Vaccines: How to Balance Safety and Employee Choice

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Feb 8, 2022
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Our country’s attempts at combating Covid have been debated, politicized, demonized, and reframed as moral challenges. Companies that are only concerned with keeping their people safe are often caught between opposing viewpoints. 

Unless your company is drawing a firm line in the sand, it can be challenging for HR teams and corporate leaders to build a meaningful path forward. The question is how to balance Covid rules and regulations with employee choice and provide a safe work environment for all.

Fortunately, companies looking for the right path forward for their people and circumstances have several options. Finding a solution that gives people the freedom to choose, followed by effective communication and reasonable enforcement, will help leaders move into the next phase of recovery.

Choosing the Right Path

It is becoming increasingly clear that a “Covid-zero” future is not in the books, as much as we may want it. Companies that were hoping to wait for herd immunity may not have that luxury. After two years of the pandemic, it’s clear that leadership has to choose a path. Fortunately, companies have several options:

  • Require full vaccination. Private companies have the right to tell their people “no jab, no job,” although leaders may want to consider carefully before proceeding. This path generally requires digital Covid passports or vaccination cards as a standard practice. It’s also worth establishing how you will accommodate any religious, ADA, or medical exemptions. 
  • Require vaccination or weekly test for infection. This provides a pathway to people who are not vaccinated. Companies should be clear on whether they or their employees are paying for the tests. If the company decides to provide tests, that creates an entirely new logistical channel to manage.
  • Work fully remote with neither vaccination nor test requirements. Continuing what employers have done since the start of the pandemic seems easy on paper, but it will become more challenging not to have a policy as more businesses open. As the business world shifts back to in-person, the vaccination status of individuals may begin to reflect on the company as your people visit clients or meet for coffee.
  • No requirements, open the doors. The recent Supreme Court ruling may have slowed a national mandate, but companies should still proceed with caution. The threat of a government fine might be gone, but potential liabilities still include civil action, healthcare costs, and employer brand impacted by employee injury and negative publicity.

Beyond the decision around vaccination requirements, employers can implement additional workplace safety measures to promote health and safety. Even full and boosted vaccination does not provide absolute protection from Covid. Thoughtful office policies addressing sanitation, social distancing, and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) can reduce workplace exposure risks. 

Keeping Lines of Communication Open

Whichever option(s) leaders choose, the next vital step is open, clear communication with your people. We have seen companies communicating their rules and regulations in a variety of ways, with some more effective than others.

To begin, employers should create a page on the company intranet, a private social network, or a Slack channel that clearly and specifically outlines the rules, guidelines, and benefits. One effective strategy is creating an employee advocate who can answer questions and bring concerns to management. Leverage HR and senior leadership to share news and updates in an open and honest format.

HR teams and corporate leaders should also consider how to message the company’s mitigation strategies outside of the organization. This is especially important for companies that occasionally host non-employee visitors, so all can know and follow the regulations.

It’s important to communicate all options to employees and support each choice you offer, so your people don’t feel as though the company is flatly dictating terms. Building trust between employees and management requires transparency, so explain the requirement burdens on the company and how leaders arrived at their decision. 

Working With Employees on Monitoring and Enforcing the Rules

Unless your company is willing to roll the dice on possible liabilities, lost time to illness, and public stigma, you will most likely adopt some level of enhanced workplace health and safety protocols for visiting the office. 

As the workplace reopens, working with employees on monitoring and enforcement will become a meaningful element of office life, and has to be handled with great care. Our impulse may be to create extraordinary regulations for Covid, but in practice, we should handle noncompliance with masks and vaccines as we would any other workplace safety issue.

For example, a casual, easygoing reminder from those around the employee is generally all it takes to help ensure people are following the rules. Most unmasked moments are simply slips or forgetting to remask.

A more serious discussion will be necessary if employees frequently and blatantly violate the rules, of course. In these conversations, it’s important not to simply fall back on the rule book as its own justification. Acknowledge employee concerns, find common ground, and then remind them of their responsibility to their co-workers and the community.

Providing the same options to everyone for testing, masking, remote work, and visiting offices will continue to build trust. I have heard horror stories of companies that tie rule compliance or working from home to seniority or performance.

At the end of the day, treating everyone equally and with respect is the only fair path forward.

As we watch for the pandemic to evolve to an endemic status, the ongoing focus of workplace safety requires a permanent shift in thinking. Asking everybody to work together and embrace the necessary steps to prioritize health and safety while working together to achieve company goals and success is more than just a compelling argument, it’s a central element of culture and maintaining a great employee experience.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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