Q: I have relocated to my rural hometown and am in the running for a business development role at the local chamber of commerce. Upon arriving for my interview with the director, I was surprised to see she was not wearing a mask.

I asked if she would mind wearing a mask. She obliged, although her nose was exposed the entire time. She said since it’s a small office with only one other colleague, they don’t wear masks. Visitors are not required to wear masks, and a lot of people in the community refuse to wear them. She asked how I would manage the obstacle of my masking preference in this environment.

I explained that, based on my training and years of working with international clients, when an individual expresses a tolerance threshold, that needs to become the standard for the group. I thought I was no longer in the running after that answer, but it seems they are still interested in bringing me onboard.

I am not comfortable working maskless indoors. I plan to ask if there is any chance of flexibility, such as letting me work remotely until I’m vaccinated. I’m not desperate for the job. However, it’s attractive to me as a career steppingstone. How do I handle their policy once I am hired?

A: After the employer officially offers you the job, here is what you say: “Thank you for considering me, but I must decline this job out of safety concerns.”

I originally had a more nuanced answer, with a series of if-thens and contingencies and diplomatic scripts for setting boundaries, but what I kept coming back to was this single-path logic chart terminating in a big flashing “nope”:

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You don’t need this job to get by.

This employer will never have your back.

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no such thing as eliminating risk of exposure in the United States. We improve our odds by wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining distance — not just for our safety, but ideally to avoid harming others. We hope others are equally conscientious. But we’re still just playing the odds against an often hostile house.

This employer has already showed you its hand. Aside from a half-[hearted] attempt to humor you during the interview, it’s clear that once you’re onboard, your colleagues will not do more than the bare minimum — and probably less. And if a conflict arises with an unmasked visitor, whose side do you think your employer will take? (Ask the former Trader Joe’s employee who claims he was fired for petitioning the CEO to let stores enforce mask mandates for customers.)

What I’m saying is, you’ll be battling stiff odds every day in this job. The best-case potential payoff is a career boost; the worst-case potential loss, short of death, is lifelong debilitating health problems. To me, that looks like a sucker bet.

Just as there’s no shame in taking a good-for-now job to keep yourself fed and sheltered, there’s no shame in prioritizing safety over career goals for now. This is a year for survival, not achievement.

But I can’t know the pressures you face or how much this opportunity could mean to you. Maybe they’ll agree, in writing, to let you telework. Maybe your mask-averse little community will continue to defy the odds (until it doesn’t, as in Du Quoin, Illinois). Maybe, after deep thought and research on long-haul COVID syndrome and infection trends in your area, you’ll decide to go all in and play whatever hand you’re dealt.

Just be realistic about what you’re facing; don’t bluff your way in hoping you can still change minds or influence behavior in people who aren’t persuaded by a half-million deaths nationwide.

But I hope that, rather than risk becoming a victim or a vector, you’ll take the safer bet that’s available to you. Cash in those privilege chips, sit this hand out, and you might help even the odds for those who don’t have a choice about staying at the table.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)