Vaccination: Encouraged, Not Required

Two-thirds of retailers aren’t planning to require employee vaccinations. How will consumers react?

Hospitals are doing it. Two cruise lines are doing it, and at least one airline is too. But even though they too have consumer-facing employees, a majority of retailers are taking a different stance on mandating vaccinations.

According to a new Korn Ferry survey of more than 50 major US retailers, two-thirds are not planning to require employee vaccinations. Instead, nearly half plan to offer incentives to those who get the vaccine, as yet another consumer-facing industry tries to navigate one of the toughest issues of the post-pandemic era. Of the remaining firms, less than 10% would require all or part of their workers to be vaccinated.

The issue, of course, is likely to become more intensely debated across all industries as state and national vaccination programs continue to spread. But experts say mandating is an even more acute topic for the stores, restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, and other businesses that open their doors to the general public each day. These groups need to ensure that customers feel safe going to stores but don’t want to alienate employees. There are some customer-facing businesses that feel mandatory employee vaccinations are the way to go. United Airlines, for one, has signaled that it is leaning toward mandating the vaccine for its employees. “It’s a fraught subject,” says Caren Fleit, managing director of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officers practice. “If [mandating a vaccine] is connected to their purpose and resonates with who they are on the broader issue of health and safety, it may make sense,”

Mandatory workplace vaccinations are not new—many school systems require students to get vaccines before they can attend in-person classes—and such demands are particularly prevalent among healthcare providers. Many hospitals order doctors, nurses, and 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.

Experts say in most instances, an employer could, if it wanted to, bar unvaccinated employees from the workplace. In December, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance suggesting that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their workers as long as employees don’t have a disability or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from getting vaccinated. That, however, isn’t enough protection for many firms. “The EEOC says it is OK, but that is not the same as having legal coverage,” says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in retail. Companies could shuffle unvaccinated workers around to roles that don’t put them into contact with customers, Rowley says.

Experts aren’t sure about any marketing benefit a company would get if it highlighted how it was mandating vaccinations. Indeed, they say that message could distract from the other areas a company normally tries to highlight, such as products and services.

Companies also know that their employees may be skeptical about vaccines, says Radhika Papandreou, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who leads the firm’s North American Travel, Entertainment, and Leisure practice. Indeed, a CDC report released earlier this month found that only about half of adults under age 65 said they were "absolutely certain" or "very likely" to get the COVID-19 vaccination. Complicating matters, Papandreou adds, is the demographic makeup of many customer-facing businesses. A portion of underrepresented groups, who make up a large percentage of cashiers, hotel workers, and other customer-facing employees, are skeptical of the healthcare system in general. These groups may have good reason; there have been multiple instances of the government or healthcare organizations dismissing health concerns, or worse, those of Black and Latinx patients.

It’s why many organizations are turning to incentives, rather than orders, to get employees inoculated. More than half (53%) of the retailers Korn Ferry surveyed say they will incentivize or are considering incentivizing employees to get vaccinated. Some of those incentives could be paying employees an additional two hours of pay for each dose, paying a fixed dollar amount, assigning extra work hours, or giving additional time off to be used at a later date. At the same time, some firms are also organizing education drives, Papandreou says, letting employees know about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines while also combatting misinformation about the subject on social media.