Magazine article Personnel Journal

AIDS Issues Haven't Gone Away

Magazine article Personnel Journal

AIDS Issues Haven't Gone Away

Article excerpt

Reaction to Magic Johnson's announcement that he's HIV-positive makes it clear that fear and ignorance still plague the workplace. Education can help.

Driving into the parking lot one morning, the human resources director of a New York-based department store found employees milling around the back door, refusing to enter the building. She knew a longtime employee had called to say that he'd be returning to work that day after being hospitalized for Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and wanted his workers to know his diagnosis. She put two and two together and reached a depressing conclusion: No one wanted to work with a colleague who had AIDS.

What happened next, however, surprised her. When the returning employee reached the parking lot, his co-workers wouldn't go inside until each person had offered him a hug, a card, flowers, or some balloons. Astonished and laden with tokens of his co-workers' goodwill and compassion, the AIDS-diagnosed employee began one of the best days of his working life.

Is this a fantasy or an event masterminded by management? No, it actually happened--spontaneously. Could it happen in your company?

Most people in American workplaces in the 1990s work beside people who have HIV infection or AIDS. The virus is found most often in people of working age; so far, its heaviest toll has been among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Because therapies constantly improve, HIV-infected people will be able to work longer and with greater productivity as the decade progresses. Even after bouts of serious illness, people who have HIV infection will return to work more often and for longer periods than has been true in the past.

Do most American workers have any reliable training to help them cope with this reality? The intensity and nature of the conversation following basketball star Magic Johnson's announcement that he's HIV-positive suggest that they don't. Many employees remain ignorant and fearful. If the fear and ignorance aren't addressed, they're likely to worsen.

Thanks to the leadership of businesses that have provided workplace HIV education since the late 1980s, there are models that illustrate the value of making AIDS education ordinary.

The Prudential Insurance Company, Western Home Office, has been providing employee AIDS education seminars every six months since 1987, distributing a copy of the company's AIDS policy with employee orientation materials and handling reasonable accommodation matters and cases of AIDS-related discrimination quietly.

Dick Hunt, vice president for administration and a 39-year employee with the company, explains: "The longer you spend in human resources, the better nose you have for a bad situation and the better your batting average for avoiding them becomes. It was a matter of realizing that, if we did nothing, our first AIDS case would happen, and some people would panic out of ignorance." The Prudential made employee HIV training part of the regular human resources training menu; they made it ordinary.

Morrison & Foerster, an international law firm, took the same course and began employee HIV training in 1987. By now, says Personnel Manager Gene Bendel, when the firm announces an employee HIV training date, some employees ask, "Again? I thought I had that training last year." The company provides annual seminars so employees will be aware of new information about the epidemic. HIV training has become ordinary.

So far, the firm hasn't faced any HIV-related work disruptions or discrimination cases, even though the firm has faced employee HIV infection. "This is preventive education," Bendel reminds the firm. Even if there's no one with AIDS in the office today, "what about tomorrow?"

Dr. Ann Lewis, medical director for the Prudential at the Western Home Office, agrees. She points to the contrast between the company's first case and its most recent case as a dramatic example of the power of HIV education. …

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