Tackling Workforce Vaccination

To mandate or not to mandate may not be the question. A guide to Spring’s trickiest leadership challenge.

With the March announcement that pharmaceutical giant Merck will help rival Johnson & Johnson manufacture J&J’s Covid vaccine, President Joe Biden’s promise to have enough shots for every adult by the end of May appears to be on track. The light at the end of a long tunnel is brightening, and companies can finally plan, in earnest, a return to in-person work.

That, in turn, has sparked a debate in executive suites and boardrooms over whether to require that employees get vaccinated before returning to the office. It does seem clear that getting to herd immunity is a win-win for companies in all industries and society as a whole; the sooner the U.S. population is vaccinated, the faster business in all industries can resume. And the more employees who are vaccinated, the less concerned we, as leaders, need to be about illness, productivity and shutdowns due to spread.

It is also legal for companies to mandate. In December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released revised pandemic guidance saying that employers generally can mandate that employees receive an FDA-authorized Covid-19 vaccine. The guidance included cautionary instructions regarding restrictions on disability-related questions and exemption protections based on medical conditions or religious beliefs. In those cases of exemption, reasonable accommodation must be made to the employee, such as working remotely or being reassigned to a non-customer-facing position.

But while it may be legal to require vaccination, for many companies, the decision won’t be that simple. Vaccination has become a fraught topic, thanks in part to the national politicizing of the virus, safety measures, shutdowns, etc. In spite of the science suggesting vaccines are efficacious and safe, there is no consensus among our country’s population. We are divided down the middle, and most companies will have one population of employees chomping at the bit to inoculate and another dead-set against it.

So, given that, what’s a CEO to do?

One option is to poll employees about how they feel. But while that will give CEOs some useful data about where employees stand on the issue, it can’t really be the driving force behind the decision. After all, we as leaders make plenty of unilateral decisions for our companies that plenty of employees disagree with; even when we solicit input, it’s a factor, but not dispositive. Take the return-to-work question—would you cede this decision to an employee vote? Probably not. If you did, then the direction you take could change month to month depending on the outcome of your employee survey. Certainly, you want to know what employees are thinking and how the majority feel about the issue, but ultimately, the decision is yours.

That’s why I would suggest it should all come down to culture. If you’re running a manufacturing plant, for example, or a restaurant or a hospital—all of which require employees to come to work in person—and you champion a culture that prioritizes safety and health, then a companywide mandate would show you’re putting muscle behind that credo. If, on the other hand, you’re running a services firm that doesn’t necessarily require in-office work, and your culture prioritizes autonomy and personal accountability, then it may make sense to let your employees decide for themselves whether to vaccinate.

At a majority of companies, the jury clearly is still out. Four in 10 companies say they won’t insist on a Covid-19 vaccination, but 55 percent are still undecided, according to SHRM research.

If You Choose to Mandate

In January, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby was seriously considering making the vaccine mandatory for the company’s 60,000-plus employees. For an airline, whose workers are considered essential and whose mission is to transport consumers safely between far-flung locations, such a decision could clearly be in line with their company’s long-standing culture that prioritizes safety. It’s also arguably the best thing for United’s various stakeholders given that widespread vaccination is the one thing that will revive air travel and restore the billions of dollars in losses airlines and their shareholders have suffered.

For companies like United, the vaccine decision will be a test of values; you can’t, on the one hand, say safety is our number one priority and then, on the other, opt not to take an action that is known to reduce that risk. But it will also test employee loyalty; according to our research, 55 percent of employees surveyed said that if their companies mandated, they would get the vaccine, but 28 percent of U.S. workers feel strongly enough that if their company were to require the vaccine, they would consider leaving rather than comply.

This is where communication becomes key. If you mandate, you need to sell your workforce on that decision. Explain in thorough and transparent detail the process you engaged in, what inputs you used and how you arrived at that conclusion. Be explicit and thorough. If we as CEOs can do an effective enough job presenting the evidence and our reasoning, we might sway some of those employees who would otherwise leave us to stick around.

You may also decide to require vaccination for some employees but not others, or only in certain geographies; according to a survey by employment law firm Littler, 3 percent of companies planned to mandate the vaccine for certain workers in customer-facing roles. Given this has the potential to feel inequitable among workers, communication of your logic will be critical.

If You Don’t Mandate

As CEO of SHRM, I won’t be mandating the vaccine because our culture is one that values individual accountability and trust in our employees. We don’t, for example, parse sick days at our company; rather we call it “open leave” and employees are expected to use their judgment. Anyone who would abuse that freedom wouldn’t last long at SHRM. So, leaving the choice of vaccination up to our people aligns with our cultural values.

Those of us who don’t mandate vaccination need to work that much harder to strongly encourage employees to get it voluntarily. At a recent off-the-record roundtable SHRM held in partnership with Chief Executive, several CEOs of large multinationals shared thoughts on how they planned to encourage vaccination in lieu of a mandate. The following are among the suggestions mentioned:

• Educate. Misinformation campaigns related to the vaccine abound, and chances are, at least some of your employees have been exposed to and influenced by them. There is real fear there and it is vitally important to educate employees as to why they should want to get the vaccine and provide the data and science proving its safety. Make it more about them than the company—that is, emphasize that you care about their health and safety rather than the risk to the company. Also, given proof of vaccine or immunity will likely be required for travel and entry to certain events or places, play up the freedom that those who have been vaccinated will enjoy once life returns to normal. In other words, emphasize the carrot rather than the stick.

• Communicate, communicate, communicate. Explain your reasons for not mandating and let employees know that you value personal accountability as a corporate value and that you are trusting employees to make decisions not only in their own interest, but in the best interest of all employees, including those who are immunocompromised and vulnerable, as well as the communities in which they live. This should not be one and done, but provide multiple, regular communications on the vaccine, its efficacy, its safety and the growing numbers of people who have been vaccinated without incident.

• Help employees get the vaccine. In addition to paying for it, some companies have already set up internal sites to help match employees with local vaccine distribution site to make it easier for them to sign up for slots. Give them paid time off; Chobani has promised its roughly 2,200 employees that it will cover up to six hours of time for employees to get vaccinated. Walmart will be offering up to three days of paid leave for any employee experiencing vaccine side effects. JBS USA and Pilgrim’s have offered a $100 bonus to all employees who get inoculated, and have actively partnered with state officials and local health departments to speed the process of making vaccines available to their 8,500 team members.

• Be a role model. As CEO, you should make sure your employees know you received the vaccine and, as one CEO of a large movie theater chain put it, “let them know you’re thrilled about it.” Have all of senior management do likewise.

Ultimately, the decision about whether to mandate the vaccine is a deeply personal one for each organization. There is no right or wrong answer and each CEO, with input from executive teams and boards, must make the best decision they can, and the one most closely aligned with their own unique mission and culture. You must then communicate the reasoning so that employees know where you stand and what they can expect. You’ll never have 100 percent buy-in from every employee. But, as with all other strategic decisions, if the decision is made based on the company’s values and culture, it will prove the right one.