Can you require new hires to be vaccinated?

Is it legal to include vaccination requirement in job ads in Singapore?

Can you require new hires to be vaccinated?

Vaccination is an incredibly divisive topic - especially when you apply it in the context of work. Is it anyone’s business if an employee is vaccinated or not? Mask mandates and strict social distancing rules are still enforceable at work, and vaccinations remain voluntary in Singapore, so can employers really impose the COVID-19 shots onto employees? How about including it as a requirement when hiring new candidates?

To help HR leaders work through their queries, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) recently issued an FAQ on vaccinations at the workplace. While very few businesses can justifiably impose a vaccine mandate, companies can implement the Vaccinate or Regular Test (VoRT) regime. This is slated to start today (October 1) and is a voluntary policy for companies to adopt and keep workplaces safe.

Read more: Singapore's VoRT regime: What HR needs to know

Can HR legally request for proof of vaccination?

Whether your organisation chooses to formally adopt the VoRT regime or not, officials in Singapore have made clear that you can request employees to declare their vaccination status if it is in your business interest. This could mean when you’re implementing return-to-work plans or for day-to-day operations such as the safe deployment of frontline-related work. Additionally, MOM stated that you can request for proof of vaccination, such as through their Trace Together app or original physical vaccination cards.

Read more: Is it legal to ask staff to declare their vaccination status?

Can HR require new hires to be vaccinated?

Such requests for proof of vaccination can also be asked during the recruitment process. However, whether you can make vaccination a requirement for new hires is highly dependent on several factors.

According to MOM, firms can only impose a vaccination requirement on new hires if all existing employees in the same role are fully vaccinated from October 1st, 2021. 

Despite MOM’s simple one-liner, it may be harder to implement for organisations as it’s a complex issue to navigate. A leading employment lawyer also pointed out this “rather curious position” on imposing vaccination requirements when speaking at a recent Singapore HR Institute (SHRI) webinar. “I used to be very confident in answering this question. I used to tell clients, ‘Yes [you can],” said Goh Seow Hui, partner, Singapore at Bird & Bird.

“If the idea here is to ensure that we operate on either a fully vaccinated or very highly vaccinated workforce, and because vaccination matters, as of now, aren’t a legally protected characteristic, I can’t see discrimination [issues], so I used to tell clients, ‘Why, yes, I think you can make vaccination a requirement to getting hired’.”

However, upon seeing MOM’s statement on the issue, Goh stopped answering employers with a clear ‘yes’. “There are good and legitimate reasons for employers wanting to impose vaccination as a condition of hire," Goh said. "Whether its existing workforce is fully vaccinated or not has very little to do with it. It was because of the FAQ that I had to pull back on my answers. I think that the answer maybe is that it’s not that clear.”

Read more: Can you legally demote unvaccinated employees?

Is including vax requirement in job ads discriminatory?

Fellow panellist Hao Shuo, director of operations policy and planning, labour relations and workplaces division at MOM clarified the statement and explained how requiring new hires to be vaccinated can be discriminatory – thus, should be mulled over properly.

Hao Shuo explained that you can include the vaccination requirement if you’ve done all you can to urge existing employees to get their shots. “If you have already done everything you can to redeploy everyone who is unvaccinated away from a particular job that is high risk [and] high contact, then we shouldn’t force the employer to take in someone who is unvaccinated,” he said.

However, imposing vaccinations on recruits can be an unfair practice if you haven’t enforced the same treatment to current staffers. “On the other hand, if your company is very lax in your treatment of all employees – [they] can be vaccinated or unvaccinated – but somehow you only impose this requirement for new hires, we thought then it's a bit of a harsher treatment on new hires.”

Read more: Would you mandate vaccines for all future hires?

MOM’s statement should thus be used as a guiding principle for employers when deciding their recruitment processes as well as fair management of the entire workforce. It was also a result of discussions held between representatives from both the government and business leaders, including NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

Sim Gim Guan, executive director at SNEF added a simple reminder for employers as they manage vaccination-related issues at work. “The general guidance is that you must be able to substantiate why you make such a decision,” Sim said. “If all your employees in the current role are vaccinated, and you have intentionally made that so by redeploying all other unvaccinated staff into other roles, then that is a clear demonstration to both TAFEP and MOM as to why this role requires your [new] employees to be vaccinated.”

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