update: my coworker is a Covid denier

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker was a Covid denier and was monopolizing group calls with rants about it? Here’s the update.

A few days after I wrote in, I was on the call and when my coworker started off on covid again, I was surprised to hear another coworker pipe up with questions for him. It wasn’t quite as diplomatic as your suggestions, but she was very calm and respectful when she started asking things like “why do you feel that way?” (when he said covid wasn’t as bad as people think) and “where are you seeing those numbers?” (when he said that it hasn’t killed almost anyone). So I piped up a bit as well, and sent links in the group chat to the CDC’s data and to a news article about our local hospital with doctors pleading for help and PPE. At one point, she explicitly brought me into the conversation by literally asking, “isn’t your husband a doctor? What is he seeing?” So I told them what I knew. It became kind of a lively debate, although I don’t think we changed his mind. Towards the end, he dug his heels in so I said I was dropping off the call, and that “I hope it’s as small a deal as you say it is” – not my best move but I left before I let my anger take over, so I’m calling that a win.

A few days later, our managers sent out new “ground rules” for this group chat that basically amounted to: 1. A hard ban on talking about politics or religion. 2. Be sensitive to everyone who is affected by covid and other current events. 3. Don’t be a doofus. The conversation stalled for a while, since chat often used to drift into history and political theory with a side of current events. But eventually they’ve picked back up, and we mostly make small talk about what we’re doing to keep busy outside, TV/movies/books, etc. I’ve also gotten to know a few more people, so I join the call on occasion, but I also try to ping people individually to chat so I’m not dependent on the one phone call.

You did ask where my manager was in all of this – there are two people who manage us, and I’m unsure if either had joined the call on the days where the conversation took the nose dive, so I don’t know that they heard it happen. They each join the call on occasion, and also sometimes join and half-listen but continue to work. Also, covid had come up in passing before this, but the conversation hadn’t deepened (and it wasn’t brought up repeatedly) until the week I wrote to you, when it was all he could talk about. I think your advice to speak to my manager was spot on, and I’m unsure why I didn’t think to do that initially. Both managers were very supportive after the conversation came up – I pinged them both after they sent out the new ground rules to apologize for my role in escalating the discussion, and both were very clear that I didn’t do anything wrong.

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. Dasein9*

    Oh, well done! You can’t make people believe in truth, but you can make sure they don’t use your meeting/gathering as a platform to spread untruth.

    1. BubbleTea*

      I used to know a person who was both trans and a very specialist scientist (I don’t recall the precise science she was doing), and she used to engage with transphobes who were abusing science to spread bigotry, calmly presenting them with facts and data to contradict their inaccuracies. She told us that her target audience when doing this wasn’t the bigot who wanted to deny her basic rights, they were too far gone, but the onlookers who might have been swayed by the shoddy science arguments and were still open to learning something if facts were offered instead.

      1. whingedrinking*

        Agreed; it’s for the lurkers. In a lot of issues, you’ll find people who are hardcore true believers, but on a lot of issues you’d be surprised how many people are simply misled.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        Ooh, good for her! She is brave and awesome and going above and beyond by continuing to engage with people who hate her.

      3. Dasein9*

        Yes indeed. I have had direct experience of people who lurked on threads learning from the exchange.

        1. Quinalla*

          Same or “lurkers” in conversations, been approached after to either be thanked or with genuine questions and I’m guessing many others who didn’t say anything. A handful of times, someone has approached me years later to say something I said really changed their perspective or started them down a different path. I know I have learned from lurking myself and had some things start me on a path like that as well where I really changed.

      4. Lavender Menace*

        Yes, exactly this. I’m a queer woman of color and I do the same thing – it’s not for the arguers, it’s for the lurkers. On a few occasions I have had some curious lurkers reach out to ask me more questions or to just say thanks for presenting a different perspective.

