COVID Policies for Employers: A Risk Management Approach
By Lin Grensing-Pophal, Steven T. Hunt | 15 min read
In November 2021, the U.S. government began to roll out vaccine mandates for federal workers, healthcare workers, and companies with more than 100 employees. It’s been a rocky road since then.
There have been a series of mandates and policies coming and going at different government levels and among major employers. Companies, including Google, Starbucks, GE, Amtrak, and others have backed off from their vaccine mandates. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine requirement aimed at large employers but left intact the requirement for many healthcare workers. Even some large healthcare employers like Cleveland Clinic announced that they would pause or eliminate their vaccine policies amid staffing concerns and ongoing shifts in medical guidance.
A majority of employers support the idea that workers should get vaccinated to protect themselves and prevent the spread of disease. In a November 2021 survey, Qualtrics research found that most employers support mandates (64% support the federal mandate for healthcare workers, and 58% back a mandate for companies with more than 100 people). The survey found that many employees (59%) support mandates regardless of the size of their companies, though a large majority of unvaccinated workers (75%) said they would consider leaving their job if mandates went into effect.
Even without government mandates, employers need to choose an approach to mandating or encouraging vaccination that aligns practically and philosophically with their corporate brand and its mission, vision, and values.
And vaccine mandates aren’t the only safety precautions employers can take to protect employees and others from coronavirus risk. Reconfiguring workspaces and production lines to provide for more space for social distancing among employees and customers, using better ventilation and air purifiers, and making hand sanitizers readily available and highly visible are examples of moves employers made before the development of vaccines. They are all things employers can continue to provide whether or not they have vaccine policies in place.
But as vaccine rules and guidelines at various government levels ebb and flow and the coronavirus continues to create health concerns around the globe, employers must consider the steps they will take to protect the health and safety of their employees and other key audiences. In addition, some states have laws prohibiting vaccine mandates which employers must be aware of, according to Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader with WTW, a risk management consultancy.
Even without government mandates, employers need to choose an approach to mandating or encouraging vaccination that aligns practically and philosophically with their corporate brand and its mission, vision, and values; the sentiment of employees, customers, and other stakeholders; and the operational impacts related to staffing, administration, and ongoing communication to keep audiences informed.
Developing health policies that fit your business and values
In addition to the government regulations they must follow, organizations also have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and others, such as business partners, customers, and members of the public who come in contact with them. Whether the discussion is about vaccines or COVID-19, the issue for leaders is ensuring a safe workplace.
In the end, what’s most important is what makes sense for the health and safety of employees – occupational health, safety, security. Focusing on these topics takes the conversation out of the political realm and maintains a focus on important and legitimate business issues.
Organizations with strong safety cultures committed to protecting people’s health, security, and well-being often look and feel visibly different. For example, employees may follow practices like holding on to handrails and encouraging others to do so. In construction zones, they wear safety glasses and hard hats. Signs in an office may remind employees to follow healthy personal wellness practices. Many companies even provide incentives for those participating in programs like smoking cessation, weight loss, and exercise. In this light, vaccinations are just another health practice to encourage. In fact, well before the pandemic, many companies promoted and encouraged annual flu vaccines.
When the virus first hit, the companies best able to quickly put good safety practices in place were those that had done so previously, such as those that had instituted strong food safety processes after dealing with communicable disease in the past – they just added a new communicable disease.
The issues around mandating vaccines is really not that dissimilar to any other kind of policy or requirement that an organization would put into place.
Clearly, the type of business and its operations will also come into play. A meat processing plant is different from a retail store, which is different from a company that sells software or services. Some organizations have a lot of dealings with the public; others operate virtually. Business leaders must consider both the type of work they do and related risks to employees, as well as impacts to their brands. Failing to protect people from risks like COVID-19 exposure and infections carries real consequences for employees and the people around them if they don’t follow these policies – lost productivity, health risks for employees and their families, even negative media coverage.
The issues around mandating vaccines are not that dissimilar to any other kind of policy or requirement that an organization would put into place. Corporate leaders need to make sure they can stand behind their policies and communicate them well, says Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s People & Organization practice. “The vaccine policy should be very consistent with how they think about any other aspects of their talent philosophy or their organizational purpose or their corporate values,” Sethi says.
Sethi, who works with organizations that have vaccine mandates and those that don’t, says that regardless of the approach, leaders must clearly explain their decision, such as who it’s being made for if not all employees are impacted (remote workers, for instance), and how it aligns with the company’s overall safety values and culture. “Just have a narrative around why you’re not doing it,” he says. “You can still live your purpose and values and not mandate vaccines. You can encourage it. You can make recommendations.”
