With many businesses calling employees back to the worksite or eyeing the calendar for return dates, a new wrinkle in office politics is emerging. What’s happening? Rising tensions between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees is adding stress to an already nerve-wracking year.
The problems often arise when employers establish separate standards for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. This is necessary for nearly all businesses, even those with vaccine mandates. The reason: accommodations are legally required for employees who have disability or religious-based reasons for avoiding the COVID vaccine.
There are valid points and counterpoints on both sides of the issue. Employees may be feeling a range of emotions about whatever stance they are taking.
Vaccinated employees may be worried that their colleagues may inadvertently harm their small children, elderly parents or ill household members by increasing risk of transmission. In fact, a recent survey found that 37% of companies have vaccinated staff angry about this very issue (Source: Seyfarth at Work). Other reasons for resentment include the prospect of picking up the slack for colleagues who may become ill, the unfairness of two sets of rules, and having to come to the workplace while unvaccinated teammates can work remotely.
The unvaccinated may not be happy either. They are feeling constrained, snubbed and even bullied.
Many say they have faced the hostility of co-workers in one form or another. It could be pressure to get the vaccine, a sense of isolation or outright hostility. Some are upset that they are missing out on opportunities given to those team members who have received the shot. Others are feeling restrained, with some employees fighting back about imposed policies.
What do workplace disputes look like in reality?
CNBC reported three types of concerns. First, there are employee clashes, with verbal and online confrontations. Perhaps more subtle but equally distressing are people refusing to sit or work with a colleague. Next, there are conflicts between management and employees over policies related to the vaxxed and unvaxxed. Finally, there is retribution against the company, with staff posting angry criticisms online.
The issue is as complex as it is polarizing.
While there are no simple answers to avoiding these conflicts, there are ways for executives to determine what’s best for their organization in order to reduce the fallout.
What are the options for organizational practices and policies? What should executives consider when making decisions?
Alternatives and implications
Some companies are establishing two sets of rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
In cases like this, the unvaccinated are required to wear masks, at a minimum. Regular COVID-19 testing is often the norm as is some form of social distancing. Sometimes access is restricted to certain parts of the workplace. Other businesses are keeping unvaccinated team members out of the workplace entirely and are only allowing vaccinated employees to travel.
In other companies, one set of standards apply. Everyone wears masks, maintains social distancing and follows the same policies for remote and in-person work.
Most employers want to act in a way that is both fair and protects the health and safety of their workforce and customers. The challenge comes in deciding what’s reasonable, what’s best for the majority of workers and what will keep the business moving forward.
Weighing the options
Here are four issues that owners and executives will want to consider in creating their policies:
Administration – Think about the challenges of implementation. Applying different privileges and safety rules can be very tricky. Who will monitor and enforce mask-wearing for the unvaccinated, for example? There’s another danger, too. Employment lawyer Anthony Mingione of Blank Rome explained on CNBC, “Selective enforcement of any policy – even with good intentions – can lead to dropping morale, employee conflicts and low productivity.”
Discrimination claims – First, some basics. Vaccination status is not a protected employee classification under federal and state law (Montana is the one exception for now, but other states have proposed such legislation). And while it is legal to ask employees if they have been vaccinated, it is important to keep this information private. Under the ADA, vaccination status is a confidential medical record and employers must preserve its confidentiality.
As for harassment or discrimination claims, the question is whether a rule negatively impacts a protected employee class. Employers need to be especially mindful of employees who have declined vaccination because of a disability of religious belief. You want all employees to feel that they are being treated fairly.
Business capacity – Who can afford to lose valuable team members in this tight labor market? The real question is will team members actually quit their jobs over vaccination or workplace safety policies? A recent survey found that 23% of employees would strongly consider it (Source: Qualtrics). Looking at recent activity, five percent have actually quit (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation).
Communication – Having the pulse of your team, knowing customer vaccination policies and staying on top of the latest news are all important steps. Then, it comes down to communication. A steady stream of information and open dialogue are today’s norms. Being open about the ‘why’ of your decision making helps build trust with your team. Quick replies to employee concerns are also essential. Even if you can’t provide a resolution right away, it’s okay to tell them that too.
Fairness rules the day, but only you can decide what that looks like for your business. At NEMR Total HR, we believe that applying a universal standard is the safest route. If unvaccinated employees must wear a mask, all employees should. If unvaccinated employees can work remotely, others should be allowed to as well. Leveling the playing field helps avoid conflict now, and potential legal issues down the road.
Knowing how to create and communicate policies that will resonate positively with your staff members in today’s environment is a heavy lift. If you need assistance with the complex HR issues related to vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, an expert advisor like NEMR Total HR can guide you. Chat Live with us to learn more or Email Us.