The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations around the globe has made this whole pandemic thing a little bit lighter for many of us. We can start imagining ourselves going out in public, visiting our favorite restaurants, and even going back into the workplace. But with biggest vaccination campaign in history underway, “More than 884 million doses have been administered across 155 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg,” also comes uncertainty.
When is it (if ever) appropriate to discuss vaccination status and intentions with employees and colleagues?
This article intends to guide you on what’s generally appropriate to discuss, ask about, and share within the workplace. We’ll also provide you with a couple of responses should someone ask a question you’re not comfortable answering.
The COVID-19 vaccines are here: What comes next for the workplace?
“Employers are legally allowed to ask staff if they have been vaccinated and to seek proof that they have been, but they shouldn’t ask follow-up questions like why people did or didn’t get inoculated, said Amy Epstein Gluck, a partner at law firm FisherBroyles LLP who focuses on employment matters.” But just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
It’s not appropriate to ask anyone about their health or vaccination status.
Consider how your questions may be received before you ask them. While it may be your intention to ask these questions out of genuine care or concern for your employees, in the course of workplace conversation it is never appropriate to ask anyone about their vaccination status or whether or not they have had COVID-19. Would you ask your employee if they had irritable bowel syndrome or cancer? The same rules apply here.
The pandemic has impacted each and every one of us in some way, but those impacts do not look the same. These questions are deeply personal and have the potential to evoke responses that are fueled by tremendous loss and grief. COVID-19 and all of its implications—government response, lapsed and ongoing mandates and regulations, economic indications, vaccinations—have proven to be controversial and polarizing across political, religious, racial and socioeconomic lines. It is unwise to ask these questions of anyone, much less an employee or colleague.
Consider hidden issues behind the vaccination question.
We often assume that a person who doesn’t talk about their differences is the same as us, but many people have beliefs and values they do not speak of openly. Others may have health issues that are not immediately visible.
Asking a person’s vaccination or health status is a loaded question that may cause people to feel that they have to talk about their political, religious, or personal beliefs. These topics can be emotionally charged and are often divisive. Some may even fear beliefs-based discrimination in the workplace if they disclose their underlying beliefs.
Here in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidance noting that employers can generally require employees to get vaccinated and may ask for proof that they have done so. However, employers are bound to accommodate employees who object because of religious beliefs or because they have a medical condition that makes it unsafe for them to get a vaccine.
Consider the power structure at play.
It’s important for leaders and senior team members to take into account the power structures of the company regarding health-related discussions. You may have shared health information reports in confidence with senior team members, and they should never break those confidences.
It’s also important to note how your own position may send signals to other members of the team. A junior employee may feel pressured to discuss their health—despite any reservations—if their senior leaders openly discusses their own health choices. Remember the lines between casual conversations and policy may not be clear in the presence of power structures.
Draw boundaries with your responses.
Generally speaking, the best course of action is simply not to discuss your personal health matters or anyone else’s in the workplace. In doing so, you establish a boundary with your team, letting them know your personal health matters are not something you are willing to discuss openly. If a colleague or employee chooses to share their personal health information with you, it is not for you to share with anyone else.
Navigating the COVID-19 divide in the workplace
Given the scope of the reasons and the rifts which divide us on the topic of COVID-10 vaccinations, it is appropriate to respond by declining to answer the question.
Here are some responses you can try:
“Everyone must make a very personal and calculated decision as to whether or not to be vaccinated. I would prefer to keep my choice to myself.”
“That’s a very personal question.”
“Thanks for your concern, but I would rather not discuss this.”
Of course, if employees have questions regarding your company’s policies, it’s always best to direct them to your HR department for guidance. From a legal standpoint, in the U.S. for example, employers can ask their employees whether they have been vaccinated and request proof of vaccination, per recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal nondiscrimination laws in the workplace. However, each company will have to decide if they want to do so.
Yet, when an employee has not been vaccinated, the employer must be careful not to pry as to why, particularly in situations in which vaccinations are voluntary and not required for the job. Meanwhile, employees are not required to answer health-related questions from colleagues.
Ultimately, a company-wide blueprint and approach on handling vaccination conversations in the workplace should be a top priority.
Crystal Mullins is a seasoned Chief of Staff and global operations leader at TechnologyAdvice, with extensive experience in building international products and services delivery programs for U.S. based companies across EMEA, APAC and LATAM. She is skilled in establishing entities abroad and providing oversight of international corporate governance and compliance, global tax and finance, as well as international vendor and channel management. Crystal is an implementer, integrator, advisor and proxy for the C-suite to optimize organizational dynamics and drive strategic initiatives to foster unparalleled growth and performance.
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