        1. Idril Celebrindal*

          I want to say thank you for doing this. I credit my lurking and listening to people who do this for much of what I have learned about inequality and privilege and social justice over the years. As a probably straight white woman from a pretty sheltered background, there is a lot I didn’t grapple with growing up that I have learned about through lurking and seeing the “received wisdom” challenged with facts and experience and truth. I have seen some of your conversations on this forum and read so many others, and it has meant so much to me.

          And it’s not just learning about social justice, because those same conversations helped me see the importance of believing in my own experience, owning my own value, and standing tall as myself, and that I deserve to get out of a toxic workplace and abusive marriage, which are messages I never heard anywhere else.

          I know it takes a lot of energy to do that, but I know I will be forever grateful to all the people who stand up to bigotry and misinformation and have given me a lifeline I didn’t know I needed.

          1. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

            Yes, yes yes! I have learned SO MUCH just from lurking and listening. And it’s empowered me to step up when I see an opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained in hopes of helping other lurkers learn.
            I appreciate the labor each and every person undertakes when they do the educational work.

        2. PeanutButter*

          Also from a lurker who has learned quite a bit reading arguments online, and subsequently becoming less of a crappy person – thank you.

      5. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        This person is awesome! Yes, in an argument you’re not going to change your “opponent”‘s POV but the onlookers, who haven’t yet thought the stuff through, will remember the calm stat supplier and the ranter and they’ll have little trouble deciding who has logic on their side.

  2. Ginger*

    Off topic but where can one work where coworkers go into tangents about history and political theory? Asking for a friend.

    OP – I am finding many covid deniers are using denial as a way to manage their fear and/or loss of control. It’s not ok and your coworker is bonkers but it helps me dislike folks less when I think about it from that lens.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Good point. Denial and bravado are both well-known (though ineffective) reactions to fear.

    2. Minnie Mouse*

      Nailed it. One of my denier co-workers (almost all of my coworkers and bosses are deniers) is simulataneously terrified of getting COVID and also spouting off about how it’s getting “weaker” and the hospitals were never overloaded. I have been told their sources are Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh so take that as you will.

    3. Lovecraft Beauty*

      Interestingly, tech in academia is a good place to find autodidacts with varied interests, in my experience!

      1. Eliza*

        Publishing, too. I work with companies that translate media into English and topics I’ve either learned about or made use of my prior knowledge of in the course of my work include railway engineering, anaesthesiology, pastry cooking, and foreign LGBT community slang. When you work with material on a potentially limitless variety of topics and have to make sure that the author’s intent is conveyed correctly across a language gap, esoteric general knowledge is a big asset.

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      To your second paragraph, agreed.
      My brother’s buddy in a hobby group (go to each other’s houses, generally friends) is a denier.
      His mom got COVID. His mom died.
      He says it wasn’t COVID.
      I’d say he dug his heels about 6 feet deep and that’s still not enough.

      1. Pennyworth*

        There have been ICU nurses reporting that they have had Covid patients denying to their last breath that it exists and convinced that the doctors and nurses are lying to them.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Several friends of mine working in the NHS have stories of people blaming the hospital staff for ‘injecting us with toxins’ because they believe nothing was wrong with them before they ended up in the ICU.

          You know, because you go to the ICU when you’re totally healthy! It’s like a spa! So if you get sick there it’s the doctors fault. /s

    5. Batty Twerp*

      Perceived loss of control has been identified (by far smarter people than me) as an indicator of why folks subscribe to conspiracy theories. And also why many of them don’t subscribe to ALL conspiracy theories.
      It can also help explain the rise and/or prevalence of extreme right- and left-wing views. The extremes are fed by the perceived loss of control by the individual.

    6. Well...*

      Academia for sure! As someone who my whole life has been told I like arguing to an annoying degree, even I get exhausted by it.

    7. Code Monkey the SQL*

      YupYup. I have at least 1 friend who simultaneously is strictly isolating due to high-risk family, claiming she already got it and “it wasn’t any worse than the bronchitis I get every year”, and that the vaccine is far too risky for her to ever get it because the listed side effects include “headache”.

