Vaccine Mandates: A Pressure-Packed Call

Deciding whether to require employee vaccinations is fast becoming one of the biggest decisions leaders may face this year.

It was a move that most companies were still pondering, and putting off, only a few weeks ago. Now, a growing number of corporate leaders have decided to require employee vaccinations—and are dealing with the consequences.

For their part, the leaders who are choosing mandates believe the increasing spread of the 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, and in addition to employees wearing masks and staying socially distant, vaccines are one way to prevent the spread.

But the mandates are bringing up multiple questions about managing talent well beyond employee health and safety. Some companies are having major debates about disqualifying candidates for jobs based on whether the individual is vaccinated. At the same time, some leaders worry that if they follow through on firing unvaccinated employees, they might not be able to replace them in a job market with low unemployment and more than 10 million open jobs already. Vaccine mandates are the topic of the moment among chief human resources officers across industries, says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in HR executive roles. “Companies seem forced to draw a hard line, but what line should they draw?” he says.

The vaccination mandate has rapidly become a business leadership test on par with whether to make a billion-dollar acquisition or deciding how to overhaul a supply chain. With booster shots now on the horizon as well, it’s an issue that may also last for years ahead. “Unfortunately, CEOs have to balance the potential damage to their culture, morale, and engagement levels if they start forcing employees to do something they don’t wish to do, for whatever personal reasons, against the potential business risks associated with not having vaccination requirements,” says Alan Guarino, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice.

The number of employees isn’t small, either. According to a recent survey by Qualtrics, about 44% of US workers said that they would consider leaving their job if forced to get vaccinations. At the same time, another 38% said they would consider leaving their current employer if the organization did not enact a vaccine mandate. Other surveys indicate significant differences about mandates based on respondents’ political affiliation, age, nationality, and cultural background. “Be prepared to be unpopular no matter what you do,” says Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and executive development.

While the decision to mandate or not is certainly challenging, experts say some firms are making it even harder by not fully committing one way or another. For instance, some firms are telling employees to either get vaccinated or submit to ongoing COVID-19 tests that the employees themselves have to pay for. This kind of soft mandate could make unvaccinated employees feel like they’re being punished while also not winning over the full trust of vaccinated employees.

Then there’s the issue of actually getting vaccinated. “If you are going to make something a requirement, you are going to have to make it easier to make the requirement,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion. That means companies that decide on mandates should consider having vaccinations administered at the workplace and offering education programs backed by scientific research and delivered by local medical experts. Importantly, the onus is also on leaders to find out why certain parts of their own employee population haven’t gotten vaccinated yet. Different appeals will work for different employee groups.

Whether leaders decide on a mandate for employees or keeping it voluntary, leaders have to communicate the decision clearly, explaining the criteria used to make the decision. It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s an emotionally charged situation, says Elise Freedman, leader of Korn Ferry’s Organizational Strategy and Workplace Transformation practice. The result might not make everyone happy, she says, but there’s a higher likelihood that employees will respect how the decision was made, and it may decrease the chance of lower morale.