Contact Tracing, Workplace Investigations, and The Hangover

“Contact tracing” is one of the many goodies 2020 has left in our stocking. Most of the folks reading this post are employment lawyers or Human Resources professionals, so you know what I’m talking about. If one of your employees tests positive for COVID-19, you don your deerstalker and go all Sherlock Holmes in the office to identify and hide away all of that person’s “close contacts.” 

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Given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance that a “close contact” is anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes (cumulative, not all at once) 2 days before onset, “close contact” may quickly come to mean “everyone in the office” or “everyone on the block.”

Contact Tracing or COVID Sleuthing?

Contact tracing, like most of our new 2020 lexicon, denies us a truckload of fun stuff. Take me, for instance: My beloved Wake Forest Demon Deacons were set to host Notre Dame this past Saturday in the Duke’s Mayo Classic (lordy, I love living in the South). (Nota bene: The Duke’s Mayo Classic was supposed to be played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, but does anyone want to guess why that didn’t happen?) 

Anyway, Notre Dame’s athletic director called his Wake counterpart last week with bad news: COVID had snuck its way through the Irish’s pass protection. Ultimately, had the game been played, at least 39 players wouldn’t have made the trip. Of those, 18 were positive, and sleuthing (um, contact tracing) locked up the other 21.

But is contact tracing really that new? Epidemiologists, of course, will scoff and tell you no—it’s central to what they do. Now, that’s all well and good for the ladies and gents in the white coats, but the rest of us don’t get our jollies on treasure hunts seeking the origin of viruses, bacteria, spores, molds, fungi, or any number of other things that are sure to ruin my appetite. 

In employment law and the Human Resources world, though, we should have been well-prepared for contact tracing. Has a nasty rumor ever started circulating at your office that was fixing to create quite a hostile work environment? Something tells me you had to trace that back to its source as best you could. Something also tells me you were stunned at how many people were involved in passing it around.

How Contact Tracing Relates to The Hangover (Spoiler Alert)

Contact tracing shows up in pop culture, too. Anyone who saw The Hangover can recognize contact tracing. Most of you know the plot: A groom, his two best friends, and one oddball soon-to-be brother-in-law head to Vegas for a bachelor party. Chemically aided revelry ensues. The friends and the oddball come to the next morning amid a trashed hotel room, a free-range chicken, an anonymous infant, and a pet tiger. They have one more problem: The groom has vanished.

The rest of the movie is nothing less than zany contact tracing. One of them is missing a tooth. Another has a hospital ER bracelet around his wrist. The contents of their pockets reveal credit card purchases and ATM receipts from another casino and a valet ticket for the vintage Mercedes they drove to town. They give the ticket to the valet, who fetches their car; however, the valet brings a police cruiser instead of the Mercedes. 

A doctor at the hospital leads them to a Vegas wedding chapel, where they learn the excruciating, happy news that one of them was married the night before. Tracking down the bride reunites the lost infant with his mother but leads to their arrest for stealing the police cruiser. 

Their arrest then leads them to their impounded Mercedes, and they discover their next clue locked in the trunk: Mr. Chow, a nude and profane gangster. They return to the hotel, where Mike Tyson has come to reclaim his tiger. Eventually, they find the groom locked on the roof of the hotel as part of a prank that their foggy minds completely forgot.

So what’s the point of all of this? The point is that whether the problem is COVID, harassment, or a celebration gone horribly wrong, people make a ton of connections in a short period of time. In one night, The Hangover crew happened upon a flamboyant gangster, Mr. Chow’s sworn enemies, the Las Vegas P.D., a smarmy wedding chapel operator, Mike Tyson, and Wayne Newton. 

Likewise, one employee with COVID can contact any number of people before he or she learns of the diagnosis. And a harassing e-mail, joke, or poster can fly all over the office before you have a chance to stop it. So, in the spirit of finding silver linings in 2020’s dark cloud, take advantage of the moment to sharpen and improve the investigative skills you use to track down all who may ail you at work.