As I write this, the rapidly changing story of vaccine mandates is rapidly changing. Why not? It’s not like HR hasn’t been reacting to minute-by-minute changes in strategy like the Doomsday computer in the movie “War Games.” The Biden administration “mandated” vaccines for all employers with more than 100 employees or employer paid testing for the non-immunized. The Fifth Circuit Federal Appeals court struck down the mandate in the strongest language we have seen in any HR-related case in decades. What is going on? What should you do next? Umm, it’s anyone’s guess.
So, let’s review what we do know. It is pretty clear that the administration has the power to mandate the vaccination of executive branch employees. They cannot mandate vaccines for Congress or the judiciary. They can mandate for federal contractors and for Medicare and Medicaid recipients who are also federal contractors. The requirements for vaccination include allowances for medical exemption and for religious exemption. By the way, being either a right wing or left wing “nut job” does not count as a RELIGION even if your fervor makes you as dangerous as a Crusader knight after an evening of binge drinking. The whole thing is a mess and, guess what, the private sector will have to fix this. Yes, back to you in the HR suite.
This is America where it is very hard to “order” anyone to do anything. We live in a culture where we venerate heroes who don’t follow the rules. Has anyone in Washington seen Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie? The leadership vacuum from the public sector has been terrible for the past several years on this. You need to explain, and then explain again. You need to ask and to exhort. Most people will do the right thing if they trust the leadership and get clear communication.
Many large companies and some small companies (like HRO Today) have already mandated vaccines. The rules around religious exemptions are nebulous at best and most companies are working hard to understand the issues and make accommodations when appropriate. Most companies are explaining and asking. I hope organizations are not “forcing,” as that is destructive and employees will not react well. Leadership counts. HR stresses it, teaches it, and has demonstrated it throughout the pandemic, and you all need to lean in on leading -not ordering -as we approach what we hope is this final hurdle.
At our recent People in Healthcare conference, I used an analogy that it is true that 99.5% of people who got COVID-19 survived. Another way to put it: One out of 200 died prior to the approval of vaccines. Would you get on an airplane if you were told at the gate that one out of 200 passengers would die during the flight? I don’t think so! The estimates of death for the vaccinated are ranging at about one in 80,000. The data supports vaccinations, however, the facts have to be communicated and yes, we are all battling the nonsense on Facebook, which is showing itself as a destructive -not constructive -social influence.
You all face the tough questions: Am I willing to lose talented associates during a talent shortage over vaccinations? What can we do to not lose those colleagues? The solution and policy position will be unique to your organization. No government mandate can supersede your judgment as a leader in HR. I am not advocating for defying government mandates that do apply to you. I am not denying that we need to respect CDC guidance so I do not need a lot of hate mail from people that only read half this column. I am saying that if you are not bound by a mandate, you need to make the best decision for your organization and be comfortable with that. I am saying that the best path to vaccine compliance is leadership and communication, not command and control. I am saying that vaccines are safe, effective, and save lives. I am advocating a national mandate for common sense as, somedays, it seems like common sense is in short supply (and no, common sense is not stuck on a ship in the port of Los Angeles).
Elliot H. Clark, CEO