As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a new phase in the United States and employees return to the workplace, some employers may need to face controversial issues regarding vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. Below are some considerations for employers as they take steps to prevent or resolve workplace disagreements regarding vaccines and other workplace safety measures to help employees focus on work.
What types of employee relations conflicts may arise in the workplace between workers over vaccinations?
The increasingly politicized nature of vaccines and the prevalence of misinformation online may lead to conflicts between employees and increased workplace tensions. For example, employees may assume others have not been vaccinated and treat employees who have not been vaccinated as unsafe. Employees may see another employee’s social media comments as adverse to vaccinations but refuse to wear a mask in the workplace. In each instance, employers may want to be proactive to guard against employee bullying based on disabilities, religion, or even politics as they relate to vaccinations or why someone may be unvaccinated.
What types of employee relations conflicts may arise in the workplace between workers over masks?
Some employees may report other employees who fail or refuse to wear their masks, even though they have not been vaccinated. There may also be some employees who refuse to get vaccinated but want to challenge an employer’s continued authority to require face masks.
What might employers do to try to avoid such conflicts?
Focusing on safety and respect may help employers prevent conflicts from happening and keep them from escalating in the workplace. Requiring face masks in the workplace may be a legitimate safety policy, and permitting exemptions to the safety policy for fully-vaccinated employees and employees who may need an accommodation may continue to be good policy so long as doing so maintains a safe workplace. A culture of respect in the workplace means employees respect their coworkers’ choices even if they do not agree with them and that employees should follow the employer’s safety policies to protect themselves and their coworkers.
How might employers respond effectively to such conflicts?
A quick response focused on company ethics, mutual respect, and corporate culture policies regarding proper interactions between coworkers may help employers effectively address workplace conflicts about vaccinations and masks. Employers may want to encourage all employees to remember that we never know why someone who is fully vaccinated may continue to wear a mask or why someone may yet be unvaccinated. Some employees may, for example, have a loved one at home who is unable to be vaccinated or small children not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Or an employee may be ineligible for the vaccine due to a medical reason.
What’s the big picture?
As vaccinations grow more prevalent and employees become more used to the new reality that they can work without masks if they are fully vaccinated, some mask and vaccination conflicts will likely subside. They are very real now, but hopefully such conflicts will wane as employers continue to focus on maintaining a respectful workplace and as everyone gets used to this new masked/unmasked hybrid work environment. In the meantime, employers may want to focus on a respectful workplace and act quickly when conflicts arise.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.
The author of this article was previously quoted on this topic on SHRM Online.