Trust Me, I'm Vaxxed

Some major retailers are using an honor system for removing masks in stores. Could that model work at offices? 

A woman walks into a retail store. It’s obvious from her athleisure outfit, flushed face, and water bottle that she just came from a gym class. She isn’t wearing a mask either. But does that mean she’s vaccinated? 

In response to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the biggest retailers in the United States, including Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and CVS, moved quickly to announce new policies no longer requiring vaccinated employees and customers to wear masks indoors. But while employees can only go mask-free if they tell the company they’ve been vaccinated, the stores aren’t going to ask unmasked customers about their vaccination status. The firms will take the customer’s word for it.

This honor system approach is the latest wrinkle in how many firms, in retail or otherwise, are trying to balance keeping their stakeholders healthy and making their workplace feel more normal while not mandating that anyone actually get the COVID-19 vaccine. “There is still a lot of anxiety around mask removal,” says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for workforce transformation. Indeed, while many retailers have made their decisions public, the mask-or-not question is being played out at countless organizations as they determine their own office reopening plans. A conventional office or factory may not have as much public foot traffic as a store, but there are still lobbies, corporate kitchens, meeting rooms, and other common spaces where vaccinated and unvaccinated employees and visitors could congregate together.

Indeed, JPMorgan Chase, one of the firms at the forefront of getting its employees back into their traditional workplaces, isn’t using the honor system. This week, the finance giant announced that vaccinated employees could go mask-free in its US offices, but unvaccinated employees would have to wear masks in public office spaces, private offices, and meeting rooms. The company is asking employees to enter their vaccination status in a database. All employees at bank branches would still wear masks for now.

Experts say it’s possible some firms will take cues for office rules from how the honor system plays out at the retail level. “The office situation is very fluid right now,” says Tierney Remick, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice. Some could require proof of vaccination in office settings since they are smaller—or they could “lean in with a level of trust versus a level of judgement,” she says. “The honor system is designed to let people make choices based on their own comfort, health, and awareness,” she says.

Still, experts say opinion will stay divided at least for now.  Anthony LoPinto, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for real estate, says an honor system “won’t carry the day in the short run” but sees no consistent trend yet. In the longer term, some firms may rely on verification apps while others will take workers’ word for it—and encourage people who haven’t been vaccinated to stay at home. “This is one way to go about it and not make a big deal out of it,” says Craig Rowley, Korn Ferry’s global practice leader for the consumer sector.