      It takes a lot of energy to acknowledge just how bad things are right now. Some people are preferring to write off the risk, just so they can feel “normal”, even though that’s dangerous AF.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Ye gods. I’ve got an autoimmune disease and know the vaccine is going to make me sick for at least a couple of days. I’m still going to get it.

    8. JM60*

      What’s ironic is that many of these people are relinquishing what they can control” Social distancing and mask wearing. It hurts my head when I hear anti-maskers say they won’t “give in to fear.” To me, it’s like driving: I’m not consumed with fear whenever I get into a car, but I am going to take reasonable precautions (wear seatbelt, use reasonable speed, etc) to lower my odds of dying in a crash.

  3. Roxie Hart*

    I’m curious about how the coworker responded when Trump got COVID and how COVID didn’t disappear after the election.

    1. Artemesia*

      Oh but it HAS disappeared. I read that today in a twitter thread. Facts and even experience make no difference as note the example above where the guy’s mother DIED of COVID but he is still a denier.

      1. chewingle*

        I’ve seen this, as well. The church my sister’s in-laws attend had a huge outbreak, but they’re still all deniers (the whole church). Some people who have died from it have remained deniers to the end. Fear is a hell of a drug.

        1. CupcakeCounter*

          I live in a very conservative area with thousands of “Faith over Fear” and “Prayer is the cure for COVID” so I was shocked when my parents told me that their church had gone completely virtual both in the spring as well as several weeks back when things started getting bad in our area again. They have already announced they will not be getting back together in person until after the new year. According to my parents a few people are complaining and threatening to leave the church because of no Christmas Eve services. When I mentioned I was shocked by this since so many churches are claiming exemption or refusing to close my mom told me that the pastors wife is an ER nurse so there is a lot of common sense at the top.
          My uncles are also both pastors and they are calling the deniers complete and utter morons. The southern baptist pastor even said something along the lines of “for a bunch of good ol Christians they seems to have never read the Bible – lots of plagues in there and it wasn’t the baptists that were spared”.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Oh my goodness, I so want to ask but I’m not allowed to bring it up in the group chat anymore! And I do chat individually with this guy on occasion but I’m not brave enough to ask!

      1. Lavender Menace*

        Might it be less threatening if you ask it in a way that indicates you genuinely want to know the answer to the question? I mean, I would be curious to hear what he thinks – not in an effort to call him out or get him to admit he’s wrong, but simply because I’m really interested in how one logics through that. (I’m also a psychologist, though, so there’s that.)

        1. misspiggy*

          I have a feeling that will upset him too much and he’ll just deflect. If you ask why someone believes something, you’re saying it’s possible for that thing not to be true. If someone needs to believe Covid is not a risk, they are probably a pretty fragile person.

  4. Gazebo Slayer*

    I’m really disappointed in your company for acting like your coworker’s active, dangerous denial of easily verifiable facts is just another opinion and should be treated with neutrality. People like your coworker have gotten hundreds of thousands of people killed through their refusal to engage with reality and lack of the slightest regard for the safety of other people.

    Someone on the original thread talked about how there are some fringe/conspiracy beliefs that might be treated like a quirk and some that are truly dangerous. This is one of the latter. As I stated there, this is less like speculating about the JFK assassination and more like Holocaust denial.

    Your company should have sent out actual information on COVID, specifically called out the malicious misinformation he was spreading as false, and fired him. A COVID denier is bound to have poor judgment in other ways as well, and is probably not an ethical person in other ways either. Millions of people are unemployed. One of them surely deserves this guy’s job more than he does, and would be better at it.

    It’s long past time for the extremist elements that are trying to take over our society to get what they’ve earned: being fired and ostracized. They are a cancer that will just keep spreading unless it is excised.

    1. 2020storm*

      Oh gosh, I sortof agree with you, but “It’s long past time for the extremist elements that are trying to take over our society to get what they’ve earned: being fired and ostracized.” really made me laugh…that’s a pretty extremist statement!

