Covid-19: What to do when staff don’t want to be vaccinated

Phil Kendall

Jul 2021 ⋅ 6 min read

There’s a lot of information, not to mention confusion, out there right now about what employers can and can’t do with regard to Covid-19 vaccinations.

Is it legal for an employer to insist that their staff get the jab before coming into work? Can their staff refuse? Are staff legally obliged to reveal whether they've been vaccinated?  

There’s very little precedent or legislation for managers to refer to when creating policies regarding vaccinations in the workplace, so we’ve rounded up some of the best information available to help you form policies and guidance of your own.

We hope you find it useful.

Please note: the following is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

Jump to:

Can I add a vaccination clause to employment contracts?

Can I dismiss an employee who refuses to be vaccinated?

Can I encourage my staff to have the vaccine?

Can I make vaccines mandatory at my business?

By now you’ve probably read about companies like Morgan Stanley, and even Pimlico Plumbers here in the UK, rolling out policies stipulating that their staff must be vaccinated either before returning to the workplace or to remain in their jobs.

But what are the legalities of policies such as these?

Legally speaking, most employers can’t demand that employees get vaccinated — to do so could infringe upon any number of their individual rights. Terminating someone’s employment for refusing to be vaccinated could also result in claims of unfair dismissal.

There are of course a handful of exceptions. It was announced in June of this year that care home staff in England would be required to be vaccinated, for example.

In general, however, there’s currently no legislation stipulating that employers may ask their staff to get the jab.

Can I add a vaccination clause to employment contracts?

Vaccination clauses only usually appear in employment contracts for people working in medical or healthcare roles. But can an employer add such a clause in an effort to protect their businesses against Covid-19?

The CIPD states that, while it is possible for some employers to add a vaccination clause to an existing employment contract or include one for new starters, they still can't physically enforce vaccinations.

Similarly, while some managers may be "successful" in firing and rehiring staff on terms stipulating that vaccinations are required for employment, doing so could result in legal action and claims of unfair dismissal.

Once again, the somewhat frustrating answer here is that, while there are multiple possible courses of action that employers may take, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be successful if challenged.

Can I dismiss an employee who refuses to be vaccinated?

The short answer here is that, while some employers may eventually seek to terminate staff who refuse to be vaccinated, it’s not yet clear whether doing so would be judged as fair if challenged in court.

Before resorting to disciplinary action, employers would be better off considering the individual circumstances of their employee. If asking them to get vaccinated would infringe upon their personal beliefs or protected characteristics, for example, then they may be within their rights to refuse and challenge any attempt at dismissal.

We’d always recommend discussion and cooperation before resorting to things like termination. Should you have no option but to let a member of your team go, however, be sure to make every effort to accommodate them first, and ensure that you have reasonable grounds to do so.

Can I encourage my staff to have the vaccine?

You can’t force your staff to get the jab, but you're entitled — should you believe it to be the right course of action — to encourage your staff to do so.

Here are a few ways you might go about that.

Talk to your team about vaccinations

If, after announcing your stance on vaccinations in the workplace, there is still reluctance among your staff, it could be worth reaching out to them individually to discuss their concerns.

It’s often only after talking to staff privately that we come to understand the true cause of their concerns. You might learn about an employee’s pre-existing health condition or strongly held belief, for example, or someone might reveal (of their own volition, of course) that they’re pregnant and simply don’t feel comfortable getting the jab.

The point is, be careful not to make any assumptions — being anxious about the vaccine isn’t the same as being “anti-vaxx”.

Make it policy

You might not be able to enforce vaccinations at your company, but if for health and safety reasons it’s preferred that your staff do get their jabs, then it’s a good idea to make it official.

To do this, employers could choose to include a “vaccination policy” in their employee handbook or similar documentation, clearly stating that the company strongly encourages its employees to get vaccinated if coming into work — as well as outlining the reasoning behind it.

You may also want to document any incentives, for example giving staff time off to attend their vaccination appointments (we'll talk more on this later), as another means of encouraging your team to get their jabs.

Fight misinformation

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the various vaccines currently on offer, so be sure to counter this by providing your staff with links to reputable resources (the NHS’ own vaccination guidance, for example) about their safety, and the benefits of being vaccinated.

Putting a blanket ban on the discussion of health concerns surrounding coronavirus vaccinations is unlikely to be good for morale. But it’s worth keeping an ear open — or an eye, if you use any internal communications platforms such as Slack — for any obvious misinformation and addressing it sooner rather than later.

Lead by example

If you or your fellow managers are happy to do so, it can be beneficial to speak openly about your own experiences of getting vaccinated.

Reactions to the vaccines on offer differ from person to person — some have no negative reaction whatsoever; others complain of arm tenderness; a small number of people experience flu-like symptoms for days afterwards. For staff who are nervous or reluctant to get vaccinated, however, simply hearing about another member of staff’s experience may be enough to put their mind at ease.

Just keep in mind that, while it’s fine to discuss your own experience, your staff’s individual vaccination status should be treated as sensitive information and should only be discussed if it’s offered up by them.

Give staff time off to get vaccinated

Concerns about the vaccination aside, some of your staff may put off getting their jab simply because they have so many demands on their time during non-working hours, or feel that going to get vaccinated just isn’t a priority for them.

To remedy this, why not follow the lead of the businesses pledging to accommodate any staff needing time off to attend vaccination appointments?

Not only will this increase the chances of your employees getting vaccinated, but the sight of staff leaving during the day to get their vaccinations will probably encourage others to follow suit.

Consider including any incentives like time off for jabs in any official vaccination policies you draw up, and make this information easily accessible to your staff.

Plan ahead for post-jab sickness

A small number of people who receive the vaccine will suffer side effects and feel unwell for a few days afterwards.

Be prepared for some instances of absence, or perhaps just slightly lower productivity for a day or two, and make it clear to your staff that they’re able to take time off — paid, ideally — to recover if necessary.

Finally, be sure to schedule enough staff to provide cover should anyone who’s recently vaccinated need to take time off. The last thing you want is for your wider team to feel inconvenienced as a result of colleagues choosing to get the jab.

Wrap up

Until we’ve seen a few legal challenges played out in the courts, it's unlikely that employers will have much to go on regarding vaccination policies at their businesses.

Employers have a duty of care to their staff, and must do what they can to protect their health and wellbeing. But they must also make a reasonable effort to accommodate any staff who refuse or are reluctant to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Flexibility, communication, and education are three of the best tools a business owner will have at their disposal in this situation. Listen to the concerns of your staff, provide them with reliable, up-to-date information about vaccinations, and — where circumstances allow — be prepared to give them time off to get their jab.