Can a business force its employers to get the COVID-19 vaccination? In January, Charlie Mullins, founder and former chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers uttered four words which kick-started a national debate on an employer’s right to enforce Coronavirus vaccinations in the workplace, “No jab, no job”.
Pimlico’s plans to spend upwards of £1 million on vaccinating its staff is without a doubt an interesting one. Without question, companies of all sizes are striving to ensure the health and safety of their employees and understandably want to reduce the likelihood of the virus being transmitted. This would also end the need for their most vulnerable workers to shield or self-isolate too. After what has been an incredibly challenging year for many businesses, contemplating this as an option is understandable, but is it the right thing to do?
Ultimately, forcing employees to be vaccinated – especially in the absence of the Government mandating vaccination in the UK population – risks triggering a plethora of issues that would result in the employer being laid bare to several civil and criminal claims.
Employers are usually clear when it comes to mandating what their staff can do. But the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus has blurred the line of acceptance, magnifying the discussion, and leaving employers to beg the question: What is reasonable to expect of my employees during a pandemic?
This lack of clarity is resulting in an onslaught of questions for people professionals and HR teams; leadership teams are looking for quick answers and employees are seeking updates on their return-to-work strategy following the rollout of the vaccine. Indeed, many are asking, if they opt-out of the vaccine, will their workplace be one that welcomes them back?
Honouring the employee right to choose
- Despite the unquestionably positive news of the coronavirus vaccines, the pace at which they entered development – and have subsequently been rolled out – has led to the circulation of a great deal of misinformation and, consequently, mistrust in the safety of the vaccines. And of course, let’s not forget that there are many who are also needle-phobic too and will have high anxiety over having a vaccine.
- Let us take a closer look at a review by the University of Liverpool. Its Department of Psychology set out to systematically review all the available studies undertaken to examine the percentage of the population intending to be either vaccinated or intending to refuse it once available. In doing so, it found the proportion of respondents willing to be vaccinated decreased over time (79% early phase studies vs 60% later studies), whereas the proportion not willing to be vaccinated increased (12% early studies vs 20% later studies).
- Indeed, it can also be noted that since the announcement of the first COVID-19 vaccine, online searches for more information have increased exponentially, as have searches for the vaccine risks.
- Clearly some people are concerned about the vaccine and certainly no one should be forced into accepting it. Legislation specifically provides that a person must not be required “to undergo medical treatment,” which makes vaccination a completely individual choice. This could be based on safety concerns, or due to other protected characteristics. Without a doubt, the choice must be honoured by the employer.
The business risk of implementing compulsory vaccinations
- Requiring employees to get a vaccination could prove to be seriously problematic for businesses. Firstly, a vaccine requirement could expose an employer to a discrimination dispute under the Equality Act 2010, particularly with regards to those who do not want to be, or cannot be, vaccinated due to health or religious reasons.
- Secondly, if a business were to succeed in the rollout of compulsory vaccinations, they could be held liable if any of their employees do experience negative side effects further down the line. It is also evident just how divisive this topic is and bringing it into the workplace could unleash conflict between colleagues who hold different beliefs and opinions. Moreover, requiring evidence of employee vaccination could result in a significant data protection issue too.
How businesses and HR practitioners can manage vaccination conflict
There is no denying that this is a challenging time for HR teams and people professionals who are dealing with the complexities of supporting both the employer and its employees who may have conflicting beliefs. With this in mind, Katy McMinn, cofounder and director of HRi shares 4 approaches to managing your employees through the COVID-19 vaccination period:
Encourage vaccination with flexibility
A business has a duty of care to its employees, which means taking the steps reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. Support individuals who wish to have the COVID-19 vaccine by offering flexibility in their working day and paid time off to attend medical appointments. Ensure employees are aware of how the vaccinations programme is working should they wish to participate. Sixty per cent of HR leaders have already said they will encourage employees to get vaccinated against coronavirus, but will not make it mandatory (Gartner).
Maintain a COVID-secure environment
No matter the number of employees who accept the vaccine, you must ensure your workplace remains COVID secure on a long-term basis. Support the need for excellent hygiene practices, provide plenty of handwashing facilities and maintain overall standards for health and wellbeing, irrelevant of a person’s personal choice.
Help employees make an informed decision
Provide evidence and easy-to-understand information to enable staff to make an informed decision about the vaccine. For those businesses who are keen for their workforce to be immunised, look at developing a non-contractual policy which outlines the benefits and make the vaccine process as seamless as possible.
Reaffirm the businesses responsibility of care
Some employees will be facing personal and professional conflict over fears they may lose their job if they are not vaccinated. Make it a priority to put your employees at ease and remind them of your obligation to them is as their employer. Continue to provide the support systems that enable them to work in a productive and positive way and, above all, safeguard their mental and physical wellbeing especially if they have anxieties about the jab.
It is paramount that employers of all sizes treat this complex and sensitive issue with compassion. Detailed education and strong communication will be key tactics to foster confidence in both the vaccine and employer during this process.