‘Vaxxed Or Fired’ Isn’t Quite Going to Plan

Why companies worldwide remain puzzled about what to do with unvaccinated employees, whether or not they imposed strict requirements on them.

The calendar has flipped to February, and at some companies this was supposed to be the time for their offices to reopen and for all employees to be vaccinated — or to be looking for another job.

But even as the surge of Omicron-related COVID-19 cases begins to wane, many employers remain torn about what to do with employees who haven’t been vaccinated. Companies are finding that while they want to keep their employees safe, they don’t want to risk losing workers in an environment where talent is already hard to find. “Even if it was just 5% of employees who leave, that’s a big number,” says Greg Button, leader of Korn Ferry’s Healthcare practice.  

According to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 14% of US adults refuse to get vaccinated, and another 3% would get the vaccine only if required by law or an employer. (In all, more than three-quarters of adults said they have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.)  

To some degree, some sectors, such as healthcare, airlines, and banking, are continuing to hold firm on vax-or-be-fired rules. But large US-based companies in other industries had been hoping that the federal government’s proposed vaccine mandate would let them avoid the issue. Then the countrywide mandate was tossed out by the Supreme Court. That’s left a hodgepodge of state and local guidelines for employers to both monitor and adhere to. New York City, for instance, has mandated that all private-sector employers require in-person workers to be vaccinated. But employers in Kansas are limited in their ability to inquire about an employee’s refusal to be vaccinated and can’t discriminate against unvaccinated employees. “In some cases, employers have to enforce a rule but have no power to institute one,” says Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president for Human Resources in the Americas.

There are pockets of vaccine hesitancy around the world, with businesses taking differing stances on what to do with employees who aren’t vaccinated. In the UK, for instance, some retailers aren’t allowing unvaccinated employees to get full pay for days they take off if they get COVID-19. Other retailers have taken the opposite stance.

The vaccination issue, of course, raises the question of where employees should work. Omicron’s gradual retreat in many parts of the world is revealing a fracture: executives perceive hybrid work arrangements as temporary, while employees perceive them as permanent.  “If you go remote first, then vaccination status is less of an issue,” says Alina Polonskaia, Korn Ferry’s global leader of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

At this point in the pandemic, some experts say, companies should first answer the question: “What work absolutely must be done in person?” For jobs that require close-quarters contact, such as healthcare, food processing, and mining, employers might consider making vaccination requirements more stringent,” says Juan Pablo González, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader for professional services.

For office jobs that can be done remotely, employers might encourage workers to test themselves and come to the office if they test negative for COVID-19. The idea is to “show proof of a negative test,” González says. At least one employer is conducting rapid tests on employees, sending home those who test positive before they even walk inside. In any case, employees who test positive can either work from home or, if they don’t feel well, take a sick day.