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HIV/AIDS: Don't Deny That It's Happening; Confidentiality Is The Key

HIV/AIDS:  Don't Deny That It's Happening; Confidentiality Is The Key


EDITOR’S NOTE: These 2 items appeared in the Sunday Times Business Times survey on HIV/AIDS. The articles are particularly pertinent for those HR Professionals who want to be taken seriously as business partners. As a business partner and a leader in your own right you are duty bound to play both a financial risk management, and a social responsibility role for the management of HIV/AIDS in the workplace.


# Don't deny that it's happening!!


Call to action: Dr Danisa Baloyi, executive director of the National Black Business Caucus, says HIV/Aids should be on every board of directors' agenda.

Companies are failing to tackle HIV/Aids because of a lethal combination of denial and a lack of knowledge and understanding, says Dr Danisa Baloyi, executive director of the National Black Business Caucus. Baloyi says prominent South Africans are dying of HIV/Aids but the stigma surrounding the epidemic means that many people continue to "suffer and die in silence".

People are afraid to speak out about Aids because of the stigma attached to the disease, she says, adding that the situation is worse for women. She says: "If more and more people speak about the disease, it will bring comfort to the infected and the affected." Baloyi says too many businesses are not implementing HIV/Aids programmes because they believe it's "happening next door".

Despite directors being aware of rising absenteeism rates caused by HIV/Aids, everyone still wants to pretend it is not happening. Baloyi, who sits on the Sabcoha board, says directors should be talking about the risks of HIV/Aids in every board meeting in the same way that financial or operational risks are discussed.

Another myth that needs to be broken down is the assumption that Aids is only associated with poor people. The attitude that "I'm a director; this thing can't touch me" needs to be tackled head-on by the business community, Baloyi says.

Peer educators and "buddy groups" are crucial as people will only disclose their HIV status if they are confident they will get support, she notes. Many HIV-positive South Africans continue to suffer from loneliness and depression as they think they are the only ones struggling with HIV.

Meanwhile, the reality is that there is probably a neighbour or colleague struggling with the same issues. Baloyi called on business to take a more vocal and active role in widening the discussion on HIV/Aids.

Too many discussions and debates about HIV/Aids focus on blaming the government or arguing over statistics instead of making sure something actually gets done, she says. Apart from the problem of denial, Baloyi says many companies lack basic knowledge about HIV/Aids, including how long HIV usually takes to develop into full-blown Aids. Baloyi says employers need to understand that the trauma of finding out one's HIV status can result in an employee becoming withdrawn and unproductive.

This is why it is so vital for every company to develop an HIV/Aids support programme. Even small companies must, at the very least, have information available about where to go for Aids counselling, testing, treatment and support, Baloyi says.

But the reality is that while many companies have the Labour Relations Act mounted on their walls, the issue of HIV/Aids remains largely invisible. "It's sensitive at the personal level but it's also tragic at the national level," says Baloyi.


# Confidentiality is the key


Legal implications of HIV/Aids in the workplace must be understood by managers, writes David Ball

'An HIV-positive employee who gets TB and inflicts it on other employees could result in the employer being charged'

Confidentiality is an important legal issue for companies implementing HIV/Aids programmes - especially when it comes to voluntary counselling and testing, says Neil Kirby, director of healthcare law at Werksmans Attorneys.

In order for employers to play it safe, they should not have access to personal test results. In addition, they must understand that they cannot force employees to take an HIV test or offer incentives to those who take one. Says Kirby: "Taking an HIV test cannot be a pre-requirement for employment or a requirement during employment."

The upshot is that companies are increasingly outsourcing their HIV/Aids programmes to "one-stop shop" service providers, he says. Companies offering voluntary counselling and testing need to be able to prove that the employer does not have access to the test results. This guards against future accusations of discriminatory behaviour.

One of the service providers is Calibre Clinical Consultations. Its chief executive, Charles Parsons, says a good starting point is to train executives how to deal with HIV/Aids-related matters, as managers are most likely to breach confidentiality.

He says an employee might, for example, tell a manager that he or she is HIV-positive. The manager might not know what to do and then tell another manager, thus breaching confidentiality. Kirby says businesses wanting to protect themselves against legal action should conduct an audit to assess their compliance with all relevant legislation, including the Employment Equity Act and the Department of Labour's HIV/Aids Technical Assistance Guidelines.

The guidelines, an 85-page publication, cover issues such as unfair discrimination, testing, confidentiality and disclosure, employee benefits, and dismissals and grievances. Kirby says all companies are obliged to protect employees' legal rights, regardless of whether the firm is an industrial heavyweight or a small enterprise.

Parsons says there are potentially significant cost implications as well as legal dangers for companies that do not address HIV/Aids in the workplace. For instance, Parsons says, an HIV-positive employee who develops tuberculosis and then inflicts this on other employees could result in the employer being charged with not protecting its employees from risk.

Another example is provided by business expert Clem Sunter, who says a trucking company could face possible legal action should a sick long-distance driver be involved in an accident. To minimise exposure to this kind of risk, Sunter - a board member of the SA Business Coalition on HIV and Aids - urges companies to make HIV/Aids management a strategic issue within their businesses.

Download a copy of the Department of Labour's HIV/Aids Technical Assistance Guidelines

Addressing employee incapacity arising from ill-health is a difficult task for employers when faced with the numerous employment laws facing employees. Not only must employers grapple with the Code of Good Practice on AIDS / HIV in the workplace, but also the associated Code on Disablity and accompanying Technical Assistance Guidelines for HIV/AIDS and Disability.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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