Preparing for Omicron: 6 steps for rolling out a vaccine mandate policy

Omicron is in Australia – is your company policy ready to go?

Preparing for Omicron: 6 steps for rolling out a vaccine mandate policy

As a new strain of COVID enters the world, at the same time bigger rallies are held across Australia by individuals demanding freedom from vaccines, employers and businesses are facing issues with vaccine mandates. While each state has its own public health orders in place, it doesn’t stop employees arguing their right to privacy and/or difficult questions being asked in the workplace that could create a hostile environment.

“For most business leaders around the world employee health, safety and wellbeing is a current top priority,” Neal Woolrich, director HR Advisory at Gartner, told HRD. “In a talent-short market, many are acutely aware that if a staff member feels unsafe, they may choose to look for work elsewhere. This can impact productivity, employee morale and the organisation’s reputation as a preferred employer.

“For employers considering the introduction of a vaccine mandate, sensitivity and understanding will be key to its effectiveness. Conversations should centre on the wellbeing of all workers to ensure that individuals within the organisation don’t feel personally targeted.”

Woolrich believes that because the high percentage of Australia’s vaccinated, that engaging in educational conversations with those that either are hesitant to be vaccinated or those against it, is the best way forward.

“For those who have expressed concern regarding the vaccine it is critical that leaders engage in productive, fact-based discussions to explain the official health advice and expectations of the organisation to protect its employees,” Woolrich added. “It should be made clear to all employees that the priority of the organisation is the health and safety of all team members.”

Gartner propose six key elements to rolling out a vaccine mandate which involves:

  1. Conduct pulse check surveys of employees

Request feedback from employees, allowing them to express their thoughts and fears before making any decisions.

  1. Educate employees

Have data driven conversations that talk to the effectiveness of the vaccine. This will allow you to educate team members through credible information.

  1. Find champions of the vaccine

Share positive stories from peers on their experiences with the vaccine, this helps to create a positive culture within the organisation.

  1. Whether mandated or not, make it easy to get vaccinated

Offer employees half days or travel incentives when going for their appointment.

  1. Talk, don’t tell

Take an open-source approach to change management by encouraging employees to get involved in two-way conversations about how they would like the organisation to handle the issue of vaccines.

  1. Empowering managers

Provide managers with talk tracks or approved Q&As to address common vaccine questions or mandate concerns. 

“Consultation with staff on sensitive topics should always be done in a way that makes the employee feel heard and respected,” Woolrich added. “While vaccine rates of staff can be an important metric in making decisions about returns to offices, the vaccine status of individuals does not, and should not be shared publicly.”

The legal perspective

Hundreds of thousands of Australians marching on the weekend were demanding freedom from vaccines and a return to normal democracy where people were free to enter and leave restaurants, businesses, states and even the country, when they wanted too. While state governments have started easing restrictions for fully vaccinated people, there are still severe restrictions for those who aren’t with some states such as Victoria threatening to not allow unvaccinated residents to return to any sort of normal life until 2023. Employers face a quandary as to how, when and if introduce a mandatory vaccination policy depending on the type of work their employees are involved in.

“Employers should carefully consider whether to implement a mandatory vaccination policy,” Amy Zhang, executive counsel and team leader, Harmers Workplace Lawyers, told HRD. “They need to take into consideration the specific circumstances of their workplace, including but not limited to the nature the role and industry, whether employees will need to interact with the general public and other employees, and whether employees can work remotely.

“There is no one size fits all approach and the answer may be different for different employees within the same business.”

Zhang points out alternatives will need to be discussed amongst individual businesses to assess all options.

“Employers will also need to consider whether there are reasonable alternatives to vaccination that can be implemented, which will still ensure employers meet their WHS obligations, such as PCR and rapid antigen testing, directions to wear masks and work from home if symptomatic, social distancing, no hot-desking or sharing of desks, and regular cleaning,” Zhang added. “In this regard, it is important to note that an employer cannot only rely on vaccination as the be all and end all strategy, as fully vaccinated employees can still catch and transmit COVID-19.

“Accordingly, a comprehensive suite of measures needs to be implemented, with rapid antigen testing a key component. If there are reasonable alternatives to vaccination, then it may be less reasonable for an employer to implement a mandatory vaccination policy.”

Health issues and anti-discriminatory policies are other necessary issues that employers will need to address with individual employees. Every person is different and understanding each person’s needs is important before rolling out a uniform policy.

“Employers also need to ensure they consult with anti-vaxxing employees to understand the basis for any objection, including if such objection is on a ground that is protected under anti-discrimination legislation,” Zhang says. “There are limited grounds on which an objection will be protected with medical grounds being a clear example.

“If an employee has a legally protected basis for not getting vaccinated, employers will need to tread carefully to ensure it does not fall foul of anti-discrimination legislation. If an employee objects generally to vaccination because they oppose mandatory vaccination generally, then an employer will need to consider what steps to take having regard to the considerations outlined above. 

“In either situation, pursuant to their WHS obligations, employers will still need to consider whether it is safe for an employee to work in their substantive role on an unvaccinated basis, for example, if there is any higher risk that they catch COVID-19 and any adjustments that should be implemented to eliminate or reduce that risk such as working remotely or working in another role for a limited time.”

Consultation and discussion with affected employees will be key in managing the delicate issues involved.  

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