Talks of vaccine policies are populating the news, so Andrew Mulder, head of people at MVF, explains what employers should be thinking about.
“Congratulations! We’d be delighted to offer you the job. Just one question: Are you having the COVID-19 vaccination?”
“Oh. Sorry, but I’m afraid no jab, no job. It’s company policy.”
As we prepare to reclaim our lives following the tragedy that was 2020, the conversation is shifting to vaccine politics. How should employers respond when people cannot or will not have the vaccine?
In case you haven’t heard, at the current rate of vaccination, the UK is extrapolating to have offered the entire working age population a vaccine by July 31 2021. At the time of writing, over 25,000,000 people have had their first jab, with folks keen to trade vaccine stories with anyone who will listen. Oh, you had AstraZeneca? I had Pfizer, apparently it’s more “efficacious” (my new favourite word). So, with a return to the office now creeping onto the horizon, coupled with emerging concerns regarding vaccine safety, is “no jab, no job” really a feasible stance for businesses to take?
At this point, I have a confession to make. This is the second time I have written this little missive - I first started it a few weeks ago. At the time, I had a very strong view on what was right. Had you read that attempt you would have learned why I felt anyone choosing to ignore science and not have the jab was in the wrong. I would have waxed lyrical from my ivory tower about Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias and its impact on decision-making. I would go on to list all the potential difficulties faced by employers. And, I would conclude by saying that I was unsure whether there was a safe and achievable middle ground.
Luckily, you are not reading that article. Instead you get to hear why, in hindsight, I think I was being a bit of a wally.
Let’s get something straight. The question of how to handle individual vaccine preferences is hard. It’s hard because it is yet another issue that already stretched employers must manage. It’s hard because getting it wrong could open up a range of employment, health and safety and personal injury issues. It’s hard because it puts one individual’s right to self determination against another’s right to feel safe at work. And it’s hard because if we get it wrong, it could cost yet more lives. The Guardian described this as a “moral minefield”, and I agree with them.
So, why have I changed my mind? Because I spent a week doing what I should have done from the very start. Talking to people and listening to what they had to say.
What have I learned?
People are rational beings and the concerns about the vaccine are not all rooted in conspiracy theory. The concerns shared with me included phobias, negative experiences of medical procedures, negative reactions to vaccines as well as negative experiences of friends and family in the same vein. With the recent bad press regarding the potential side effects of one vaccine in particular, we can only expect these concerns to increase.
Next, do not assume that different perspectives will be in conflict with one another. There are four camps: “can have vaccine and will”, “will not have vaccine”, “would like vaccine, but can’t” and “haven’t decided yet”. Irrespective of what people thought, there was acceptance for the perspectives of others and their right to choose.
I think the important point here is to do your homework understand what your people actually think. MVF has formed a return to office working group which is tasked with searching for the right solution for our business. This started with us asking MVFers how they are feeling about returning to the office at some point in the (not too near) future and their current thoughts on the vaccine. All anonymous and voluntary as you would expect, but this important information will inform our design process for whatever comes next.
What will the data tell us? It is too early to say, but it should go without saying you need to know your data. Do you fully understand the groups who are concerned regarding vaccine uptake and are you aware of the disproportionate impact that a “no jab, no job” policy could have? Putting moral questions aside (begrudgingly), is it a justifiable and proportionate course of action or could it land you in hot water?
There are plenty of challenges in accommodating freedom of choice and there is no clear answer at the moment. Declaring “no jab, no job” might, on the face of it, seem like an instinctive and easy solution. However, just because it is easy, it does not mean it is right. There will undoubtedly be organisations who decide that due to the nature of their operations, they have no choice but to insist their people have to have the vaccine. But not all are in this camp.
Yes, employers will face difficult questions. Yes, employers will need to go the extra mile for their people to make sure everyone feels safe and heard. It will take time and energy, but the best things in life usually do.
So, no jab, no job? No thanks. We’ll face this challenge like all the other challenges COVID-19 has thrown at us, by listening to our people and doing the right thing.