Dealing with Colds and the Flu at Work

Flu season is upon us. With it comes an added level of etiquette either when you have a cold or flu or are interacting with others who exhibit the symptoms.

The strong suggestion from management and staff at The Emily Post Institute is to stay home if you’ve got a bad cold or the flu. Our business will be much better off with the afflicted person home and recuperating as opposed to being at work and infecting others. Whatever the consensus at your workplace, if you do go to work with cold or flu symptoms, take precautions to avoid infecting your colleagues or visitors to your workplace. Cover up any sneezes or coughs – in a tissue or the crook of your elbow. Disinfect your work area and, if you have one, your office telephone—both the handset and the dial pad. Same goes for your keyboard and mouse. Finally, if there is one time when it is okay not to offer to shake a person’s hand, this is it. A simple explanation will suffice, “Please excuse me, I have a cold and don’t want to give it to you.” The person greeting you will appreciate your honesty and consideration.


If, on the other hand, you’re the person faced with a colleague who exhibits cold or flu symptoms, take precautions to avoid contact that could transmit the cold or flu to you. Should you shake hands with a person who has a cold or the flu? At a seminar I gave at a hospital a nurse offered a great piece of advice: Keep your hands below your shoulders when you’re in the same area or in contact with a person with a cold or the flu. It makes sense. These germs, she explained, get into you through your mouth, nose, eyes or ears. If you avoid touching those areas by keeping your hands below your shoulders, you reduce the risk of introducing the germs into your body. Of course, washing your hands every now and then, especially at a public event or a meet-and-greet, helps reduce the risk of infection to you.


What do you do when a person who has just sneezed or who exhibits the symptoms of a cold or flu greets you with a hand outstretched to shake hands? If you choose not to shake hands, it creates a difficult situation, leaving you fumbling for a polite reason. “I’m sorry not to shake your hand but you have a cold, and I don’t want to get it,” is not going to start the interaction off on a positive note. Better, although more difficult, is to go ahead and shake hands and then remember the nurse’s advice: Keep your hands below your shoulders. Then, after a few minutes of conversation, you can excuse yourself to the restroom and wash your hands.


If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.


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