How to prevent vaccination conflicts at work

What happens when co-workers disagree about the issue?

How to prevent vaccination conflicts at work

We have all been conditioned to not talk about politics or religion at work because of potentially explosive outcomes — but what about someone’s COVID vaccination status?

While these issues haven’t truly bubbled up yet, they will, says Hermie Abraham, owner and principal employment lawyer at law firm Advocation in Toronto.

“It isn’t yet a hot-button issue. Although people are returning to the workplace, not all workplaces are full where people are working on site, [but] when that happens, it will percolate to the top. We already see the fact that there is a lot of tension with family members, even in stores with people yelling at each other, and it’s just a matter of time when that is going to move into the workplace,” she says.

“The companies that will win are the ones that turn their mind to it ahead of time, and start to look at ways that they can manage that risk before everybody’s in the workplace and under one roof.”

Start with a policy

For HR professionals and managers, one of the best ways to avoid this becoming a major problem is by starting with a solid workplace policy, says Abraham.

“The overarching policy that I would recommend is a respect-in-the-workplace policy and it doesn’t necessarily deal with only vaccination status; it’s really just setting the tone about treating people with differences within the workplace; giving people a way of reporting any breaches of the policy and one that honours the fact that within a workplace, you’re going to find people with differences, whether that’s in gender, race, sex, religion, or even just beliefs,” she says.

“The workplace is meant to be a place where we honour the fact that everybody is different; you don’t have to agree with them but you have to maintain a respectful and professional workplace.”

Clearly spelling out the reasons for a vaccine mandate will go a long way toward the policy being adhered to, says Arun Subramanian, vice president of health, safety and human resources at go2HR, a tourism industry HR consultancy in Vancouver.

“If the organization has a strong case to make about vaccines being critical to the operation, and why they’re choosing to go down that route, versus some of the other options that are available, that positions that policy well. Keeping health and safety at the centre of it is critical,” he says.

Two recent court rulings in Ontario have provided some measure of clarity around vaccine mandates in the workplace.

Watch for heated conversations

Because the subject of being vaccinated or not is a primarily a health-based topic, confidentiality is also a concern in the workplace.

“It is private medical information and so [it’s about reminding] your managers and leaders and employees that this really is private medical information and should not be discussed or shared amongst employees,” says Sharon Bunce, chief of staff at HRdownloads London, Ont.

That means saying to staff: “It is each person’s own personal choice and decision as to how they decide what’s best for their health. It’s not information we’re going to talk about as a company and it’s not information we want to hear employees discussing within the workplace,” she says. “We all have our own decisions to make and we need to be mindful and respectful of that.”

An outright ban on talking about vaccinations is not feasible, says Abraham.

“Employers, they’re not going to be able to ban people talking about vaccines or their positions about specific things; there are lots of contentious topics, and people are going to talk about them. The best thing an employer can do is set the tone as to the types of conversations that they think are helpful in the workplace.”

And if conflicts are not handled correctly, the employer could face legal risks, she says.

“If an employer is not seen as actually taking it seriously, if there’s bullying, harassment in the workplace with respect to vaccination statuses, the person who is on the receiving end of that harassment, bullying could allege constructive termination if they don’t feel that the employer has taken steps to be able to protect them and maintain a safe workplace.”

It’s incumbent on managers to keep on top of certain conversations and to anticipate any conflict, says Bunce.

“If they see conversations around whether someone’s very passionate about getting [vaccinated] or very passionate about not getting it — because both sides have a lot of passion — [it’s about] just saying, ‘This isn’t really a workplace-appropriate conversation.’”

Recently, Canadian HR Reporter spoke with legal experts to look at how anti-vaxxers may be disciplined by employers.

Watch for favouritism

Unvaccinated remote workers should also not be excluded from the greater workplace culture, says Subramanian.

“Things like company events — for instance, you could be having a holiday party — how do you accommodate these folks who are not vaccinated? Are you able to have virtual events that can take into account the fact that not everybody is vaccinated? That, potentially, is a bit of a point of conflict.”

Somebody who is told to work from home might be able to claim constructive termination if they can no longer participate in company events and are now being essentially isolated, says Abraham.

In addition, a manager showing favouritism toward a direct report who believes in a similar way about vaccination is something to watch for, especially when it comes to promotions and rewards planning, says Bunce. But that can be avoided by having solid structures in your HR programs.

“[It’s about] having your HR team or leadership always looking into: ‘Did that person meet those skills requirements? Did they meet those behavioural competencies? Are we scoring and evaluating them on the same measures?’”

Employers should look at their performance process and make sure that there is no distinction there, says Subramanian.

“More than anything else, highlight the possibility of that bias and make sure that that’s considered when performance is being managed.”

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