How to deal with anti-vaxxers in your workplace

71% of employees want to see their unvaccinated colleagues fired

How to deal with anti-vaxxers in your workplace

With Omicron on the rise, tensions between vaccinated and unvaccinated factions are building too. Mandating jabs has always been a divisive issue – with firm believers on both sides, neither willing to back down without a fight. According to a recent report from the Angus Reid Institute, 71% of employees want to see their unvaccinated colleagues fired – or at the very least placed on unpaid leave. While HR leaders may have their own views, dealing with anti-vaxxers in the workplace should be an unbiased process – one led with compassion and understanding.

Union vs non-union

HRD spoke to Dr Melanie Peacock, professor of at Mount Royal University and winner of HRD’s Lifetime Achievement Award, who explained the best ways for leaders to deal with anti-vaxxers in the workplace.

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“I'll begin by stating the obvious, in that I am not a lawyer,” prefaced Dr Peacock. “So much of this issue will ultimately boil down to legal conversations and decisions regarding peoples' rights, employers' duty to accommodate, what is considered undue hardship. By that I mean that employers won't have to accommodate some issues during the time of a pandemic – and it’s not a clear-cut matter by any means. How do deal with anti-vaxxers will also be different in unionized versus non-unionized environments. In the former, it will be critically important for employers to maintain open communication with union reps, be transparent in their plans, ensure the collective agreement is being followed, in regards to process, and this adds extra steps and extra complexity.”

Education and development

The no jab, no job movement was rather controversial at the start of the pandemic – however it quickly became the norm, with companies, governments, and even entire countries backing the move. And while these kinds of measures have helped speed up the inoculation drive, they’ve also seen people lose their jobs and livelihoods. A first step to preventing the spread of misinformation is through education and learning – something HR is a dab hand at.

“Finding ways to think creatively and strategically will be important,” added Dr Peacock. “Employers should focus on ways to educate anti-vaxxers. Leaders need to consider other means to ensure that anti-vaxxers may be able to continue working while still ensuring the health and safety of others and this could include provision of on-site and ongoing COVID-19 testing. However, it’s important to note that this may not be practical or suitable for all organizations – rather it’s just an idea that is being shared and is being used by some employers. The bigger issue is that employers need to manage the relationships at work, which ultimately impact the organization's culture. Care needs to be given so that colleagues do not becoming divided over this issue and an ‘us versus them’ mentality cannot ensue.”

Accommodation or termination?

How an employer should deal with terminations would obviously vary from country to country, state to state. Employers are beholden to provide accommodation up to undue hardship for employees who opt not to be jabbed. However, the only real grounds for refusal are medical or religious – and the latter has to be a bona fide religion, not a ‘personal preference’. As we’ve seen in recent months, larger companies are taking a hard stance on vaccine refusals – with Windsor City warning un-jabbed staff they could be fired if not immunised by February 2022, and New Zealand border workers being terminated over anti-vaxxing sentiments. But is this practice something we’re likely to see continue? Or should employers tread carefully before hitting the FIRE button?

Read more: Toronto to place unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave from November

“Anti-vaxxers must be accommodated to a point of undue hardship - this will continue to be defined through the legal system,” added Dr Peacock. “Examples of possible accommodations – and again will vary based upon industry, size of company - are continued working from home and on-site COVID-19 testing. What’s more, anti-vaxxers should be educated on the benefits of vaccination. Beyond this, employers should get good legal advice pertaining to next steps such as terminating employees or placing employees on unpaid leave.”

Looking to 2022

With Omicron gaining momentum and further lockdowns looking likely, the gap between the jabbed and the un-jabbed is only growing deeper and wider. Data from Kings College London found 33% of staff believe those who discourage others to have the vaccine are selfish – with 41% viewing them as ‘stupid’. With tensions expected to bubble up in the workplace, HR leaders need to look into their anti-bullying policies now. 

Speaking to HRD, Kelly Davis, chief people officer at Sunwing, explained how she rolled out her mandatory vaccination policy to her people – and counteracted any anti-vaxxers.

“As you can imagine, we came across some employees that weren’t happy,” she told HRD. “However, I keep reminding our leaders that the data tells us it's only around 10% that’re dissatisfied. We built the policy to protect them and look after the other 90%. Our big focus as has been on providing education. We launched employee sessions all through the last year - each hosted by our chief medical advisor. We have a really great eLearning course on vaccinations too.”

Whether you’re anti-vaccine, pro-vaccine, or somewhere in the middle, as an HR practitioner it’s essential that you remain impassive and non-judgmental throughout the whole process. Looking to the future, it seems that COVID, or a variant of it, will be around in some capacity. How you deal with anti-vaxxers in your workplace today has the propensity to impact all of your people – their morale, their experiences, and their views on the company in general. So, before you start making any sweeping statements or policy overhauls, consider how your actions will echo into the months to come.

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