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The Trouble with Asking Employees to Wear Vaccination Flair

When the CEO of Ballad Health announced in early-July that employees would be required to wear color-coded badges representative of their COVID-19 vaccination status, he emphasized that whether or not employees chose to disclose their status was up to them. But either way, employees would be required to wear a blue or orange vaccination-related badge—those who didn’t comply would face disciplinary action.

While the classic 1999 film “Office Space” offered a comedic send-up of oppressive corporate practices, like requiring employees to wear badges or pins (referred to as “flair”) that communicated messages they didn’t necessarily believe in or face firing, the COVID vaccination badging issue is no laughing matter.  

“Our employees may choose to wear the blue, which indicates to fellow team members that they have chosen to be vaccinated and they have chosen to share that,” Ballard Health’s CEO Adam Levine told a local reporter.

“If you don’t want to share your vaccine status, you wear orange, which says, ‘I don’t want to share my vaccine status,’ or if you chose not to be vaccinated you wear orange.”

Dubbed the Badge Buddies program, the policy was positioned as a way for the healthcare system to comply with OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to COVID-19; Emergency Temporary Standard, which was released in June. The objective of the OSHA ruling is to protect healthcare workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19 in settings where people with COVID-19 are reasonably expected to be present. The OSHA ruling mandates that healthcare employers develop and implement a COVID-19 plan to identify and control COVID-19 hazards in the workplace.  Levine was confident that the badging program was a solid solution to this tracking mandate.

The employee acceptance or resistance factor  

The Badge Buddies plan didn’t land well with many of Ballad Health’s 15,000 employees who staff the healthcare system of 21 hospitals and clinics across Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The uproar from employees about infringement on their personal rights, healthcare decisions, and privacy was swift and unremitting.

Just two weeks after the policy was announced and the widespread revolt started, Levine relented and abandoned it, saying he’d made "a bad decision for the right reasons."

The vaccination issue is a difficult no-win proposition

The messiness of the challenge of verifying the vaccination status of employees is the latest highly charged damned-if-we-do/damned-if-we-don’t dilemma for HR and other leaders in every industry.

At the moment, most employers are not providing employees with badging or other visual cues that indicate their vaccination status to others.

Visual Cues for vaccination statusResults of a recent survey conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), which looked at the effect of the highly infectious Delta variant on employer policies, found most of the 670 respondents (55%) reporting that their organizations will not provide employees with badges or other visual cues that indicate to others that they are vaccinated. Few (10%) reported that this is currently under consideration in their organizations; just 4% said all employees will be mandated to wear visual vaccination cues. 

Our current situation--with Delta surging and overwhelming healthcare providers large and small across the U.S. at the same time the CDC is saying those who are fully vaccinated will need boosters at some point, and vaccination resistors growing increasingly adamant, is added pressure on employers wrestling with questions like:

  • Do employees have the right to know if their co-workers are vaccinated?
  • How can workers feel confident returning to the office or worksite if they have no way of knowing if the people around them have made decisions that will or won’t protect them and others?
  • How can we ensure safe workspaces and reassure all employees who are worried about the risks of exposure to the highly infectious menace of the Delta variant?
  • Should we just keep everyone who can work remotely away from offices and worksites indefinitely?

The dilemmas are real, and effect employers beyond healthcare—industries such as tech, manufacturing, service providers, and all other industries in between are looking for answers to what are more often than not often impossible questions.    

Requiring that people provide proof of vaccination in order to be on the premises of a business, or to enter a venue—such as the U.S. Open, which announced last week that tennis fans must produce proof of vaccination in order to sit in the stands—seems like the best approach. But even this strategy has drawbacks—the implied safety of this rule doesn’t afford total peace of mind, since we’ve all seen news coverage of counterfeit proof of vaccination cards.

In the end, even if the Ballad Health colored-badging plan had moved forward, would employees have fully trusted one another to truthfully report (and wear cues about) their vaccination status? How helpful or accurate would a badge or a button—a piece of flair—really be?

And even implementing technology, most of which relies on employee attestation has drawbacks—how accurate is it really? Some technology can track coronavirus test results, contact-trace, or control badge access to worksites based on employee testimony, but again—how safe can employees expect to be when so much relies on vaccine compliance and truthfulness about it. These are questions that color-coded badges alone cannot answer, at least not right now.    

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's Vice President of Research