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        Perhaps, but this is a problem that I don’t think we can solve through civility, dialogue, or “agreeing to disagree.” The far right has shifted the Overton window into dangerous territory, and we need to shift it back. The way to do that is by making harmful and dangerous viewpoints completely socially unacceptable.

        1. Just throwing that out there...?*

          Thanks you for jumping in with the rebuttals, I expected to be yelling into the void.. back to writing postcards to Georgia voters!

        2. JO*

          Look, I have tried making a few different posts clarifying and expanding everything I have said but for some reason Allison is blocking them even though I have linked citations straight from government websites (fake news I guess…)I am just going to say that truth objectively exists outside of what you want to be true or what you think should be true.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            What, no. All your posts contained links, and all posts containing links go through moderation first. I am on vacation, so there’s a slight delay in releasing them. No one is being blocked in this conversation.

            However, this is not the place to debate politics and so I’ve now nuked the whole thread as it’s an off-topic, political derail.

    2. Groove Bat*

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for stating so eloquently what I came to this very comment section to say. I am furious at people who treat this horrible disease like it’s just a difference of opinion and tread lightly so as to not “offend” anyone. We have a duty and obligation to shut down the ignorant, uninformed rants of Covid deniers. I don’t care if they’re scared or whatever the reasons are; we are long past the point where they deserve our politeness or respect.

      And yes, I am extra salty about this because my 88-year-old dad just tested positive and I am worried sick about him. He is an a part of the country where the virus was under control…until it wasn’t, largely because of denial, selfishness, and political extremism.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        I’m really sorry about your dad, Groove Bat, and I hope he is OK.

        I don’t care about their reasons either. I don’t care about offending them either. In fact, that’s a plus. They don’t deserve a shred of respect. They’re bad people and they should feel bad.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          No virus I studied in the lab ever cared about my opinions of it (or logic for that matter. Biology be weird).

          1. Paperwhite*

            Honestly. I’ve seen people spend thousands of words online justifying why they must do this or that or the other thing, and I just want to say, “the virus does not care about your justifications. It only cares about infecting hosts.” As much as a little bundle of protein and genes can be said to care about anything, really.

    3. LTL*

      Do you think the far right will disappear if you start ostracizing them? Silence won’t stop people from voting. (It won’t stop them from spreading their beliefs either- it’ll promote insular communities of like-minded people which has done so little to stop conspiratorial thinking in the US).

      The company should be more proactive in counteracting the misinformation. They shouldn’t fire the guy unless they see evidence of other issues.

  5. Shirley Keeldar*

    I’m glad things are more comfortable for the OP right now, but I do think “no politics on the group chat” was kind of a weaselly way out of this. “No denying basic scientific facts on the group chat” would have been a better rule. It dignifies this dangerous absurdity to label it “politics.” Politics is something that rational people can disagree about. “A virus kills people” is not a subject about which there are two valid points of view.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*


      We all need to stop legitimizing and normalizing this garbage, which is what language like labeling it “politics” does. Reality exists. Alternative facts are lies.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree in theory, but “no politics on the group chat” is actually a good rule for work so I can’t blame them too much for that. Because this guy was likely to start in with other, non-Covid BS otherwise.

    3. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Agreed. I think “no politics on work chat” is a valid rule, but that should mean things like “no conversations about what would be the best income tax scheme” not “no conversations about whether or not a virus is causing millions of people to be terribly sick.”

    4. LTL*

      “No denying basic scientific facts on the group chat” is passive aggressive (I know its TRUE but that doesn’t make it not passive aggressive). A straightforward “no covid denial” would be better if that’s what you’re really trying to say (along with sources and information about covid to counteract misinformation, as suggested above).

  6. Bostonian*

    This is so unrelated to the original question, but I find it odd that the managers log onto these optional social meetings and then tune out to do other work. The whole point of the meeting is to connect with each other; if you’re too busy with other work, then don’t join!

