Firing the Star (but Unvaccinated) Employee

Amid a major labor shortage, companies are faced with axing otherwise talented, hardworking employees. 

One of the best workers at a large national hauling company is a smart and communicative female trucker with an impeccable driving record and 19 years of experience. She’s also unvaccinated and staring down her company’s vaccination mandate deadline. Should the company fire her, despite a severe driver shortage?

This is the difficult scenario facing companies worldwide. After numerous vaccination campaigns, on-site vaccination clinics, vaccine information sessions, small-group Q&As, and—at one US-based company—unlimited one-on-one calls with the chief medical officer to field questions, every large global firm still has hundreds or thousands of vaccine holdouts. In response, some large firms have been firing unvaccinated workers, particuarly in the health and airline industries. 

“This is probably the hardest question that companies have had to answer in the last 10 years,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. Firms must balance between two deeply unacceptable outcomes: losing good employees and potentially ill workers. “Companies are in a nearly impossible position,” Kaplan says.

In September, the Biden administration mandated that workers at companies with more than 100 employees get vaccinations or undergo regular testing, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not yet revealed how this will be enforced. OSHA is chronically understaffed, with around 1,850 inspectors for 8 million work sites. This leaves companies fending for themselves. “OSHA mandates are very poorly enforced. Companies will sort of be on their own,” says Kaplan. Mandating vaccines is somewhat easier for hospitality, healthcare, and travel companies, he says, because their brand promise includes top-notch safety. Airlines have also found cover by positioning themselves as government contractors, which therefore need to follow the Biden mandate.

But other companies remain in limbo, weighing safety concerns and economics. Overall policy should be guided by first considering the safety threat of unvaccinated employees, experts say. “If frontline workers run the risk of potentially getting either employees, patients, or customers sick, the risk is just too high,” says Greg Button, president of global healthcare services at Korn Ferry. Rather than firing those employees, he suggests searching for alternative roles in-house, such as transferring a nurse to a telemedicine or case management position, or a health insurance firm allowing administrators to work remotely. “Absent that, I see people losing their jobs,” he says.

If unvaccinated employees present lower risk, such as in the case of remote workers, experts say leaders should next consider the economics of losing employees. Kaplan says that some organizations can afford to require vaccinations because lost workers will not significantly disrupt the business. But other businesses are already worried about hiring hundreds of thousands or more employees in the next year, during a global labor shortage, and concluding that they absolutely cannot afford to lose or fire employees to a vaccine mandate.

Many are stalling. “I hear a lot of executives waiting, saying that they’ll pull the trigger when the rules are clearer,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry. He says that for non-healthcare or hospitality companies, there’s little upside to deciding policy before the government has solidified its enforcement.

“There does eventually need to be a deadline,” says Button, but in the meantime, an extension to the deadline is warranted, perhaps followed by a grace period. “Most of our clients are really trying to work with their employees,” he says. “There’s already a labor shortage, there’s already a burnout issue, there’s already a nurse and physician shortage—the last thing they want is to lose their employees.”

Elise Freedman, organizational strategy and workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry, says that companies need to be planning now for worker losses. “Organizations would be foolish not to,” she says, particularly in regions or facilities where many employees are known to be unvaccinated. She suggests modeling the financial and labor impacts of losing unvaccinated employees and then clearly deciding and communicating the company’s point of view on vaccine requirements, along with a wide window of time for employees to meet them.

Not all executives are responding with patience. One CEO of an in-office professional services company has discovered that his critical staffers are vaccinated; of those who aren’t, as he puts it, “I question their judgment and ability to think and create logically.” He’s firing employees who are not vaccinated by October 15th.