Monitoring the sentiment of employees, customers, and other stakeholders
Organizations must also be cognizant of the sentiment of their workforce and other key audiences – customers, vendors, business partners, and the general public.
This consideration is especially relevant in an environment where employee turnover is high and many positions – including healthcare workers, service industry roles like restaurant staff, and transportation workers like truckers – remain hard to fill.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your policies will mirror the demands of these audiences, but that your communications and education around your policies will address their concerns and potential objections. Managing employee experience, whether related to COVID or any other aspect of a job, is not just about understanding and changing what employees experience at work. It’s also about effectively setting expectations and managing perceptions regarding the different things employees experience at work.
Organizations must also be cognizant of the sentiment of their workforce and other key audiences – customers, vendors, business partners, and the general public.
Since the start of the pandemic, employers have surveyed employees on a range of topics, Sethi says, including their sentiment around vaccines. “Firms are being proactive,” he says. “Some firms have the ability to put out a very short poll survey around employee-mandated vaccines.” Questions could include “Would you share your proof of vaccine?” “Do you prefer not to comment?” “Would it influence how you think about your future employment with us?”
Customer sentiment is another important consideration. What are their potential concerns about interacting with employees who may be unvaccinated? What are their feelings about wearing masks? These concerns will obviously impact organizations that have more direct person-to-person contact than organizations that do business online, although brand-impact considerations are also relevant here.
Keep in mind that this sentiment is likely to change, so it should be monitored over time to aid in communication practices and to help proactively identify potential areas of risk or misunderstanding. In addition, it’s unlikely that a company will see anything approaching unanimity in employee sentiment. Many are finding themselves having to achieve a delicate balance: keeping their people safe, projecting a healthy corporate image, and retaining employees who might not like given policies in a tough hiring environment.
Walmart, Uber, and McDonald’s, for instance, have required office workers to get vaccinated – but not frontline workers who have, instead, been offered incentives to encourage vaccination, according to a Vox report. That may not seem logical from a public health standpoint, but these companies are facing growing challenges in remaining fully staffed.
Monitoring compliance and adherence
Organizations should stay up-to-date on legal requirements related to vaccines in the places they operate. Attorney and business law professor Robert C. Bird, with the University of Connecticut, recommends the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website. “The EEOC site offers detailed analysis of vaccine-related rules as well as Q&As addressing pressing questions that HR personnel may have. Most states have their own version of the EEOC, and that is a key source for learning about state-related regulations,” Bird says.
Beyond adhering to these requirements, employers also need to determine how they will track compliance, offer reasonable accommodation as required, address potential impacts on employee acquisition and retention, and ensure effective communications.
Track compliance. There’s ample technology available to automate the process of collecting vaccination information. The greater concern for employers will be issues related to confidentiality and the privacy of personal health information.
A lot of people, understandably, are very anxious about sharing health information, whether or not they want to get a vaccine. Companies need to think through how they will handle that while ensuring they are adhering to privacy guidelines that may be in place.
Rules also vary depending on where a company does business. Vaccine information collected by employers is not subject to HIPAA or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – a vaccine is not considered a “medical examination” within the meaning of the ADA. California and Connecticut, though, have laws imposing restrictions on disclosures of vaccine information – an additional 20 states also have data breach notification laws that include health information data. In Europe, GDPR privacy rules can make it difficult to justify asking for employee vaccination data.
Again, strong communications can help in vaccine compliance efforts, Sethi says: “If you’re requesting this data, making sure you’re really clear with people about how it’s being used.”
Offer reasonable accommodation. Some employees are protected from requirements to receive the vaccine – those who are immunocompromised or who have certain religious beliefs, for instance. Employees with legitimate health concerns would be protected through the ADA and employers would be required to make reasonable accommodations – for instance, allowing an unvaccinated employee to work from home, if possible. Or the option to be tested on a regular basis in lieu of having the vaccine.
The EEOC has offered guidance on what employers need to know about COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other EEO laws, notably that employees with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, may need accommodations because of fears related to COVID-19, even if they are fully vaccinated.
Employers must also be cautious about the type of accommodation they offer. United Airlines, for instance, had to face a lawsuit from employees who object to the company’s policy of putting unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave.
Be prepared to lose some people. Will you lose some people because of whatever policy you put in place? Yes, you might. But you will also gain some people. Companies that can put in place and convey a stance consistent with their brand and values, and aligned with maintaining a safe environment, should be able to make a strong case for employee adherence without the fear of significant impact, using a message like “We care about our business and our people who make it possible.” Remember, the reason companies have values is to guide decisions. A company lives its values by making decisions that put “what it believes is right” over “what is easy, profitable, or expedient.”
