Westpac New Zealand's HRD on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines and the role of big business

Westpac New Zealand's HRD said consultation is key on the issue of mandatory vaccines

Westpac New Zealand's HRD on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines and the role of big business

The topic of mandatory vaccinations is ramping up as New Zealand’s Delta outbreak in Auckland continues to fluctuate.

Law firm Russell McVeagh has become the latest firm in NZ to announce a mandatory jab policy, saying anyone who has not had both COVID-19 vaccinations will not be able to enter its offices from November 1. It follows a number of similar moves in Australia after the devastating second wave that began in Sydney in June this year. But while mandatory policies are gaining ground, it’s a tricky issue for HR leaders to navigate and one that if implemented poorly, could lead to claims of discrimination and unfair dismissal.

HRD spoke to Marc Figgins, GM of HR at Westpac New Zealand, who said big business needs to lead the way in encouraging the rollout and making it as easy as possible for staff to get vaccinated.

“For us, it's first and foremost about the safety of our people, but also the safety of our customers. You want to be able to have confidence that if you're going into a branch of Westpac that the staff are vaccinated and that is something you can rely on,” he said. “So, I think there's a business element but there is also a broader community piece as well.”

Read more: Can an employer mandate a COVID test?

But the issue of implementing a mandatory vaccination policy is not simple, and there’s no one-size-fits-all template that businesses can follow. Unless the organisation is covered by a public health order, which in New Zealand only includes a select number of industries so far, the onus to prove the necessity of staff being vaccinated is on the business. Figgins acknowledged that there are legal risks for businesses taking a stance on the issue, but it’s the job of businesses to create policies that are both fair and in the interests of protecting health and safety.

“Companies might be ahead of legislation and there’s all sorts of issues to work through but we shouldn't let the complicated details get in the way of the bigger picture,” he said.

For Westpac New Zealand, Figgins said the process of consulting with staff began early on and has been a key factor in bringing employees on the journey. He said it was about encouraging staff to get vaccinated while also recognising the importance of choice. The bank used communication tools like Yamma to have discussions about the vaccine, identify initial concerns and get an early picture of how many staff would choose to have the jab. They also ran a comms campaign, filming resources with renowned microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles to debunk some of the myths around the vaccine and provide accurate information to staff.

Westpac also provided staff with two half days off for staff to get vaccinated, as well as an extra day of Covid leave. The bank has also recently announced an additional five days of wellbeing leave.

Figgins said it’s also vitally important for HR leaders to consider how their organisations support those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons or because they choose not to. If HR leaders fail to plan for exemptions, it could lead to staff becoming ostracized and increase the risk of a discrimination case.

This is the sticking point facing many business and HR leaders in the current climate. In Australia, the tide is turning on mandatory vaccination policies with an increasing number of firms coming out in favour – particularly if staff want to return to the office.

Read more: Air New Zealand imposes mandatory vaccinations by November 14

Westpac Australia has begun consultation with employees ahead of introducing a policy that requires employees to be double vaccinated if they are to return to their workplace. CEO Peter King said the results of a recent employee survey showed 91% of employees either are, or intend to be, vaccinated.

“Since the NSW outbreak started in June, more than 3,800 of our employees have been required to isolate and more than 280 branches have closed and re-opened, both significantly disrupting operations. It is clear that the best way to keep our people safe and stay open for our customers is for people to be vaccinated,” he said in a statement.

Bank of Queensland has introduced a similar policy, while the other big four banks, ANZ, Commonwealth and NAB are yet to bring in mandates, except in states like Victoria where the jab is compulsory for authorised workers under the current public health order.

Figgins said the situation in New Zealand is a fluid one, but he does believe big business and corporates will lead the way on vaccine mandates. With the outbreak relatively contained – at least compared to the numbers in Sydney and Melbourne – the case for mandates hasn’t reached the same level as in Australia. But either way, he said business leaders must be principled in their approach and be mindful of the long-term social impact.

“We don't have all the answers yet, no one does,” he said. “We've got to make sure anything we do is in the interest of everyone's health and safety, but in doing so, ensure we're not isolating anyone along the way.”

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