By Jeff Shlanger
The Dos, Don’ts and Didn’t Knows That Can Affect Your Business.
The past year-and-a-half has set us on an emotional roller-coaster ride. There has certainly been a lot of adapting. Resilience has become a key character trait that has become crucial not only in business, but in one’s personal life.
With all the mental anguish, there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines were approved for production. Although initially Canada was considered grossly behind expectations of a world-class country, these delays let us observe how other countries have started to transition their populations back to what we have finally been waiting for; “the new normal.”
As the human resources community has observed, although we are excited at the possibilities that exist with a society protected from the COVID-19 virus, we need to make calculated choices as business leaders to protect ourselves, our employees, our customers, and society-at-large.
With increased numbers of first doses and second doses for many on the way, it is important that businesses have comprehensive plans in place. As such, there are many things to consider and many questions to answer, no matter the size of your business.
Can I make vaccinations mandatory for my employees?
It would be hard-pressed to find employers who do not recognize safety as a concern in their workplace. If your business was affected by a COVID-19 exposure since the pandemic started, you understand the disruption and potential loss of revenue that occurred from it. By ensuring your employees are vaccinated, you reduce the chances of disruptions to your business and potential negative impacts associated with this.
However, at this point in time, it does not seem that employers can make vaccines mandatory for their employees. This is the case for a few reasons. First, due to health conditions, there are some people who may not be able to get vaccinated. As well, we need to consider human rights of employees. Everyone has the freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not. Therefore, informing an employee that they must be vaccinated to attend work is a human rights violation and could be construed as constructive dismissal.
If I cannot make vaccines mandatory for my employees, what are my options?
1. Educate your staff
The best thing you can do is educate your workforce on vaccines. You need to be careful how you position this, as you want to avoid any biases. This should be presented in a neutral tone and can include a variety of methods.
Admittedly, we are all still learning more information about COVID-19 and vaccines each day. Therefore, providing education on COVID-19 and vaccines by forwarding credible information to your staff is an acceptable way to ensure everyone is informed.
Credible sources include government bodies and health institutions. News articles should be treated with caution and only factual statements should be mentioned. If you are ever unsure of the credibility of your source, you may call provincial health service hotlines, who can confirm such information.
It is important to provide a disclaimer to your staff if you are sending out information that these are recommendations and as we learn more about COVID-19 these recommendations are subject to change.
Not all staff are “in-the-know” about COVID-19, may have false or misled feelings about its impact, or do not understand information they have been privy to. Therefore, providing education on COVID-19 to your staff may be an encouraging way to ensure they understand more about the pandemic, the virus and vaccines. This, in turn, may encourage some employees who are otherwise skeptical to choose to get vaccinated when it is their turn.
Educating your staff may come in several forms, such as sending links to videos, websites, or providing a pamphlet. It may be as simple as sending a memo to your staff informing them of when new vaccination sites are open, the ages it applies to and how to sign up.
2. Avoid incentives
You may be tempted to provide incentives to your staff members to get vaccinated, such as giving them a monetary bonus, offering gift cards to their favourite restaurants, leniency in job responsibilities, and so on. However, this is a grey area. Incentives can feel coerced and pressure employees to decide before they have time to think about it. It also creates unfair disadvantage for those who cannot or do not want to get vaccinated. It is therefore recommended to avoid this.
3. Paid time off for vaccinations
Paid time off to receive vaccinations can be viewed as an incentive. In some jurisdictions this is mandatory, including: Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Alberta. In these areas, paid time off must account for travel time and potential delays at the vaccination centre. In other provinces, this is not a requirement. However, it may be a good practice to allow employees to have paid time off to receive their vaccines during work hours due to high demands associated with booking appointments. Alternatively, an employer may also consider having lieu time to make up for any hours missed during the day. It may be a best practice in such cases to offer employees who choose not to get vaccinated a lieu-time option for future hours of work missed to instill a sense of fairness.
Can I ask my employees for proof of vaccine?
We have an obligation to ensure workplace safety and maintain a safe workplace. You may feel pressure from employees who want to know what they are coming into work with others who are vaccinated.
However, you should proceed with caution when deciding to ask for this information. Each province will have their own guidelines in place, so it is important to contact governing bodies to determine if this violates any privacy legislations.
If you choose to collect this information from your employees, be sure to inform them that you will keep this information private and not share with others. Under all privacy laws across Canada, asking for personal health information can be considered a violation. Also let them know that they have no obligation to provide this information to you, choosing not to provide this information will not affect their employment, how this information will be stored and who will have access to this. If you are collecting this information and storing in a database, the database should be password protected and only be accessible to staff members who handle human resources related information.
You must also be sensitive when approaching others about this. You want to avoid asking others when they are getting vaccinated, why they choose not to get vaccinated, and why they choose not to inform the company.
If you do choose to collect this information, a blanket statement sent to all staff informing them that providing this information is completely voluntary, will not affect anyone’s employment at the company and inquiries about choosing not to provide such information will not be asked may be the best approach.
How do I handle employee relations issues surrounding COVID-19 and vaccination refusal fears?
It is important that we avoid discrimination in the workplace. Vaccinations can be a polarizing topic, leading to those passionate on the topic creating a division with others. It is therefore important that we prevent biases around employees’ decisions to receive a vaccination.
This starts with communication to staff, promoting non-judgmental workplaces. Inform employees that some people may not be eligible to receive vaccines due to health risks, while others may fundamentally not believe it receiving vaccinations due to personal and/or religious beliefs. Everyone’s decisions to receive vaccination or not need to be respected.
It is also important to inform employees that health matters are considered private matters and even asking questions like, “when is your vaccination appointment” or “are you getting vaccinated” can make others feel uncomfortable.
You still want to ensure all employees feel safe at work. Even if most of your employees are vaccinated, there is still potential risk for transmission. Let your staff know that regardless of any employees being vaccinated, you will continue to follow public health measures to ensure the same health and safety protocols will be maintained at work. As well, any violations following these protocols will be handled in the same manner regardless of if the employee is vaccinated.
As we experience the “new normal,”,there are bound to be more questions, more adaptations, and a sense of patience to ensure we continue to protect ourselves, our employees, our customers, and society-at-large. To achieve this, we need to continue to stay cautious and make calculated choices. Whether you or your employees choose to get vaccinated or not, by having proper planning and considerations in place, we are hopeful for a brighter future ahead.
Jeff Shlanger, M.A. of the consulting firm Embrace HR Solutions Inc. has helped small and medium-sized businesses with their people strategies for over 15 years. Jeff has built a reputation as a transformational leader, as both a consultant and in-house human resources leader in a wide variety of industries. Above all, he has successfully helped companies leverage human resources to scale their businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.