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As COVID-19 Vaccines Roll Out, Business Leaders Aren’t Rushing to Require Them

Fervently hoped-for COVID-19 vaccines are making their way to frontline workers and beyond, but many business leaders remain undecided about their organizations’ policies on vaccinations for employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

Data from The COVID-19 Vaccine & The 2021 Workplace, a new pulse survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), shows that corporate decision-makers are more comfortable with encouraging (versus requiring) employees to get vaccinated. And many company leaders simply aren’t ready to rush into vaccination policies.

Only 5% of surveyed business leaders said their organizations would require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it was widely available to the public. In contrast, more than two-thirds—68%—planned to encourage workers to be vaccinated. Large percentages of respondents reported discussions taking place, but no firm plans yet.

Throughout the short survey, we’re-considering-it responses consistently emerged as the favored approaches. About half of participants reported that they were engaged in discussions about vaccination policies. In some cases, well over half said that they were still considering what would constitute the content of such policies, how to encourage vaccinations, and how to communicate effectively with employees about vaccines.

Caution Doesn’t Belie Intent—Especially When Stakes Are High

Although some may think that business leaders are dragging their feet, taking a thoughtful and cautious approach to questions about the vaccine doesn’t imply indecision or avoidance of action. Instead, it signals that executives are working to make strong decisions and devise effective strategies as organizations emerge from the long shadow of 2020. 

Savvy business leaders realize that requiring (or even just encouraging) the COVID-19 vaccine for employees and others involves many variables. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and other government entities have issued statements and provided information about COVID-19 vaccinations, knowledge about the vaccines and their effects is early-stage and still evolving. 

Perhaps one of the most critical factors affecting corporate policymaking is leaders’ understanding that vaccination is one more new and ambiguous step for employees who may continue to struggle with the emotional fallout of adjusting to months of uncertainty and profound change.  

The marked increase in organizational support for workers’ holistic well-being—and especially mental well-being—is testament to an appreciation of the personal toll the coronavirus has taken. 

One recent AP/NORC poll reported that about half the people in the U.S. don’t want to be vaccinated for reasons ranging from mistrust to health conditions to religion-based objections and more. That resistance means that employers seeking to fulfill their mandate to provide safe work environments must navigate potential legal fallout if they choose to require employees to be vaccinated in order to return to, or continue gaining access to, company facilities. Indeed, the EEOC has said employers can require vaccinations, however, exceptions (for health, religious, and other conditions) apply. 

So balancing concerns for individual and workplace well-being is a core challenge for organizational decision-makers. Some of the other compelling issues that warrant the careful consideration business leaders are investing: 

  • Will companies require all employees to be vaccinated, or just certain groups?
  • Should a vaccination policy apply to remote workers, too, if they aren’t accessing company facilities?
  • Should the organization partner with a healthcare provider to make vaccinations available?
  • If employees don’t agree to vaccination, must they be tested regularly for COVID-19 before they can enter workplaces?
  • How will the organization communicate about and accommodate the exceptions that apply to some employees?
  • What, if anything, must be done to adapt workplaces to accommodate employees who are and aren’t vaccinated?
  • How will the organization confirm that an individual actually has received the vaccine?
  • How does the organization’s vaccination policy align with company culture?
  • Will vaccination policies affect the organization’s ability to acquire talent, the engagement levels of current employees, and other factors that contribute to performance? 

Clearly, there are many more things to think about than those listed above. And there is variation—and sometimes special challenges—by industry, organizational size, location, and other factors.  

That plethora of considerations underscores why seasoned and responsible business leaders aren’t making snap decisions about COVID-19 vaccination policies. They understand there is much at stake and many perspectives to contemplate. A careful, measured approach to decision-making—especially in the still-roiling wake of a chaotic year—is a sign of solid leadership and a key strategy for ultimate success. 

In the days ahead, we’ll share more results of i4cp’s The COVID-19 Vaccine & The 2021 Workplace survey. Check back for insights into the policies and strategies leading organizations are considering as we move into a new and hopeful year.  

Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.