As we return to work, the onset of division between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees has been an unfortunate development.
Since September 20th, there has been a gradual and careful re-opening of offices as advised by the Irish Government. Ahead of further easing of restrictions next week (22nd October), the reality of the “new” workplace is just around the corner.
While the progress in recent weeks and months has been positive, certain issues have surfaced, making headlines and even reaching the floor of the Oireachtas. One unnerving issue in particular – the arrival of workplace division between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, and the effect it’s having on all involved.
So as an employer, leader or HR professional, what can you do to prevent this from occurring in your organisation?
Understanding the context
With just shy of 90% of the eligible population of Ireland now fully vaccinated, almost all who intend to get vaccinated, already have been vaccinated. But there are of course, certain exceptions. Let’s take a quick look at some leading examples.
- Objecting due to religious beliefs – a small number of religious groups disapprove of vaccinations, and some workers may refuse to be vaccinated based on these religious beliefs. Key point to note – The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 (EEA) protect employees against discrimination on grounds of religion.
- Objecting due to pregnancy – while latest guidance from the HSE allows for vaccination at any stage of pregnancy, uptake in this group has been mixed due to changes in guidance, limitations dependent on vaccination status at time of pregnancy, and other health-related hesitations.
And of course, we must remember that getting vaccinated is also a personal choice. Certain employees may refuse vaccinations for their own reasons and are protected by their right to bodily integrity.
Understanding what you can and can’t do
- Can I ask my employees if they are vaccinated?
No. This point has been made very clear by the Data Protection Commission, under the basis of it being personal medical information. Aside from some very limited exceptions such as frontline healthcare, you cannot ask your employee for this information. Doing so may lead to workplace disputes and even litigation.
- Can I make vaccinations mandatory for my employees?
In the absence of a mandatory vaccine program, it is not permissible for employers to make vaccination a mandatory condition for employment. Again, in limited circumstances such as frontline healthcare this may be justifiable. However, for typical workplaces, mandatory vaccination is not lawful.
- Can I encourage my employees to get vaccinated?
While encouraging your employees to be vaccinated can be a key part of making your workplace as safe and risk-free as possible, the reality remains that getting a vaccination is a personal decision. Encouragement on the grounds of risk reduction is understandable, but it must only be encouragement.
“A balance exists between an employer’s legal obligation to protect the health of their employees and maintain a safe place of work and an employees’ right around privacy of their medical information.” Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment – Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday – 27 July 2021
In light of these limitations, it is safe to assume that this will be a rolling issue over the next number of months, and possibly even years. For employers, attention must turn to what steps and actions can be implemented to manage health & safety, while also managing conflict and maintaining a positive workplace culture.
The Government’s Work Safely Protocol offers the latest guidance on the range of measures companies can implement to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. Through this guidance, and through effective implementation (engagement, communication, compliance), companies can operate safely through a variety of measures, without needing to consider vaccination status.
Inclusion vs exclusion
From a workplace culture perspective, it is also important to manage conflict if it does arise, and work with your employees to ensure it does not lead to a toxic culture. Effective management of the return to work with culture as a guiding light should ideally mitigate the risks of division. As has been the case with effective change management throughout the pandemic, the opportunity for employers to pro-actively engage with their employees to develop strategies must be taken. This engagement can be a valuable tool in the creation of a workplace for both vaccinated and unvaccinated to work closely together. If disputes do occur, managing the conflict in a balanced manner will be paramount.
Be cautious with policies
“While excluding an unvaccinated person may seem like a solution and resolve one issue, it could have an unintended consequence in another part of the business, i.e., attracting and retaining key staff.” Mary Cullen, Founder and Managing Director, Insight HR
In short, be cautious in implementing or drafting policies that may cause division or even discrimination within your company. As mentioned, claims of discrimination may quite easily surface, if policies are seen to be biased towards a certain vaccination status, whether directly or indirectly. For many employers, grievances and dignity at work complaints may also be raised. And while some of these issues may not make it as far as the Workplace Relations Commission, both public employer brand and internal perceptions of working culture could cause significant damage to a business.
As has been the case since the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are anxious and scared about the health risks associated with the virus. But as employers and HR teams, you must ask yourself, what kind of workplace do you want?
Overall, while recovery from this pandemic and the unprecedented upheaval it has caused is now beginning to subside, challenges still remain. Ensuring your approach is fair, well-informed, and people-centric is key.
For further guidance and discussion about this, and many other topics, check out the resources below, or speak to our team today at 0567701060 or firstname.lastname@example.org.