When Should CEOs Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

They are essential to their stakeholders, but are they essential workers?

The priorities for now are very clear. With the early supply of the COVID-19 vaccine very limited in the coming weeks, a US government panel last week recommended that the nation’s 21 million healthcare workers—and 3 million residents of long-term care facilities—get top priority.

But by early next year, there likely will be multiple vaccines approved, and supplies will be less constrained. Public health experts will again determine which groups should be prioritized, and corporate experts are already quietly debating where CEOs might rank. It’s a debate they know could be explosive. “CEOs are operating in an increasingly transparent fishbowl,” says Richard Marshall, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global managing director of the company’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise. “Every move is scrutinized, and optics matter as much as intent.”

Certainly, some CEOs, based on their age and health conditions, could be prime candidates to get the vaccine relatively early. According to Korn Ferry research, the average US CEO is 59 years old, about the age most public health officials say people become more vulnerable to the deadly virus. Companies have been sent reeling because their chief executives have gotten sick. At the same time, if CEOs get vaccinated, it could inspire employees to also get vaccinated.

But many worry that a CEO getting priority over employees might be a bigger risk to an organization than the CEO actually getting COVID-19. It could give the impression that junior-level employees don’t matter or feed into the perception that things are only fair for the well-off and powerful. “It is true that CEOs are important to the lives of thousands of employees, and in many cases millions of customers,” says Alan Guarino, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice. “But using that criteria would always put them in some of type of elite category. And that may not be best when setting a good leadership climate.”

The ultimate decision of who gets the vaccine first lies with individual states. Even if CEOs wind up in high-priority groups based on their age and health conditions, they might not want to be first in line, experts say. “At the end of the day, it’s like the military model where the troops eat before the officers,” says David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

Regardless of when CEOs get on the vaccine priority list, they face another quandary: how far to push their own employees to get vaccinated. In most cases, companies—and their leaders—may be able to require their employees to get vaccinated (though there are exceptions for religious objections and existing medical conditions that might make taking a vaccine harmful). However, experts have differing opinions on how vocal top leaders should be when encouraging their employees to get the vaccine, particularly because of how politically divisive everything around the coronavirus has become. “It’s tiptoeing a line,” says Dennis Carey, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice.

In a major poll conducted between mid-October and November 1, a time when there was encouraging news about the success rate of vaccine trials, 58% of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine, up from a low of 50% in September. Nevertheless, 42% said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, even if the medicine was provided free of charge. Carey suggests that CEOs tell employees the choice to get vaccinated is a personal decision. “Encouraging people to take the vaccine—why take that step if it’s a landmine?” he says.