The Vexing Vaccine Dilemma

This week’s promising COVID-19 drug news poses a difficult issue: Should organizations force workers to get inoculated?

It’s the news that everyone has been hoping for. Pfizer announced that its late-stage vaccine for COVID-19 not only works more than 90% of the time in humans but also has no harmful side effects. The information sent stock markets soaring, thrilled scientists, and gave hope to hundreds of millions of people that there could be an end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic.

But nothing about COVID comes without complications. The news could mean that organizations can start to imagine bringing everyone, or almost everyone, back to the office. But that could put firms in a tight spot, wanting and even requiring all employees to be vaccinated even though surveys suggest many people may be leery of it, especially early on. “Where do you draw the line between employee safety and people doing what they want?” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits. 

The issue is, of course, the same that schools and other government outfits will face. In the case of companies, experts say requiring inoculations does appear to have legal backing. “If someone doesn’t want to take the vaccine (once it’s widely available), the company isn’t obligated to employ them,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Center of Human Resources Expertise. The two major exemptions are a person’s religious beliefs and existing medical conditions that might make taking the vaccine harmful. Even the religious exemption has been challenged by some employers because it would cause “undue hardship.” (For example, a children’s hospital in Boston argued that not forcing one employee to get a flu shot would put patients at risk).

For now, the vaccine is still months away from government approval. However, experts say if it becomes widely available, leaders mandating it would need to make sure employees could receive it easily and at little to no cost. (The US government has said Americans can get the vaccine for free, but there have been no details.) Ultimately, a pre-pandemic work environment would then become possible. “Most companies would probably take that approach,” Porter says.

Indeed, mandatory workplace vaccinations are not new—many school systems require students to get chickenpox, measles, and other vaccines before they can attend in-person classes—and such demands are particularly prevalent among healthcare providers. Many hospitals order doctors, nurses, or any other employee who may come into contact with patients to have shots for the flu, measles, tetanus, and other diseases. “If a patient comes in with pneumonia, you don’t want them to get COVID,” says Greg Button, president of Korn Ferry's global healthcare services.

Still, recent polls have found that as many as a third to nearly half of Americans say they would be afraid or otherwise resistant to getting inoculated. If that kind of level of resistance remains, firms might just urge employees to get it and require everyone to still wear masks and be socially distant. Fully remote workers, of course, probably wouldn’t feel any pressure. “If someone doesn’t want to take that vaccine and they are one of those people working from home, there is no reason to force them,” Porter says. 

Even so, the vaccine presents yet another wrinkle: What about employees who travel for work or people who visit the office? Experts say requiring office visitors to wear masks and stay socially distant might be the easiest option (as opposed to requiring them to show proof of vaccination). As for a company’s own road warriors, firms might want to consider a practice that many firms are now employing, Bloom says. “If someone travels for work, they work from home once they return and have no physical contact with employees or clients for two weeks,” he says.