HR leader urges caution over mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies

Top HR leader urges caution as Qantas goes all in on compulsory vaccinations

HR leader urges caution over mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies

A top HR leader has urged business leaders to take a cautious approach when it comes to making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees.

In Australia, government-led mandates have been announced across some industries and private sector businesses are beginning to introduce mandatory policies too. New Zealand’s government expanded the health order for compulsory jabs earlier this year to include borders workers at airports and maritime ports, after first requiring all workers involved with quarantine hotels be fully vaccinated.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce announced that all frontline crew members will need to be doubled-jabbed by mid-November, with the rest of the workforce given until March next year. Food manufacturer SPC has also made the jab compulsory for staff members, contractors and any visitors stepping onsite. Experts predict Qantas’ decision is just the tip of the iceberg and many more businesses will now follow suit.

However, top HR executive Kris Grant, CEO at ASPL Group, believes business leaders should consider the legal and ethical ramifications of introducing a mandatory vaccine policy before making any rash decisions.

“I think it's really important for business leaders to get into a room with HR and legal and begin thinking about how to manage their risk,” she told HRD. “There’s a fine line here because they’ve got a duty of care to ensure their employees are safe, they’ve got to make sure they don't discriminate against an employee, and then on top of that, they’ve got the privacy challenge in making sure that whatever data they collect, they have the systems in place to enable its security.”

Read more: Manufacturer SPC introduces compulsory COVID-19 vaccine policy for employees

For leaders who are considering implementing a mandatory policy, scenario planning will be key. Grant urged them to think about all the possible responses from employees and work through how they will deal with each one. Firstly, HR leaders need to consider how to handle exemptions for those with medical conditions, or employees who argue that being vaccinated against COVID-19 is not inherent to their job role. Similarly, privacy concerns, who has access to health data and the risk of bullying are also important points to consider.

If businesses rush into introducing a mandatory policy without enough planning, they risk mishandling exemptions and potentially discriminating against an employee, which could lead to a costly legal challenge down the line. As well as thorough risk management, Grant said communication is the other key piece to remember.

Being transparent with employees as to why they are required to be vaccinated, what the risks are, how exemptions will be managed, and how their sensitive data will be protected is fundamental. The handling of exemptions for example must be fair and reasonable, and proportionate to the risk facing employees.

Read more: Workplace COVID-19 vaccinations could begin in September

While vaccines are an emotive issue for both business leaders and employees alike, any decision to enforce a mandatory policy must come down to protecting the health and safety of staff. Grant said the best thing business leaders can do is look to their HR professional and legal team for advice.

“As a leader you can't be making decisions based on your own personal view,” she said. “It could go both ways whether you are anti-vaxxer or not, you should only be making a decision on the risk to your people.”

Similarly, for businesses considering vaccine incentives like cash bonuses or vouchers, they must also consider the risk of discriminating against employees who cannot be vaccinated. Telstra employees have been offered $200 worth of points to be spent on the company’s online store to encourage widespread take-up. CEO Andy Penn said the move was brought in to foster a “level of solidarity” in getting the jab.

While Grant said she’s not 100% sure cash incentives are the right way to go, the biggest concern is ensuring that businesses are proactive in dealing with discrimination issues from the outset.

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