Returning to the Workplace: How do Companies Handle Vaccination Policies?

What Organizations Should Consider Before Bringing Employees Back to the Office

Apr 07, 2021
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – With a growing number of Americans having received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, people are beginning to focus on the next milestone – returning to the office – and what that might look like.

Will organizations require that returning employees be fully vaccinated before congregating in cubicles, conference rooms and shared kitchens? Will returning employees be required to divulge their vaccine status? Whatever the plan, it must start at the top, says Maryland Smith’s Gilad Chen.

“The implementation of policies depends on the line of work, but the responsibility ultimately lies with leaders and managers to show initiative,” says Chen, Robert H. Smith Chair in Organization Behavior at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “They need to convey they are involved and invested in the process by practicing what they preach and getting vaccinated themselves.”

Vaccine mandates can be tricky to navigate, but they offer more solutions than problems, Chen says. Initial apprehension about the trio of approved vaccines continues to fade as more and more people get the jabs and share their stories.

A Kaiser Health Network poll in March showed 17% of respondents were on the fence about getting the shots, down from 22% the month before.

Still, 7% said they’d only receive a vaccination if required to, and 13% said they’ll continue to refuse it.

For organizational leaders, getting shots in the arm of every team member may take some creativity, says Chen. Companies like Chobani have turned to incentivizing vaccinations among employees by offering paid leave, while others like Kroger and McDonald’s are paying employees to get jabbed.

If incentives don’t work, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says organizations can legally obligate employees to receive vaccinations and provide proof, unless they are exempt due to certain religious beliefs, disabilities or extenuating circumstances.

But Chen recommends that organizations play up the inherent incentives of being vaccinated, focusing on what it offers in terms of life experiences and broader public health safety. While it may not convince everyone, encouraging vaccinations, as opposed to demanding them, can be more effective, he says.

“This is not an evil that is imposed on you, but it's a solution to this horrific pandemic that we've all suffered from for well over a year now. The overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine plays a role because the risk is very low relative to the gain,” says Chen. “Encouraging employees to get vaccinated isn’t all about productivity and profits. It's also about gaining back our freedom as individuals and as a society.”




About the Expert(s)


Dr. Gilad Chen is the Robert H. Smith Chair in Organization Behavior, at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He received his bachelor degree in Psychology from the Pennsylvania State University in 1996, and his doctoral degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from George Mason University in 2001. Prior to joining the Smith School, Dr. Chen was on the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University, and a visiting scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Technion, and Tel-Aviv University.

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