Vaccines at Work: Voluntary or Mandatory?

First, businesses encouraged employees to get vaccinated. Then they tried to incentivize them through payments or other methods. Now, with COVID-19 cases surging, a small but growing collection of organizations are outright requiring vaccinations of employees, customers, or in some cases, both. It’s a decision that, once made, could have repercussions for an organization well beyond the pandemic, experts say.

While there’s no government mandate for citizens, this week multiple government agencies imposed vaccine requirements on their own employees. At the same time, private organizations are also taking the plunge. Multiple investment banks have mandated that all workers must get vaccinated, or at least divulge their vaccination status, before returning to the office. Last week the National Football League told its teams they risk forfeiting games if the majority of their players and staff aren’t vaccinated. Multiple airlines are making pilots get vaccinated, and at least one airline has told prospective job candidates that they won’t get hired unless they get vaccinated.

Plus, more organizations are making customers show proof of vaccination (or a recent negative COVID-19 test) in order to get service. For example, a coalition of more than 500 bars in northern California has vowed to only serve patrons outdoors if they don’t have proof of vaccination. Meanwhile, in Chicago, fans at the upcoming Lollapalooza three-day concert have to show vaccination proof to get in, even though the event is outside. “There is a growing view that companies need to step in where the governments have failed and mandate vaccines to enter office places,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in human resources.

It isn’t a decision that leaders are taking lightly. Many have wanted to impose a mandate; one spring survey indicated that 72% of current and recent CEOs of major companies were open to mandates. However, vaccinations have become a political hot potato, at least in the United States. Customers could balk at being told they need to be vaccinated in order to get service. A mandate risks angering employees, too. In a hot job market, employees who don’t like the policy can have confidence that they can easily find another job.

But the recent increase in COVID cases is scaring some leaders. There were nearly 89,000 new COVID-19 cases in the United States reported on Monday, the highest daily number since March 8. More troubling, the seven-day average of new cases is more than 56,000, a 21% increase from two weeks ago and back to the levels seen in late April. Health officials say the virus’s delta variant is responsible for more than 80% of the new cases, and 97% of newly hospitalized coronavirus patients have not been vaccinated.

Legal rulings have given some leaders more confidence that any mandate they make would stand. Federal judges have allowed hospitals and universities to impose mandates on employees and students, respectively. Indeed, experts say leaders might learn something from the healthcare sector, where vaccine mandates are not uncommon. Most health companies require anyone working with patients to get flu shots regularly, and they’re applying the same thinking to COVID-19, says Greg Button, president of of Korn Ferry’s Global Healthcare Services practice. “The idea is that we need to be healthy so we can take care of our patients,” he says. Indeed, tying a vaccination policy to a company’s purpose, as many companies in healthcare have, may make it more palatable for reluctant employees to get a shot. That also applies outside that industry. “There is an opportunity here to be seen as leading and putting people safety first,” says Kaplan.

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If a company does decide to mandate vaccines, it needs to complement it with a full education program. Set up town halls for all employees, Button says, so they can learn about the efficacy of vaccines along with the risks to themselves and others of not getting vaccinated. 

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