By Vaughan Granier

As we already know, vaccination is currently a “hot-topic” with many differing views and opinions. The prospect of more freedom and fewer lockdowns with the proviso that every region secures high vaccination rates will add to the tension between the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated. Conversations that were difficult before may become even more challenging, especially if your workplace or specific roles will require vaccination for safe work. As an employer, you should not get drawn into the various debates around validity and legitimacy in the workplace. You’ll need to remain objective and focus on issues such as business viability, sustainability, and health and safety.

Entering these conversations is stepping into tricky territory. Below, I’ve set out some best-practice steps to help you manage vaccine conversations constructively and in good faith with the unvaccinated workers in your workplace.

 Roadmap to managing COVID-19 as a nation

Before I get into constructing the vaccine conversation, it’s a good idea to get you up to speed on the Government’s plan to manage COVID-19.

October was an important month for New Zealand, with the Government unveiling a new COVID-19 protection framework – otherwise known as the traffic light system. The traffic light system proposes a flexible 3-level approach to managing COVID-19 in the community without nationwide lockdowns and with more freedom for vaccinated New Zealanders.

The country must hit a 90 per cent vaccination target in every region to activate the traffic light system; when our collective effort achieves this goal, the nation will move to orange. Except for Auckland, where the alert level will change to red when all three Auckland DHBs have 90 per cent of their eligible population vaccinated against COVID-19.

Once the traffic light system is active, some high-risk businesses – such as hospitality and close-contact – can choose to require a vaccination certificate for entry in order to trade with fewer or no restrictions. Vaccination certificates will be optional for many other organisations and locations. In the interest of public health, workers at businesses where customers are required to show evidence of vaccination to enter will also need to be vaccinated.

The importance of talking about vaccines at work

One of the biggest challenges facing business owners today is managing employees who refuse vaccination when this becomes a condition of employment. Employers and business leaders must handle these conversations carefully due to the impact this can have on employee privacy, mental health, health and safety in the workplace, employee relationships, morale, and the risks of a personal grievance.

While most employees will be on board with this requirement, there may be some who will push back. Try not to get frustrated and be open-minded about why they’ve chosen not to get vaccinated. You may be speaking with someone who has a genuine fear, unanswered questions, family or religious pressures, health reasons or a strong view against vaccination. It’s helpful to put your opinions aside and approach employees who exhibit hesitancy towards the vaccine with empathy, a listening ear and good faith. By taking this approach, you’re most likely to help increase vaccination rates or at the very least mitigate potential harm to your business, staff and customers.

Introduce the topic of vaccination mandates

Start by informing your employees of the requirement, or possible condition, of vaccination in your workplace. Be prepared to explain why your business or specific roles in your company are subject to vaccination requirements.

Share official information with your workforce and consider using your managers to distribute helpful links amongst their teams.

Take a proactive approach to identify vaccine hesitancy

After introducing this discussion topic into the workplace and ensuring your workforce has a clear understanding of relevant vaccination requirements, it’s time to identify your unvaccinated workers for further consultation.

Privacy and non-discrimination laws are central here; employees are entitled to know that you’ll manage their vaccine information following privacy laws and will not use their status against them.

Communicate to your employees that you’re seeking information regarding their vaccination status (and why) via a formal letter. Within this letter, you can ask all employees to confidentially provide their vaccination status as part of your consultation process around the impact of vaccine requirements in the workplace.

Employees should be made aware that they can decline to comment, but if they don’t disclose their vaccination status, that you’ll have to treat them as if they’re unvaccinated so you can plan the way forward safely.

One way to identify the employees you’ll need to speak with is to conduct a general and private survey. Some example questions you may want to ask include:

  • What is your vaccination status (either “First dose”, “Second dose”, “not vaccinated”, or “unwilling to disclose”)?
  • What are your views on asking customers to be vaccinated?
  • How do you feel about working alongside unvaccinated colleagues?

Begin consultation with unvaccinated employees

As mentioned throughout this guide, I encourage a careful, open-minded and empathetic approach to vaccine conversations. Keep in mind that your goal should be to understand why someone has chosen to be unvaccinated or declined to reveal their vaccination status. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you’d feel if you were truly concerned or afraid, and someone treated your opinion condescendingly or with aggression. Would you want to hear what they had to say, or would you raise your defences or retreat? You would likely do the latter – as most people would! It’s possible to acknowledge your employee’s concerns without agreement and then respectfully discuss whether you can offer any help or support.

During this consultation, you must outline that all information your employee shares will be confidential. Your employee must also understand that vaccination might be (if the law doesn’t already mandate it) a requirement of their role and could impact their employment terms and conditions if they’re unvaccinated.

You can dedicate part of your consultation to identifying alternative ways of working or redeployments for those whose vaccination status will or may affect their ability to do their work. Termination, as always, should be a very last resort.

Handling absolute refusal from an unvaccinated employee

If you’ve respectfully discussed the reasons why an employee must be vaccinated to perform their role and that employee still refuses vaccination, it’s time to end the conversation. You can always leave the door open for further discussion when your employee feels ready.

If there are no alternative working or redeployment options, termination may be your only viable option because the employee cannot fulfil the revised requirements of their role. In this case, I advise you to make a fair and reasonable decision based on the format of a restructuring process. We outline how to compliantly proceed with a restructure and redundancy process in a seven-part series, starting with this article.

If you need help, you can always contact our friendly team of employment experts at HR Assured.

As a workplace leader, you have a pivotal role in helping New Zealand move to the next step in the COVID-19 response plan (the traffic light system). Conversations around vaccinations in the workplace may seem daunting due to increasing social and emotional tensions between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. However, your people are looking to you for support and guidance. You can lead the way by taking steps to start discussions about vaccination requirements at work early, constructively, and in good faith for the best possible outcome for all.

Clients of HR Assured can contact the 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service at any time.

If your business is not an HR Assured client, we’d like to offer you a no-obligation, complimentary 30-minute consultation call. Employers can speak to our friendly workplace relations consultants and seek advice about this new legislation or an existing workplace issue. You can arrange your complimentary consultation here.