Some are being very up front with their policies, even including them in their job listings. In December 2021, Ladders, a jobs site that focuses on positions that pay salaries higher than US$100,000 a year, predicted that if the growth trend continued at the same pace by the end of 2022, half of all such job postings in North American would list COVID-19 vaccine requirements. That’s based on an analysis of listings for positions paying at least $80,000 on Ladders and at North America’s top 50,000 employers.
“When you consider that outside of healthcare, it’s been rare to see any type of vaccine requirements in a job ad, this is especially stunning,” says Ladders CEO Marc Cenedella.
Regardless of the stance an employer takes, there is likely to be some risk of attrition, Sethi says. “There are some people that may want to work with an employer that does take a certain position and mandates vaccines. An equal amount of talent might say they don’t want a corporation to tell them how to live their life,” he says. “The firm just has to be very deliberate and model what the impact of their decisions might be on their ability to attract and retain talent.”
They must also be willing to show even their top employees the door. NPR reported a Michigan TV station fired a well-beloved meteorologist when he refused to comply with the corporate owner’s vaccine mandate. Also dismissed: Washington State University’s head football coach.
The importance of ongoing communication
There’s much that employers still don’t know – and can’t know – given the uncertainty of the virus, vaccines, treatments, and what the future may hold. Even amid this uncertainty, though, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Uncertainty can represent a recipe for disaster when senior leaders don’t know, or have, the answers and simply say nothing. Forward-thinking companies are honest about what they know, what they don’t, and when they will provide additional information and updates. Statements like “We’re not sure, but here’s what we’re basing our decision on…,” can be a good way to remain engaged with employees even in the absence of specific information.
Forward-thinking companies are honest about what they know, what they don’t, and when they will provide additional information and updates.
Employers also don’t need to feel they must take on the role of being the source of virus- or vaccine-related information. Instead, they can point employees to those reliable sources of information and make them prominent on their websites and internal communication platforms – sources like the CDC and other sources they point to.
When it comes to communicating effectively about vaccine mandates, Sethi advises, “Keep it simple and keep it consistent.” If firms revisit their decisions on vaccines, Sethi recommends they “be deliberate in the messaging, especially if there are different rules in your office versus clients or suppliers on their worksites.” Be transparent with all stakeholders, he stresses – not just employees. “Customers will want to know – your investors will want to know – your suppliers will want to know.”
Andrew Moyer, executive vice president and general manager at Reputation Partners, further advises that employees focus first on communicating with employees – early and transparently – before communicating with external audiences. “Currently there are more questions than answers, but employers should begin establishing a cadence of communications with employees today to let them know what to expect and where they can go for additional information,” he says.
Aside from mandates, there are other things employers can do to maintain a focus on health and safety, Levin-Scherz suggests:
- Continue efforts to promote vaccines, including scheduling flexibility and time off for vaccination and any adverse effects.
- Continue efforts to collect data on vaccination status so that it is available for future vaccine mandates or interventions.
- When community transmission rates are high, consider restrictions on activities for unvaccinated individuals who are at higher risk of infection and transmission to others.
- Offer paid sick leave to encourage employees not to come to the workplace if they feel ill.
Regardless of the approach they take, employers play an increasingly critical role in the mental and emotional stability of employees and their communities. Leaders are well aware that they have no control over the pandemic. They do, though, have control over the safety efforts they will take. That’s true during the pandemic. And it will be true after. Employers have long been held accountable for employee safety. That’s not likely to change, especially amid an ongoing pandemic. Finding the right balance between mandates, education, and effective communication can help employers protect both their employees’ health and their business interests.
An effective policy should do the following:
- Comply with current government mandates (at all levels) and employee safety requirements.
- Align with the organization’s culture of safety.
- Fit with the organization’s business operations.
- Clearly communicate the organization’s approach.
- Include research to assess employees’ concerns and sentiments, as well as input from customers and other stakeholders.
- Include a process to reassess stakeholder sentiment regularly.
Here’s how organizations can stay healthy:
- Track compliance with government mandates and the organization’s policies.
- Ensure that processes safeguard people’s data privacy.
- Offer reasonable accommodations to those who may request it in compliance with the ADA.
- Consider the potential impact of policies on employee turnover.
- Provide ready access to reputable third-party sources of virus information, such as the CDC.
- Communicate first with employees and then with other key audiences in ways that allow for feedback.
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