October 5, 2021 – The number of organizations requiring employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 continues to increase. However, the big question is whether organizations will take the biggest step – firing unvaccinated employees outright, according to a new report from Korn Ferry. In August, one media company fired three unvaccinated employees for showing up at the office, while several other organizations have told employees they’d lose their jobs if they weren’t vaccinated within several weeks. But experts are split on whether companies should actually issue pink slips. “You may need the threat, but I personally doubt many will use it,” said David Vied, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s medical devices and diagnostics practice.
Several Korn Ferry reports have detailed how vaccine mandates are the topic of the moment among senior executives across industries. In a recent survey of 1,000 US companies, more than half said they are planning to impose mandates in the workplace by the end of the year, with almost a quarter considering vaccination as a condition for employment.
The leaders who are choosing mandates believe the increasing spread of the virus’s Delta variant has left them no choice, as waves of new cases are creating serious health and safety issues at firms that are reopening or planning on it, according to Korn Ferry’s findings. Leaders want to have confidence that COVID-19 cases won’t wind up multiplying at their workplace. Over the past few months, organizations have moved from using incentives to get workers vaccinated, such as time off from work or cash, to threatening potential punishments.
The U.S. government has said that federal antidiscrimination laws don’t prohibit employers from requiring all employees who physically enter the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Indeed, employers can have a fire-unvaccinated-employees policy if an unvaccinated person “poses a direct threat to the health and safety of individuals in the workplace.” Exceptions must be made for people who object to vaccinations on religious or health-related grounds, while organizations may need to reach an agreement with unionized employees before imposing a vaccination mandate, the Korn Ferry report notes.
But actually firing people may be a bridge too far for some companies to cross. Experts have raised many questions. Would firms let a top-performing salesperson go if that individual doesn’t get vaccinated? What if that person were a software engineer who specializes in artificial intelligence? Indeed, executives may wonder, in a job market where there are already 10 million open jobs, whether they would be able to find a ready—or affordable—replacement for anyone they let go over their vaccination policy. “You could lose some critical employees and be seen as taking a political stand,” said Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in human resources.
“If companies do decide to fire people, they have to be consistent,” said Bradford Frank, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s global technology practice. “You either let everyone go or no one. You are walking a fine legal line.”
Office returns delayed, business trips halted and morale down the tubes. A lingering pandemic creates yet another unprecedented leadership challenge, according to a new report by Korn Ferry. The study looks at challenges facing businesses as recruiters from the search firm weigh in on what executives must do to overcome the frustration caused by the pandemic.
Other Search Experts Weigh In
A better option, experts say, might be sitting down with the unvaccinated employee and ensuring the worker has all the information needed to make an informed decision about getting vaccinated. At the same time, if the company takes the time to tell each vaccine-hesitant person individually the hassles that may have to be endured—such as always wearing a mask or being left out of events with coworkers—the employee might change their mind. “And yet a ‘do this or else’ ultimatum may only alienate unvaccinated employees and potentially others,” said Mr. Vied. “The only thing that works is having someone come to their own conclusion to get vaccinated.”
Violating a Cardinal Rule
“COVID-19 and vaccination are certainly the largest topics of discussion in today’s socioeconomic climate, and companies dealing with both retention of existing employees as well as hiring of new talent are no exception,” said David Kant, president of Dynamic Search Consulting. “Without entering into any personal or political views but speaking objectively as an executive search professional, the cardinal rule in recruitment is to cast as wide a net as possible in order to attract a large talent pool from which to make a hire. A vaccine mandate violates this rule as it automatically disqualifies a significant percentage of the talent pool.”
“Furthermore, for existing employees it unavoidably will put companies in a position of going through an abrupt reduction in workforce which they will not easily recover from, especially at the leadership level, where finding a suitable replacement often takes three to six months or more; in the meantime, the company takes a serious blow to their bottom line with the lack of key talent in place to steer the ship,” Mr. Kant said. “Additionally, discriminating against employees and candidates based on their medical preference opens the door for what could be a very costly legal liability no company would want to be a part of.”
“Therefore, while each company must of course act in the best interest of its shareholders, employees, and customers, I think the path forward on this issue is to find a way to include the unvaccinated, be that through office safety protocol measures, remote options, or other means, as to not do so is far too costly,” Mr. Kant said.
Act With Transparency
“I think it is essential for everyone to fight the COVID-19 virus through every means we can to save lives,” said Julian Rives, managing partner of Chapel Hill Solutions. “I believe the vaccine issue has been highly politicized, and it is a complex problem we face due to population education, scientific research, distribution logistics and legal challenges. That said, we need to work together to overcome hesitancy with the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Regarding how companies should deal with employees, “companies should communicate clearly, act transparently with their actions, and include employees in their decision-making to make sure they are making the best decision for their company,” he said. “Employees should be viewed as partners in a company’s business and not as servants completing a task. Therefore, each company should have a different solution that weighs the nature of their work, business goals and workplace environment. For example, hospitals providing direct patient care should have a different policy than an IT Saas company because their businesses require different physical interactions that aid the spread of the virus. We believe most companies will work with their employees to properly educate them on the merits of being vaccinated and how that impacts the employees’ health, employees’ jobs, and overall company business.”
