Why an employer vaccine mandate could spark worker backlash

Desperate to get employees to buy into the COVID-19 vaccines so they can get back to business, employers are mulling whether to require their workers to get vaccinated against coronavirus. But new data shows that it could be problematic if they do.

A survey of 1,000 employees from Perceptyx finds that a surprising 43% of employees say they would not only disapprove of their employer forcing them to get vaccinated, but they would consider leaving their organization if the vaccine was a requirement.

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“Using the levers of power and authority might be the oldest routes of influencing others to action, but it is clear from our research that employees will largely disengage or exit from a strong-armed approach,” says Brett Wells, director of people analytics at Perceptyx, an employee survey and people analytics platform. “No one wants to be forced into a decision, especially when there exists a great deal of misinformation regarding the vaccine. We each value our agency and autonomy.”

Wells adds that he foresees more employers requiring vaccination for employees who need or want to return to the physical workplace but predicts most will not make it a condition of continued remote work.

Meanwhile, the Perceptyx survey found that nearly half of those surveyed approve of a vaccine mandate: 47% of employees surveyed say their employers should require this of their workers.

The survey on employee attitudes about requiring vaccination comes as the majority of employers are currently deciding for themselves what to do about inoculation. A recent survey of 211 business and talent leaders from human capital research firm i4cp finds that 41% are still deciding whether they will mandate COVID-19 vaccination for their employees. Just 5% say they will require employees to get the vaccine, while 39% say they won’t. Another 11% say they don’t know yet.

In guidance released last month, the Employment Opportunity Commission said employers can require that employees get vaccinated as a condition of going to work. However, they must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and religious objections. In those cases, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee–such as working remotely or being reassigned–as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.

Related: Employers can legally require COVID vaccines–but will they?

Despite the uncertainty over where employers will land on mandating vaccination, most experts expect that employers will largely encourage their employees to get the vaccine. Encouragement can make a big difference in moving the needle on employee uncertainty and hesitance, experts say.

The Perceptyx survey, in fact, found that employees are slightly more likely to get vaccinated if their employer encourages them to do so, versus making it a requisite before returning to the office. Whereas 53% of employees are likely to get a vaccine if available today, 56% would get the vaccine if encouraged to do so by their employer. The research also shows that employees who are most likely to follow through on their organization’s recommendation to get vaccinated are those who have stronger relationships with their managers, who believe their symptoms would be severe if they contracted COVID-19 and those who have already been tested for COVID-19.

An even higher number–60%–would take it if their employers offered a monetary incentive of $100 to do so. Dollar General became one of the first organizations to announce they’re offering employees a financial incentive for getting the COVID-19 vaccine: an extra four hours of pay.

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

“Those who feel sincerely cared about by their managers are more likely to trust and be persuaded by their employer’s encouragement to get vaccinated,” Wells says. “This is just one more reason why great leadership and investing in the individual and unique needs of employees is critical to an organization’s success.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.