIV is not transmitted through saliva, tears, sweat, hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, kissing, air, or insects (Source: CDC)
There are many more facts that HR should be educated on before speaking on HIV in the workplace, but this is a good place to start. With deeper knowledge on the virus, HR will be able to provide stronger and more effective support to affected employees.
Promote HIV Education in the Workplace
Fear or lack of knowledge around HIV can lead to negative behaviors among coworkers. When employees and leaders are not well-versed on the virus, it can cause them to fear or unfairly treat people who either have or are believed to have HIV.
“Providing yourself and your employees with HIV and AIDS education on World Aids Day, or any time of year, will help to promote understanding and reduce misinformation and fear,” says Anthony Martin, Founder and CEO at Choice Mutual.
Promoting HIV education in the workplace can take many forms, including:
Implementing Businesses Respond to AIDS (BRTA). A free public-private partnership initiative of the CDC, BRTA supports businesses by providing helpful and tailored resources and tools to reduce stigma and discrimination around HIV/AIDS. Resources provided through the initiative can help HR managers incorporate HIV program coverage into employee wellness programs, and help dispel any misconceptions on the virus.
Creating a recurring health education series with HIV as one of the topics. Invite a medical professional, trained employee, or HIV/AIDS topic-expert to cover the basics of HIV/AIDS, how it is transmitted and not transmitted, symptoms, how to provide support for HIV-positive coworkers and peers, and any additional questions the workforce may have.
Host an on-site HIV testing event with a local organization so employees can test if they’d like. Use an HIV services locator to find organizations near you that may be able to come to your workplace.
Giving managers and leaders additional training. Leadership is extremely important in establishing a productive and supportive workforce environment. Leaders, especially ones that manage a team of people, should fully understand the facts around HIV, the HIV stigma, emotional tolls on employees, and demonstrate competence in dealing with HIV.
“One thing to remember, when offering this type of education, you must never ‘out’ an employee who has HIV,” says Martin. “A person's health issues are a private matter, and although your support will most likely be welcome, the employee should remain anonymous.”
Provide Access to Treatment and Support Services
In addition to HIV education, make sure your employees know how to access treatment or support should they need it. Post information in common office areas or HRIS about HIV transmission, local spots to get tested, and provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include both tangible (i.e. equipment, chairs, tools) or intangible (i.e. hybrid/flexible work schedules for someone with a medical condition).
“Providing accessible treatment and support systems is an excellent initiative for HIV+ employees,” says Nunzio Ross, Owner and Head Director, Majesty Coffee. “You should let your employees know they can access treatment services and support if they need them. Distribute resources on testing centers, counseling, and other initiatives under your Employee Assistance Program to everyone in the workplace to promote awareness and educate their peers about HIV.”
Additionally, offer counseling or resources to find counseling through your Employee Assistance Programs. Additionally, create a referral system to community-based organizations for medical care and additional health services. (Source: CDC)
Eden Cheng, Co-Founder of PeopleFinderFree, adds, "You can also implement a workplace program that lets employees know about the assistance that is available to them in dealing with HIV and AIDS in accordance with both national and international practices. And this can mean assisting employees with the provision of antiretroviral drugs, for example."
“Provide employees with nutritional supplements, assistance with access to nutritious food, and nutrition and healthy lifestyle education,” says Kevin Huang, Founder and CEO at Ambient Home US. “Doing this will keep HIV-positive employees healthier longer by supporting their immune systems so they will be less vulnerable to infections. Contracting infections, even mild ones, can be life-threatening for HIV-positive people with impaired immune systems.
You can include nutrition supplementation in your employee wellness benefits. If you have a cafeteria in your company, ensure that there are always healthy menu options.
“It's all about creating a safe space for HIV+ employees and supporting them in every way,” says Ross. “Cultivate a culture of support and acceptance. Let them know their colleagues are well-informed about the topic and they can look for support systems internally or externally.”
Create an HIV Policy
Having an HIV policy in place within your organization can not only help protect team members with HIV, but also help reduce the financial impact and legal implications that HIV/AIDS may have on a business. An effective HIV policy should include:
Compliance with federal, state, and local laws (including the ADA), OSHA guidelines, and the Affordable Care Act
Hiring, promotion, transfer, and dismissal policies with regard to HIV-positive employees
Information in regards to benefit programs employees and their family members can access with regards to HIV
Manager and supervisors’ responsibility to addressing HIV and handling workplace discrimination
The standard of behavior and communication about HIV
Information on how to find assistance and more information about HIV
Marilyn Gaskell, Founder and Hiring Manager of TruePeopleSearch,
says, "Devising a workplace policy on HIV/AIDS should be a priority. It should be clearly reflected within a company's bylaws, and thus its environment, that an HIV-positive employee is no different from any other employee and is entitled to the same treatment and rights as all other employees."
