Sick employee wearing mask and working from home

What to Do If an Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19

5 min read • Apr 18, 2020 • Derek Miller

Businesses across the country have taken steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect employees, from setting up plexiglass barriers to implementing work-from-home policies. 

Unfortunately, not every company has the luxury of closing temporarily or working remotely, which leaves its staff at risk for the virus. Even if you have moved to a virtual office, it doesn’t preclude your employees from contracting COVID-19. 

Most companies are doing whatever they can to keep their businesses running while also protecting their staff. But what do you do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Respond With Compassion

When your employee alerts you to their positive COVID-19 test result, it’s vital that you express compassion and sympathy. We’re all human, and contracting the coronavirus is a scary and life-altering event.

When someone contracts the virus, even with mild symptoms, they’re likely to feel anxious and fearful. They’re probably concerned about their safety and the safety of others around them. They’re likely worried about the potential financial implications of treatment or other medical expenses. They may even be concerned about losing their jobs or the reaction of colleagues and friends.

In other words, they have a lot of stress, pressure, and other emotions going through their minds when they approach you. The last thing they need is more anxiety or judgment.

COVID-19 can be life or death—your company isn’t. Now is the time to show your compassion as a leader. Let your employee know that his or her health comes first, and you want them to focus on recovery. 

Provide a Clear Return-to-Work Policy

After—or before—an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, you will need to outline and communicate policies and criteria for returning to work.  

The general guidelines for employees with symptoms of or confirmed COVID-19 include a 14-day self-quarantine. The CDC has also outlined its suggested return-to-work criteria for healthcare personnel with positive COVID-19 tests. The CDC’s guidelines are based on 2 factors: 

  • Test-based strategy: The employee must not have a fever (without use of medicine), must have no other symptoms (shortness of breath, cough, etc.), and must have received 2 consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart.
  • Non-test-based strategy: The employee must have gone at least 3 days without having a fever (without use of medicine), must have no other symptoms (shortness of breath, cough, etc.), and it must be 7 days since the symptoms first appeared. 

As a business owner, you have a responsibility not just to the safety of the employee with confirmed COVID-19 but to your entire staff and customers. Therefore, you should practice extreme care when determining the return-to-work policy from COVID-19.

Consider contacting your local health department or other medical professionals to assist with this policy and make sure to share it with all your employees so that it’s clearly communicated.

Identify Which Coworkers Have Worked With That Employee

Once you’ve consoled and communicated with the affected employee, you need to move quickly to protect the rest of your staff and prevent further spread. This process starts by identifying the high-risk employees—others who’ve worked closely (within 6 feet) with that employee.

You should first ask the confirmed COVID-19 employee which team members they’ve interacted with recently to begin building your list of high-risk colleagues. Then you’ll want to work with your HR department to identify other employees who may have either interacted with the confirmed team member or in the same area.

Notify the At-Risk Employees Quickly and Carefully

After you’ve compiled a list of team members who were possibly exposed, you or your HR personnel will need to immediately notify each person about their potential exposure to COVID-19. For legal reasons, when communicating this news, be careful to maintain the confirmed employee’s anonymity. 

Confidentiality and swiftness are important when notifying other employees, but so too is your leadership. This topic is frightening for anyone to hear and will certainly elicit a response—so be mindful and receptive to their reactions and questions. Conducting this conversation over phone or video is advisable because it’s a much more personal medium than text or email.

Consider Additional Internal Communication

If you manage a small business or work at a company where all of your employees interact with each other, you may want to send out a company-wide message. Within this announcement, you can list out the steps the company is taking to protect team members and customers alike. Again, confidentiality is important, so avoid naming specific employees.

Also, lean on professionals like local healthcare providers and the CDC. If your staff asks you questions, avoid speculating or spreading incorrect or outdated information. Instead, point them to the CDC or other expert resources to find answers to personal, health-related questions.    

Prioritize Workplace Sanitization

There is a lot of information going around related to how long the COVID-19 virus can live on different surfaces. Some people say you should leave your mail untouched for 3 days to kill the virus, while others report that RNA material was found on the Diamond Princess cruise ship 17 days after the ship was vacated. 

Since there is uncertainty about the life of the virus on surfaces, you should overcompensate for cleanliness in your workplace. This practice is especially important after an employee tests positive for COVID-19. 

Your employees are going to be on high alert and stressed about their safety. Consider closing the workplace for a few days and sanitizing the entire space. While you’ll lose some production, it will significantly reduce the risk of infection and can help your employees feel safe coming to work again.   

Now is a stressful and trying time for everyone. If you’re a small business owner, you need to have a plan in place for responding quickly and compassionately if one of your employees tests positive for the coronavirus. The tips above will give you the foundation needed to manage a quick response and ensure the safety of your entire staff.


Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy,, and StartupCamp.