How Will Firms Implement the New Vaccine Mandate?

The federal order opens a host of medical, legal, and privacy issues that will likely fall on one department to manage: HR.

The entire pandemic has been an unprecedented nightmare for leaders in all industries, everywhere. The federal government’s new push to get working-age Americans vaccinated doesn’t change that. Indeed, experts say the plan, which could conceivably cover two-thirds of all workers in the country, throws even more pressure on one critical group: human resources executives.

Under the recently announced plan, all employers with 100 or more employees would have to require that their workers be vaccinated or undergo at least weekly COVID-19 testing. Companies could face significant fines for not complying with the rules. And while entire companies will be evaluated, it’s up to HR leaders to actually do the work to ensure that their companies and workforces are in compliance. “It’s not all baked yet, and [there’s] a lot of sloppiness,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “It’s uncharted territory and will not be easy for anyone.”

It’s not as if HR leaders didn’t already have plenty of issues to sort out, including trying to stem a massive increase in employee attrition while also developing strategies to attract talent from underrepresented groups. Now the pandemic has pushed and stretched the demands on CHROs in a way never before seen. “Organizations that didn’t have the right executive in the role were exposed,” says Doug Charles, president of Korn Ferry in the Americas.

That was all before having to juggle competing mask and social distancing policies at the state and local levels and now the new federal vaccine mandate. Federal government employees have until November 22 to get vaccinated. Those who aren’t (or are unwilling to divulge whether or not they got the shots) have to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before entering a federal building.

But it isn’t so clear for the 80 million private-sector workers who fall under the umbrella of the federal government’s plan. There are multiple issues up in the air. How long do companies have to get their employees vaccinated? What are the penalties for noncompliance? And, if a company is a government contractor, does the vaccine mandate apply to those employees who work on government business specifically—or to everyone in the organization, whether or not they do federal government work? The government is expected to provide more guidance in late September.

The reaction from the corporate world has been decidedly mixed about the mandate. Experts say many top leaders are relieved that the federal government is imposing a mandate. Firms had been struggling with whether to impose their own mandates out of fear that whatever decision they made would anger a significant segment of employees. Now, any organization with more than 100 employees appears to be in the same boat.

On the other hand, the federal mandate brings up issues that many organizations may have been trying to avoid, such as ensuring that the majority of its employees get inoculated and vigilantly testing the ones who don’t get the shot. It also brings up privacy issues; most organizations outside of healthcare do not want to systematically track the health status of their employees. Ultimately, it’s private organizations that may be on the hook for whether their employees wind up vaccinated or not.

Since most firms don’t have the experience or the current resources to do all that work, companies might start looking to farm out the entire process of testing, tracking, and tracing employees. “It seems like a big outsourcing opportunity,” says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources.

If companies decide to keep the work in-house, it might be best to empower local managers to make decisions on how employees can ensure they are either vaccinated or tested regularly. Throughout the pandemic, organizations have repeatedly found that one-size-fits-all approaches haven’t worked. “It’s hard for companies to come up with the right decision for all circumstances. It might help to have local managers implement,” says Juan Pablo González, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s sector leader of professional services.