A trend is emerging of companies requiring corporate employees to be vaccinated, but not customer-facing employees, Lauren Hirsch reported in The New York Times last week.
This decision to give customer-facing employees in places such as stores a pass on vaccination is puzzling. I would think that if anyone should be vaccinated, it should be those who come into contact with the greatest number of people, including customers. That said, I realize companies may fear front-line workers who do not want the vaccine will leave if it is mandated.
I also wonder whether a vaccination policy that applies to corporate employees, but not front-line workers, inadvertently creates a company of haves and have-nots, or privileged and unprivileged. Being required to be vaccinated will be considered a burden to some corporate employees, but it’s also a privilege to be required to do something that will protect employees from serious illness and death, and will make it less likely they catch COVID-19 in the first place. Such a mandate shows that, whether employee likes it or not, their safety—and that of their friends and family—is valued. “You matter to us, and the safety of our workplace, and your network of family and friends, matters to us. For that reason, we are requiring you to be vaccinated,” I interpret a company as tacitly saying to corporate employees.
Another tacit message to those a company is requiring to be vaccinated: “We consider you intelligent and educated enough to understand we are doing this for your own good, and for the good of those around you, so we do not expect you will quit as a result of this mandate.”
Now let’s explore what the message of not requiring vaccination for front-line employees says: “We hope you will do the right thing and get vaccinated, but we don’t consider you intelligent and educated enough to accept a vaccine mandate. And you and your family are not as important to us as our corporate employees and their families, whom we consider part of the larger corporate family. You are easily replaced, low-value people, so we aren’t going to invest the people energy and corporate resources necessary to enforce a vaccine mandate that affects you.”
Front-line employees have notoriously high turnover. Why do you think that is? There are many reasons, many of which a company has little control over. For example, those who are open to lower-paying, customer-facing jobs often have more challenging lives than those with corporate jobs. They frequently have less of a support system in their lives, so problems such as a lack of child care, could be enough to force them to leave a job or fail to show up for work, and then get fired.
Another reason there is high turnover is front-line employees in stores owned by large corporations often don’t feel valued by the company that employs them. “What have you ever done for me? You hardly pay me anything. You won’t even commit to a steady, reliable work schedule for me. You don’t treat me well, and you don’t pay me well, so I owe you nothing,” such employees might feel.
Now added to those sentiments: “They sure care about their corporate employees. They’re requiring all of them to be vaccinated. They don’t care what we do. ‘Let them get sick and die, and infect all of their friends and family, too—and everybody around them in the store. We’ll just hire new ones,’” the front-line employee may imagine the company thinking—or openly saying—behind their backs.
Employer mandates are often unwelcome and controversial, but they also send a message about who the company cares about and values, and who it considers expendable. While those who are less educated are less likely to be open to being vaccinated, it gives your company the chance to do the right thing for them (even if they don’t realize it) and your community—and even your country and the world. It also presents an incredible opportunity to change the narrative in front-line employees’ minds.
Think about the messaging you could use to communicate a vaccine mandate that would apply to all employees, whether they work behind a desk in a well-appointed corporate office or as a harried cashier or sales associate in a store. “We are requiring all employees, regardless of job role, and regardless of whether they work in a store or in one of our corporate offices, to be fully vaccinated by October 1. We care about all of our employees, understanding how important every employee is to us. Ensuring that all employees, who are medically able to, are vaccinated, is the best thing we can do to ensure the health and safety of all employees, and by extension their family and friends, and our community.”
There could be backlash. There likely will be angry voices raised, and maybe even a walkout or demonstration, but the overriding message will be that you care about your employees and the public. The long-term gains of that message include transforming your company culture so that front-line, hourly employees know they are as valued as corporate, “white-collar” employees. A company with customer-facing employees who know their employer cares about them will deliver better customer service than one with employees who feel they are seen by their employer as disposable.
Are there any vaccination mandates in your organization? Are these mandates applied evenly across all employees, or just for some employees? What would be the challenges and downsides of requiring all employees to be vaccinated, and what would be the benefits of doing so?