With a clear HIV policy in place, HR professionals can help facilitate a more inclusive environment for employees living with HIV, and also reduce disruption or unnecessary fear.
Demonstrate Consideration and Compassion
Once you know the facts about HIV, it’s important to respond to the knowledge of an HIV-positive employee with professionalism and respect. HR professionals should fully empathize with the difficult circumstances that team members may be facing, and be there to help and listen (IF needed). Should an employee disclose this information to HR, extend your support, while continuing to be inclusive as you would any employee.
Jake Smith, Owner and Managing Director at Absolute Reg LTD, emphasizes, "Employees with HIV are the same ordinary people you deal with every day. They have similar needs as your other employees, so they should have the same access to all the rights and privileges that everyone gets. That's the initial step of supporting people with HIV."
It is important, however, to note that not every employee with HIV wants help or guidance. Even if they choose to disclose that they are HIV-positive, every employee differs in how they would like HR and team members to respond. While you should be compassionate and supportive, do not force unwanted help onto employees, and only involve yourself if they have requested help.
HR can also contribute by working with leadership to make strategic philanthropic donations to address HIV, start workplace campaigns to generate support, and collaborate with local organizations to bring awareness to the cause.
Protect and Know the Rights of HIV-Positive Employees
In addition to being compassionate and supportive of employees living with HIV, HR should be well-versed on the rights, privacy, and confidentiality of HIV-positive employees. Organizations will be subject to legal action should they fail to comply with workplace and workforce policies regarding HIV.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects qualified individuals (including those with HIV/AIDS) from discrimination based on their disability. (Source: HHS ADA Resources)
The Affordable Care Act provides Americans, including those with HIV/AIDS, better access to coverage and additional health insurance options.
People with HIV are protected by the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
Employment is a crucial part of leading an independent life for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Shunning, refusing to work with, or harassing employees with HIV is discriminatory and possibly illegal.
Refusing to hire, failing to promote, or firing a person who has HIV is discriminatory and possibly illegal.
It is illegal to share that an employee has HIV without their permission. If you hear rumors, they should not be repeated.
"One good strategy is to promote a 'volunteer buddy' that will help them buy their medications, which sometimes HIV-positive employees find emotionally and mentally taxing. Others will not be as affected when purchasing it, but the PLHIV may experience being on the receiving end of judgmental stares from others, " suggests Alex Buchnev, CEO and Founder of Paddling Space.
“Employers also need to understand and ensure that employees that need to travel for work are proactively given the right contacts and access to confidentially discuss their HIV status,” says Ruben Gamez, Founder and CEO at SignWell. “47 international countries have special restrictions around HIV, including required testing for work or study permits, compulsory HIV disclosure, and other limitations that could lead to international deportation or denied residency.”
While these are not by any means all of the legal implications regarding HIV-positive employees, knowing these facts will help HR better support employees with HIV, and help avoid legal trouble.
Provide a Safe Space to Share Experiences
“Leaders who want to support employees who have HIV should invest time in getting to know the employee personally, and what their unique needs are; and be ready to ebb and flow as those needs may change,” says Niki Ramirez, Founder and Principal Consultant at HRAnswers.org
“Lean into their journey with them and allow your employee to share as much as they are comfortable sharing. Too many times, leaders try to stay ‘at arm’s length’ when they discover that their employee has been diagnosed with a medical condition.
“Work is a huge part of every employee’s life. Leaders in the workplace should do all that they can to create an environment that is supportive, flexible, and responsive.”
Adopt Zero Tolerance for Discrimination or Disparity
Businesses have a duty to protect their employees from emotional and physical harm by understanding how interactions with their teams may affect them. It’s critical that all businesses have zero tolerance for discrimination based on medical condition, in addition to other critical DEI initiatives.
“HIV-positive employees already have a long list of challenges they face each day,” says Brendan McGreevy, Head of Strategy at Affinda. “Discrimination in the workplace or disparity in any form is the last thing they need. Your leadership, management, and workforce must adopt zero tolerance toward any form of discrimination against these employees.
“This move can go a long way in ensuring we accord them the same treatment as other workers and that they receive the support they need. Whether this is done through an open announcement or a pledge, a zero-tolerance approach will not only accord HIV-positive employees the support they need but also help them feel respected and understood at their workplace.
Tackling the Epidemic
Far too often, HIV support is swept under the rug in modern workplaces, when the fact of the matter is that many employees may be living with the virus. HR plays a key part in improving the management, support, and happiness of employees with HIV, and this should not be overlooked. Though it is not always an easy topic to tackle, with the help of leadership and access to the proper resources, HR can make meaningful change and work to reduce stigma around HIV/AIDS for a more productive and inclusive workplace.
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