    1. IL JimP*

      as a manager, I’m often required to join meetings like this without regard to if I have time or not to have a “leadership presence” lol

    2. anonymous1*

      I’d probably join and also work because I’d think of it akin to having the friendly chatter of an office while you’re working. When you hear something that you’re interested in, you can chime in naturally. Otherwise, you can do some work. Sometimes someone mentions something work related in passing and you get a useful tidbit. If you’re a manager, it might be nice just to hear your team interact with one another so you can learn about how they communicate or interests. I’m a pretty big fan of stuff like this or being tossed onto a meeting as option so I can multitask but still get a gist of something that might be going on that adds context to other things.

  7. Vichyssuave*

    I’m curious what prompted the response from the company to be honest. Was it that someone finally felt comfortable flagging his behavior to higher ups once they saw a couple of people engaging in debate, or perhaps was he (or someone who felt similar) the complainer, since this behavior had previously gone on unchecked when only he was ranting.

    I’d like to think it was the former, but as an essential worker who is forced to work with a LOT of covid deniers/minimizers, I’m pretty jaded about the issue at this point.

    Yes, our org does its best to keep things safe and follow the law, but we had to have an entire PowerPoint about acceptable mask materials and usage recently, as people had taken to wearing bejeweled mesh masks to follow the bare minimum letter of the law, as an example of what I’m working with.

    1. ATM*

      I was at the store and saw a lady wearing a belly dancing veil. It was blue, mesh, and beaded, and I’m still so pissed that the store didn’t kick her out. :(

      (I saw her at the check out)

      1. Artemesia*

        I live in Chicago where compliance is pretty good and people do wear masks in stores — not so much on the sidewalk — in my neighborhood it is about 50-50 BUT my local grocery has a couple of staff who seem to have no job but to walk around by the check outs with their nose hanging out breathing on everyone. Like everywhere else cases have shot up here and I would really like to avoid this until I can get a vaccine which won’t be till I am sure April or May at best.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Worse, I see people who wear their masks on their chins, leaving both mouth and nose exposed.

          I just sort of roll my eyes at that. But if I actually see someone wearing a spite mask, I might end up confronting them.

          1. The Rural Juror*

            I’ve seen several people doing this in the grocery store. They have to pass the associate at the entrance who hands them a cart (and would ask them to put their mask on), but as soon as they’re in the store they pull it down below their mask or down to their chin. I guess they think they’re skirting the system…

            It’s disheartening. And you’re right, it’s a little spiteful…and completely inconsiderate! We need some of Artemesia’s local grocers to come down here and give them a talking to!

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              Weirdly, a lot of the Kilroys and chin-warmer folks I see are retail and food service workers themselves.

        2. ATM*

          I saw a picture that I can’t post here, but it compared someone wearing their mask with their nose out to wearing underwear but leaving their genitals out, and now that’s all I can think of whenever I see that tbh. It’s the only thing that makes it manageable rather than rage-inducing. (I mean, it’s still rage inducing, but manageably.)

          1. Self Employed*

            I see teenagers skateboarding at City Hall wearing pre-pandemic Halloween masks that have openings for the nose and mouth and I presume those are spite masks too.

            The desk clerk at my mid-rise apartment building habitually wore her mask under her nose and would roll her eyes if I said “Hey, I think your mask slipped!” I complained to the manager (who was working at home) and nothing changed. I complained privately to County Public Health… and he assumed it must be me, so his lawyer sent me a letter offering to break my lease if I’m so unhappy there. They just can’t have tenants complaining to government agencies to try to “influence their business decisions”… so it’s a BUSINESS DECISION to let your staff act like Coronavirus Mary?

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              Sounds like he’s threatening retaliation for your complaint to the government. I’d forward a copy of that lawyer’s letter to County Public Health.

        3. Lizzo*

          Hi “neighbor”. :-D Not sure if this is useful, but the Trader Joe’s on Lincoln has 100% mask compliance among staff and customers. I’ve been shopping there since the beginning with occasional trips to other stores at off-peak hours, and it’s been the most comfortable grocery-getting experience of all the places I’ve been.

