No Shot, No Job?

The biggest question leading into the fall: Will some firms decide to fire unvaccinated employees?

The number of organizations requiring employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 continues to increase. And with it comes another change: the implied consequences for employees who opt not to get a shot.

One firm says it will raise the insurance premiums of unvaccinated employees by $200 a month. Multiple firms won’t let unvaccinated workers back to the workplace. Still more firms will require unvaccinated workers to wear masks at all times while in the workplace and submit themselves to multiple viral tests.

However, the big question is whether organizations will take the biggest step—firing unvaccinated employees outright. 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 firms should actually send out pink slips. “You may need the threat, but I personally doubt many will use it,” says David Vied, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

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 COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the workplace by year end, 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. 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 United States 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 have to 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.

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,” says 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, says 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,” he says.

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, says Vied. “The only thing that works is having someone come to their own conclusion to get vaccinated.”