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Technology Ethics

COVID-19 Vaccine: Ethical Considerations for Employers

employers vaccines

By Yoav Schlesinger and Rob Katz

We’re still in the early stages of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with only a small percentage of our global population vaccinated. Even so, it’s important business leaders and employers begin to look ahead, thinking about what vaccines mean for their workplaces and employees — and considering how to ensure safety and equity in their return to work plans.

This past June, we published Privacy and Ethical Use Principles for Your COVID-19 Response, which we used to help our teams and partners implement on a foundation of responsible tech best practices.

We added the Principles for the Ethical Use of COVID-19 Vaccine Technology Solution to that guidance in December – with the goal of supporting others in developing and implementing responsible solutions. 

Employers now face complex and consequential ethical questions about their roles in vaccination efforts. While we can’t claim to have all the answers, we hope to contribute to the evolving conversation by sharing how our principles guide Salesforce’s approach to this next phase of the pandemic.

Privacy and autonomy

One of the most difficult — yet critical — questions employers will face is whether or not COVID-19 vaccinations can or should be mandated for employees before they return to work. In some countries, local laws may limit employees’ ability to require employees to be vaccinated before returning to their workplaces.  Equally important is that, in some industries, having employees vaccinated will be critical. Hospitals, for example, have a greater need to vaccinate all of their employees to protect them as they serve COVID-19 patients. In other contexts, the necessity is less pronounced.

On one hand, employers are believed to have a responsibility to make a positive impact on society and to keep their workplaces safe. Employers — especially large ones — can influence not only their employees, but also their customers and partners by mandating vaccines, which can help move the needle toward mass vaccination and pandemic recovery. Depending on the industry, as in healthcare, vaccines could have an even deeper impact beyond the organization’s own employees, by protecting customers and patients who may not yet be able to get vaccinated themselves. 

But, it’s also important to recognize employee autonomy and individual rights. The trade-offs between public safety and autonomy are more difficult than ever given we are in a public health emergency of a magnitude we have not seen for generations. Actions formerly considered unacceptable may become the norm in order to protect our society. 

One way to address this might be to give employees a choice as to how to demonstrate their health status, whether it be through proof of vaccination, negative COVID-19 test, or otherwise. Providing employees with a range of tools to demonstrate health status and appropriate channels to request alternative accommodation can work to further equity, avoid stigma for those who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated, and protect employees’ human and privacy rights.

Employee privacy is also paramount. Crucial questions include: whether or not employees should be required to report their vaccine or health status, what happens with their personal health data, and who has access to what inside the company.

Employers should be transparent about the data they are collecting and the security guardrails in place to protect that information. It’s also important to share how these data will be used and how long data will be kept. For example, will employers automatically share employees’ vaccine status with their health insurance provider? Sharing these answers before a vaccination program kicks off can demonstrate that the employer is being thoughtful, with a range of considerations.

Human rights and equity

Globally, COVID-19’s impacts are not equally distributed across communities. While meeting the urgency of the moment, employers have a responsibility to consider existing disparities and to avoid creating new ones. This requires considering a wide range of perspectives, particularly those of traditionally underrepresented groups.

Consider employees whose health conditions or religious convictions may preclude them from being vaccinated. There will be employees whose health or disability status means that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine might seriously jeopardize their well-being. There are also populations, such as those who are pregnant, who may not be authorized for vaccination. 

All of this means that vaccine mandates could complicate the sequence of return to work and how to bring broad populations back safely. 

“It’s incredibly important to be thoughtful about the risks that some people with disabilities and certain medical conditions face during this pandemic. It will continue to be necessary to make accomodations for people where it may not yet be safe to return to the office. And, to recognize there will be general anxiety for some people about the return to a new normal life. When we left our offices and sheltered at home, it was like a light switch, whereas the return to our offices will be more like a dimmer switch. Planning for and being flexible to the spectrum of medical statuses and perspectives of employees will be critical as we plan for this next chapter.” — Catherine Nichols, Senior Director, Office of Accessibility

Additionally, in the U.S., vaccine hesitancy varies by racial group. For example, while 71 percent of Black Americans know someone who has been hospitalized or died of Covid-19, a recent survey by Pew Research Center shows only 42 percent say they would get such a vaccine if it were available today. The disparity here ties back to a history of marginalization and mistreatment of Black individuals by medical establishments, which has led to a sense of distrust and reluctance to become vaccinated. 

Working with all of these communities — ensuring their representatives have a seat at the table for these consequential conversations about health and work — will help enable a robust and equitable vaccine rollout in private workplaces. 

Trust and transparency

Trust begins with transparency. Employers have an obligation to create a safe working environment and a culture in which we lead with the values of honesty, inclusion, and transparency.

Authentic employee engagement is an important way to maintain trust throughout crises and complex decisions. Transparency around the decision-making process for vaccination programs or requirements, and explanations of what values informed any actions will be crucial.

In these conversations, leaders can build trust through open and inclusive dialogue, knowing that employee perspectives will differ and that it’s important to create safe spaces for employees to express themselves. The conversations should be grounded in flexibility and responsiveness, so organizations can quickly evolve with new information or perspectives.

And, as part of an organization’s commitment to employee health and safety, leaders can bring employees trusted information on COVID-19 and vaccines, including the latest from public health experts on vaccine safety and efficacy, prioritization, and vaccination locations. 

Finally, as vaccines roll out, employees will look to their corporate leadership and follow their example. Leaders should encourage their employees (and each other) to work within public health guidance and receive their vaccine according to their locale’s determined prioritization and eligibility criteria to reinforce the importance of equitable distribution.

Moving forward, together

We all have a role to play in helping our communities work towards recovery from the pandemic. Employers, in particular, have great influence and responsibility to ensure their COVID-19 vaccination programs include ethical considerations for all of their employees. We look forward to continuing to engage in these conversations and shaping the next steps together.

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