          Also, do you need anything?

      2. Cat Tree*

        I agree that I wish something could be done about these dangerous people, but I understand why poorly paid, overworked, stressed out grocery store workers don’t want to take on those battles. I don’t really know what the solution is.

        1. ATM*

          Yeah, tbh that was the only reason I didn’t point them out to a store person – they were already on their way out, and I didn’t want to delay that.

          NGL I have a solution. It’s not a great solution, but it’s the dream solution that makes me giggle: take all the bouncers that are out of work because the bars are closed and hire them to bounce shops. If people decide that their right to go maskless is worth going against a bouncer, that’s their prerogative.

          I am, admittedly, quite biased, as I’m surrounded by a lot of vulnerable people including one who has CF.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Yeah, friends I’ve got working retail at the moment have been spit at, coughed on, blown raspberries at (nice shower of spit) etc when telling people it’s either masks or you stay outside and we bring the shopping to you.

          There’s some supermarkets I won’t use in the uk because they are just letting customers get away with this behaviour.

  8. Artemesia*

    I have found that the most effective technique for dealing with a policy you don’t like that someone is trying to roll in a meeting or stopping a behavior you don’t like is to have 2 or 3 people tossing the ball. I described recently a meeting where I defeated a terrible policy that important people were planning to push through, by getting together with 3 others and coming up with a plan to build on the first bit of purchase we could get in the meeting. So when Ida Rose — the very revered elder statesman in the group asked a question about the policy that was just mildly negative one of our team said ‘I think Ida Rose has made a very interesting point, have we considered ….’ and then I said ‘I hadn’t thought of this but Ida Rose’s question also suggests . . . and I am concerned about its effect on Y’ and then our third team member picked up the ball and ran a bit further and pretty soon, it turned out there were several people opposed to the policy who were previously cowed by the VIPs pushing it — and by the end of the meeting that was the end of it. Thanks to Ida Rose’s brilliant insight — she was beaming. She had no idea we had come to the meeting loaded for bear.

    So when the OP had someone else raise the issue, she could pick it up and soon you have a game of catch going and the person who was aghast at the rants found they were not alone.

  9. Zoomed out*

    I agree politics and religion should probably not be discussed at work. But Covid is a global public health emergency. Just because some people have chosen to politicize it, doesn’t mean you can’t bring it up at work. So I think your employer somewhat missed the point here.

    1. allathian*

      Sort of, by trying to mask COVID denial as a political issue. It should be just as unacceptable to be an outspoken COVID denier at work as it is to express transphobic or homophobic opinions at work.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Nailed it.

        Saying X disease is deadly and here’s how to protect yourself and others from it isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.

        Saying X disease maybe isn’t that bad but you’re still going to take the precautions is an opinion and one that doesn’t harm.

        Saying X disease only affects the ‘weak’ so nobody else should take precautions because only the healthy matter is an opinion and an actively hateful one (eugenics).

        You can say your favourite colour is green at work. You can’t say that an entire group of people are less deserving of life than you at work. Big difference.

  10. boop the first*

    My favorite person in the world is constantly looped into the denier crowd, and the ufo crowd, and the conspiracy crowd and it hurts. I cope with it by ensuring that I never ever start a conversation about these topics, because I know they are a genuinely good person and would never intentionally hurt anyone.

    However, if they start the convo, it ruins my whole day. My whole week. These people talk so much about fearmongering, but I’m just over here at home, doing my life’s work and cuddling my cat. Meanwhile, THEY’re lashing out, trying to fill me with fear and anger towards poor nurses and teachers and clueless politicians or WHATEVER. Who is afraid, exactly? Okay, so you’re “healthy” and invincible. Everyone is going to school like you wanted, everyone is going to work like you wanted, you can still order take out and shop in stores…. maybe calm the hell down then and let me alone? Grrr.

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