Vaccines: Taking the Hard Line

In rapid fashion, some organizations have moved from encouraging people to get vaccinated to requiring they do. Why the change?

First, businesses encouraged employees to get vaccinated. Then they tried to incentivize them through payments or other methods. Now, a small but growing collection of organizations are outright requiring vaccinations.

In yet another example of a pandemic-created moving target, companies are beginning to give employees deadlines for getting inoculated against COVID-19, and even placing the requirement in ads for new jobs. In some cases, employees who don’t make the deadline face suspension or possible termination, a circumstance that spans multiple industries and positions, suggesting that the gap between “hard-liner” firms and companies with fewer restrictions is growing.

“Companies are anxious to define what the new normal is, and the inconsistency in vaccinations is slowing down the process,” says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry and cochairman of the firm’s COVID-19 task force. He says one factor, of course, has been the recent spike in COVID-19 cases globally. But another appears to be the rapid rate of vaccinations in some countries. In the United States, more than 95 million people or a third of the adult population are fully vaccinated.

Legal experts have long said firms can require the shots, unless the employee can cite medical or religious factors. At the start, most organizations were reluctant to mandate vaccinations, but they have “grown increasingly more receptive” to the idea, says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. A recent Yale School of Management Chief Executive Leadership Institute survey found that 72% of current and recent CEOs of major companies were open to mandates, for instance. But Porter says it isn’t just leaders who want employees vaccinated—it’s some of the workers’ colleagues, too. “There’s a growing sense of frustration from those who have been vaccinated towards those who haven’t,” he says.

Porter says mandating vaccinations is less of an issue for new hires than for current employees. Or, as he says, “It is a lot easier to not hire someone than to fire someone.” But requiring vaccines does pose challenges for recruiting. To be sure, the more demand for a role, the fewer mandates a firm can make, says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for workforce transformation. She says workers in competitive, high-skill areas are less likely to face mandates than those in less competitive, lower-skill roles. “It all comes down to how many degrees of freedom you, the worker, have,” says Swift.

For her part, Evelyn Orr, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, suggests leaders and employees alike look at vaccinations through a historical lens—and examine how they were handled with everything from smallpox to swine flu. “You can depolarize the topic by looking at the past,” she says.

In fact, several bills proposing to block organizations from mandating employee vaccinations have already failed at the state level. Orr says the biggest question for those companies that do mandate vaccinations is, what will enforcement look like? When does vaccine effectiveness end: after six months or a year? Will booster shots be required? For how long? “Who is going to be policing this is the big question,” says Orr.