As employees return to the workplace and the country tries to regain a sense of normalcy, issues surrounding vaccination status and covid-related work changes such as masking have quickly become charged for employers.
The debate has roiled organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to city police departments, and even the NBA.
With the topic continuing to heat up, vaccine mandates and employees’ vaccination status, among other issues, have become a new dividing line in a culture that is rife with divisions.
Shifting Legal Regulations
The immediate concern of most companies pertains to the legal regulations surrounding vaccine mandates. Can we mandate employees be vaccinated? Can we ask about an employee’s vaccine status? Can we discipline an employee who does not comply? These urgent questions are being asked every day.
While the EEOC has provided guidance and continues to update its information, and OSHA has provided guidance for some industries and is expected to announce further guidance soon, organizations face a landscape full of contradictions.
The federal government issues one set of rules, while your state may enact an entirely different set of standards. Further complicating the issue is the fact that cities are also actively legislating around mandates.
From a federal standpoint, employers have been given wide latitude to enact mandates. Still, the topic must be handled with care, and you should consult your legal counsel to ensure your company is compliant with the varied mix of laws.
Protected Status Laws
One crucial development in the debate is the rise of laws that provide protected status to unvaccinated workers.
In May of 2021, the state of Montana passed a law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on vaccination status. The statute prevents employers from enacting vaccine mandates, bans discrimination against unvaccinated employees, and essentially gives unvaccinated employees the same rights and protections afforded to employees under federal law based on sex, race, and national origin.
The designation of protected status adds another layer of complexity beyond standard mandates, as employees with protected status could encounter harassment or discrimination at multiple levels within the organization.
While Montana was the first state to enact such a law, other states are considering similar measures, so the rules are likely to grow more complex and the risks are likely to increase for employers.
Steps to Take
With such a challenging landscape, what steps should employers take to protect employees and the organization? While your legal team can speak to the specifics, there are best practices to follow from a leadership standpoint.
Once a decision about mandates has been made, it’s vital to communicate the requirements clearly, why you are requiring them, and the consequences of not abiding by the rules.
Leaders within your organization should set expectations about the mandate, but the guidance should also extend to employee behavior and how we treat each other.
Make clear that the issue can be as sensitive as discrimination based on race, sex, or religion. The issues that arise from the decision should be handled with care, and interactions should be conducted with civility.
Employees can have drastically different opinions about the topic. Still, leadership should stress that the expectation is to treat each other as equal citizens of the organization regardless of vaccination status.
A Shifting Landscape
Issues surrounding vaccination status will continue to evolve as the pandemic waxes and wanes, and the shifting landscape makes it vital to stay in contact with your legal counsel.
While staying current with the city, state, and federal laws is essential, it’s also imperative to monitor your workplace and make sure vaccinations are not causing rifts in your company culture. Individual acts of discrimination can violate protected status laws, but they can also damage your organization's overall culture.
As with other workplace conflicts, vaccine-status confrontations require you to address both the legal challenges and the deeper issues that will arise from incivility and exclusion which can affect your organization’s culture and operational results. Doing so will help your company weather these challenges and build a culture of respect for the long-term.