Bartleby A shot in the dark
How far should firms go to get their staff vaccinated?
The pandemic is throwing up a new set of ethical issues for businesses. The premise of “stakeholder capitalism” is not just that firms should consider the interests of employees and customers, as well as shareholders. It is that, by doing so, everyone gains; shareholders will prosper if workers and customers are treated decently. But the pandemic may put different groups at odds. For example, customers may want companies to insist that all employees are vaccinated, while not wanting the same rule to apply to themselves.
It might seem as if shareholders would want as many employees to return to work as possible, few potential customers to be excluded, and interactions in, say, shops and restaurants to be as free from restrictions as possible. But if a company gets a reputation for being an unsafe place to work, or for customers to visit, the effect on longterm returns could be significant. The perception of fairness is also essential. Woe betide the executive who jumps the queue, as in the case of Mark Machin, a Canadian pensionfund boss who travelled to the United Arab Emirates to get the jab. (He swiftly resigned.)
Companies are not just trading off safety and personal liberty. They risk discriminating against those who have yet to gain access to the vaccine or who, for religious or medical reasons, are unwilling or unable to be jabbed. And they do not have complete freedom of action. The legal situation will vary from country to country but it seems likely that, in many jurisdictions, companies will be able to insist on a vaccine mandate only for new employees.
The question of vaccination is particularly pressing in health care. One might hope that medical workers would appreciate the need for it. Yet some healthcare personnel may feel that having had covid-19, as many have, negates the obligation. Laura Boudreau of Columbia Business School in New York observes that, in this type of industry, “there is a duty for the employer to try to identify safe roles that the staff can play, and if not, to provide information to customers about whether there are unvaccinated staff in the role.” In other words, unvaccinated staff may end up being kept away from vulnerable patients.