Companies should be flexible to a degree, according to Mr. Rives. “We see the relationship between employer and employee as a partnership, and each side needs to be flexible to work properly together,” he said. “Therefore, employers should not be the only side that is flexible in their approach to vaccinations and vice versa. Again, flexibility will depend on the nature of a company’s business. For example, hotels or restaurants will have to be less flexible because they don’t want to put customers at risk of infection, resulting in huge liabilities. Also, larger companies might have to create different policies for different departments, like Amazon. Sales departments might allow more flexibility with vaccinations vs. a warehouse department.”
Get Vaccinated Without Making It Mandatory
“Prior to the White House announcement mandating vaccines or weekly testing for all large U.S. employers is very different than the answer today,” said Marisol Hughes, executive vice president and general counsel at WilsonHCG. “And it may still vary greatly in a few more weeks when OSHA issues its Emergency Temporary Standard and hopefully provides more concrete guidance to employers on the new rule. Even though vaccines are based on science, the public debate has been cluttered with disinformation and opinion.” To combat this, she said, the best thing employers can do is educate their employees using objective, scientific and non-politically affiliated sources.
“After establishing a basis of education, offering incentives (i.e., cash raffle prizes or gift cards) for those who choose to get vaccinated and potentially a consequence (i.e., increased healthcare premiums) for those who don’t, may encourage those on the fence to get vaccinated without making it mandatory,” Ms. Hughes said. “Making sure employees can take paid time off to receive the vaccine and recover from any side effects without sacrificing their PTO allowance is also a good incentive. Given the White House announcement, it’s clear the U.S. government is making companies more responsible for vaccine efforts. Because of this, HR and legal departments (with the executive team’s buy-in) should be actioning the following: developing a proactive internal plan for things like determining the vaccination status of employees and tracking testing and results (if that’s an option your company wants to offer), while keeping employee privacy and confidentiality intact; developing a clear and robust reasonable accommodation policy to address religious and medical exemptions; and preparing for OSHA complaints or investigations that may arise.”
“Whatever direction a company takes, it needs to be consistent and fair in its treatment of employees,” said Ms. Hughes. By creating company policies vs. allowing individual managers to make decisions, there will be a clear, transparent and fair approach.
Boards, and their executive leadership teams (in the form of public companies), and owners (in the form of private companies) commonly issue rules, regulations, policies and guidelines, which employees need comply with as a condition of employment, according to Mike Myatt, founder and chairman of N2Growth. “As long as these directives are legal and non-discriminatory, employees should abide by them or face consequences including possible termination,” he said.
“Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace, and a failure to do so places them at risk for possible regulatory enforcement and potential litigation. The bottom line is vaccine mandates are a slippery slope for both employer and employee. Employers have the choice to issue mandates, and employees have the choice to comply or not—decisions have consequences.”
There is nothing new under the sun here,” Mr. Myatt said. “However, this particular issue has created highly charged environments dealing with different interpretations of safety, privacy, politics, constitutionality and personal freedoms in play—things are running very hot right now. The problem is that vaccine mandates are a relatively new and unique issue with no uniform best practice to follow. If duly legislated, vaccine mandates may become law. Until such time, vaccine mandates are a form of squishy enforced compliance that place both employee and employer in a position of ambiguity and potential conflict,” he said.
Rather than use this conflict as a wedge issue to polarize, there is an opportunity to bring people together in problem solving, he noted. “Smart employers will be creative and innovative in their approach. But regardless of approach, employers should adopt a consistent position on how they will deal with this issue, communicate said position to their workforce with clarity and empathy, and then administer the policy as they should with any other—with compassionate evenhandedness.”
At a Crossroads
Michael Goodman, managing partner at Long Ridge Partners, agrees that companies are at a difficult crossroads. While vaccine vs. no vaccine and mask vs. no mask has been widely politicized this year, companies need to do what is best for their day-to-day operations and keep politics out of it. If the firmwide policy is their employees must have a vaccine to enter the office, then that must be carried out and adhered to. “Whether you are for or against, we should all be pro-safety and look out for not only the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our families but for our colleagues as well,” he said. “It is important that firms have a clear message when asking people to come back to the office and share that firmwide. Without uniform messaging to employees, firms will be leaving their positions on being vaccinated to enter the office open for debate causing conflict among colleagues.”
While organizations do not need to be flexible in mandating that employees must be vaccinated before they enter the office, there should be a policy in place to accommodate those who are not, according to Mr. Goodman.
“For a variety of reasons, not everyone is going to be vaccinated, that does not necessarily make them bad employees or ineffective at their jobs,” he said. “If employers want to retain unvaccinated members of their staff, they must make external accommodations for them. The best scenario for that is to allow them to work remotely. The world came up to speed very quickly in setting up remote work facilities in the spring of 2020 and we all adapted relatively quickly, there is no reason why those employees could not continue to be productive remotely. Many of our clients have adopted vaccine policies for ‘in office’ interviews and they are willing to walk away from those who are not, it is our job to adapt to that and understand their positions.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media