By Rod Robertson
COVID-19 has kept most employees out of the office for a year. Vaccines, however, will make it safe to bring them back, and in the process help restore our economy.
But the big question is, what about the employees who will decide not to get vaccinated for personal reasons? How should employers walk that slippery slope?
First, let’s look at some stark numbers indicating that employees opting against vaccination will indeed be an issue. According to research by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 40% of workers will probably not or definitely not get the vaccine. Twenty-eight percent say they would not get vaccinated if their employer required it – even if that decision meant risking termination.
Just from those numbers alone, think of the chaos and extended disruption that could potentially throw companies and their leaders into. A mass exodus of people quitting or getting fired, and managers scrambling to find competent replacements. Businesses dealing with office unrest as non-vaccinated workers return, and production seriously waning due to a destabilized workforce.
Many employers are balancing respect for people’s right to decide with the dual importance of office safety and a return to normal business functions. It’s a delicate balance. Sixty percent of businesses in the SHRM survey said they will not require the vaccination. But some businesses are encouraging employees to get the vaccine and are even offering incentives; large companies such as McDonald’s and Target are paying employees to get the vaccine. But according to one survey, only 22% of small business owners will make COVID vaccination a requirement.
Fear and uncertainty are big factors driving some employees away from vaccines. In the SHRM survey, employees’ reasons to not get vaccinated include possible side effects (69%); waiting to see if it’s safe and possibly getting the shot or shots later (58%); not trusting COVID-19 vaccines (41%); not knowing if it will work (32%); concerned with having an allergic reaction (27%); and several others.
So what should employers do about this dilemma? It comes down to company leadership and all managers not letting the dissenters disrupt the business. Here are three tips in that regard:
Encourage reluctant employees to look elsewhere for work. If you’re a manager of someone who balks at a vaccine requirement and the person is not a key employee, I would encourage that person to find a new job. I would approve of them looking for a job even during working hours in order for them to move to a work environment they perceive as safer.
If that encouragement does not work, I would set up an internal committee with HR and the individual’s supervisor and review the employee’s concerns. The employee would meet with the internal committee, minutes would be kept, and the employee’s job description would be reviewed by all. If at all possible, the organization would make that employee a remote worker through the end of 2021, or at the point of herd immunity. After one of those time frames, the employee would have to rejoin the workforce in the office.
This time lag would allow the government guidelines to come out. A government proclamation that herd immunity has been reached, along with a confirmation within the company about who has been vaccinated and that sufficient vaccination levels have been reached, should dissipate most fears that those who are not vaccinated have harbored. Thus, a return to work is justifiable.
Avoid legal liability; document everything. Some business owners see vaccinations as essential to full reopening, but others are reluctant to mandate vaccinations, thinking there might be legal liability for firing workers because they won’t get the vaccine.
My answer to that is:
1) Management should go to great lengths to show the reluctant employee that other employees who have been vaccinated will reject their presence. This is why everyone today is working from home – safety. Employees getting vaccinated should appeal to everyone’s sense of company culture. Perhaps incentives are in order – a day or two off with pay or a $300 bonus could suffice.
2) All efforts should be made to reassign the employee to a remote work position, or to have them work in physical spaces that prevent them from endangering other employees. Each step in this process should be documented, and management should have the non-complying employee sign off on each step in this “accommodation process.”
Might there be individual legal liability for a manager if he/she went about coercing a direct report to get a vaccine, through comments or actions? Perceived employee coercion must be avoided at all costs. Every step by management must be made by the book. Many sly employees with checkered pasts or with ill intent are self-appointed lawyers and can be setting the firm up for a shakedown. But this possibility of getting their ticket punched out the door will haunt them when they are seeking their next gig.
Certainly, extensive data on vaccines and how it applies to your particular industry and your employees’ positions within the firm should be disseminated to each employee as a safeguard for both parties.
Don’t waste company time addressing anti-vaccination beliefs and fears. Fears are difficult to overcome. With companies showing they care about employee health by allowing work from home for so long, and vaccinations bringing more health security, management should not spend an inordinate amount of valuable company time calming employees’ fears about the shots or trying to sway their beliefs.
Management instead should set up job evaluations on a monthly basis to give the employee quantitative reviews that will shed light for all parties on the performance or non-performance of the employee. If the employee passes that evaluation, management should then make best efforts to find a new isolated position, and if this is not possible, then the employee, with the company’s blessings, should seek new employment. Some people are just too dug-in in their beliefs, and the company must move on.
Leaders will be in a tough position with employees who refuse to get vaccinated. Those employees are weighing what is best for them; leaders determine what’s best for the company. With vaccinations now available, the ball is in the employee’s court, but leaders must decide when the volleying back and forth will end.