SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like him to answer? Submit it here.
My office announced we will not be returning to work for the foreseeable future. My apartment isn’t really equipped to help me successfully work from home. Can I expense items (a new monitor, a desk, etc.) to make this easier?
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: This is a great question. Since March, many employees (including me) have sought to replicate their office setup at home.
Simply put, reimbursements for at-home office supplies depend on where you live. In Illinois, California and Massachusetts, for example, reimbursement for business expenses is required.
However, if your state does not require your employer to reimburse your business expenses, it never hurts to respectfully ask about your options. Before doing so, first check with HR to learn if your organization has any relevant, or perhaps updated, policies.
Since the coronavirus spread around the world and forced employees to work from home, some employers have updated their policies to allow these types of business expenses—whether for noise-canceling headphones or another computer monitor—even if they are not required to. Check your employer’s policy to determine if your expenses can be reimbursed.
Your HR team is likely working hard to get employees the equipment they need to work from home productively. So, before asking, make saying yes easier by outlining a list of what you need, the estimated costs and how these resources enable your best work. This will help your employer quickly determine what can be covered, if anything. If it can’t reimburse you for purchasing your own equipment, your organization could offer up company equipment.
Lastly, if your employer does not offer reimbursement for home-office equipment, you could consider consulting an accountant on how to claim deductions for these expenses when it comes time to file your income taxes.
I hope you can get what you need to make working from home work for you.
Question: My office has been back to work for a while now. For the most part, everyone wears masks and is respectful of social distancing guidelines. However, my boss frequently comes to my desk and stands very close to me, sometimes without a mask. How do I respectfully ask my boss to keep a safe distance?
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I’m sorry to hear you feel uncomfortable at work. So many employers are working around the clock to keep their workplaces and people safe. A large part of that means precautions are taken and guidance is followed. And, I’m happy to report, 86 percent of organizations are implementing or considering the required use of personal protective equipment.
Does your workplace have a mask policy? While there is no federal mandate, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends all workers wear face coverings in the workplace. Additionally, masks are also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some states have laws requiring masks. Depending on where you live, masks may, in fact, be required at work.
I’m no public-health expert, but I do know mask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s the safe thing and the smart thing to do.
That said, you have a right to speak up if your workplace isn’t following suggested guidelines. While it’s unlikely that your boss is disregarding those guidelines intentionally, he or she should respect your boundaries and, more importantly, your safety.
If you feel comfortable doing so, respectfully ask your boss to wear a mask and social distance when near you. You could even keep disposable masks at your desk for people to use if they forget their own. If they still don’t wear a mask and the issue persists, communicate your discomfort to your HR team, who might be able to reiterate to your boss the need for masks in the workplace.
Protecting the safety and well-being of employees is the top priority for HR. While it is ultimately up to the employer to require face masks and enforce rules to keep the worksite safe, it’s worth having a conversation about office health and safety—not just for you and your colleagues, but for your families and communities, as well.