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Is It Right to Be Fired for Being Unvaccinated

It's all over the news these days. Employers, some of them anyway, are moving toward requiring their employees to get vaccinated. As the Columbus Dispatch notes, Yes, your boss can make you get a COVID-19 vaccine. Of course, if they're going to levy the threat, employers better be willing to follow through, like when CNN Fires Three Employees for Coming to Work Unvaccinated.

In a tight labor market, a better question may be, should you require your employees to get vaccinated. The policy might work against you.

Nonetheless, the debate rages as to whether it's correct--or even moral--to mandate vaccines. Some Americans complain that the practice violates their personal rights. Individual freedom, after all, is a cornerstone of American idealism. The argument is valid, though it also exposes the essential tension of our Democracy: liberty and equality. How can we reconcile individual freedom versus equal rights? My personal freedom does not extend to the right to harm others. Indeed, others have the right to be protected from being hurt by me. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

The arguments from people who are reluctant to get vaccinated are similar to those who refuse to get vaccinated. It is wise to discern the difference between the two: reluctance and refusal. The former may be coaxed eventually. The latter will never acquiesce. The arguments of both fall into four general categories:

  1. Political. I am on this side in the political debate. People who hold the same political views as mine are opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine. Therefore, I am opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine.

  2. Conspiracy. I fundamentally do not trust the government. I have heard -- and I believe -- that the vaccine is, for example, a ruse to implant tracking devices into us AND/OR I have heard -- and I believe -- that COVID-19 is, for example, caused by 5G.

  3. Anti-Vaxxers. I subscribe to the philosophy that medical treatment is worse than the cure. I prefer non-medical treatments for diseases. I believe vaccines cause illness and they should not be trusted.

  4. Mistrust of the Expedited Development/Approval Process. I do not trust the safety of something that was done so quickly. I worry that eventually the vaccine will be revealed to be dangerous.

Some people lack access to vaccines. Others legitimately refuse vaccines on religious grounds or for health reasons. They are not who is being described in the four categories above.

When we want to change behavior, we must use arguments that are persuasive to the people whose behavior we seek to change. (Take Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies Quiz to see what works for you.) People who align themselves with a political stance, or who are conspiracy theorists or anti-vaxxers, are not motivated by appeals such as, "The vaccine will protect you and the people around you from getting sick," "Do it for your community," or "It's the right thing to do." These appeals work for people who believe the vaccine will protect them, who care about their status in the community, or who trust what they are being told by the authorities. These are not the people who believe the four things listed above.

So how does this tie back to employers? As an employer, you are well within your rights to require your employees to get vaccinated, as explained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's technical assistance published on May 28, 2021. In addition, Ohio is an at-will employment state. For better or worse, an employee can be fired at any time for any reason -- other than those reasons that are prohibited by law. That means an employee CAN be fired for attending a Pro-Choice rally, but an employee CANNOT be fired for being pregnant. An employee CAN be fired for flipping off the Presidential Motorcade, but an employee CANNOT be fired for being gay. Also, there is no such thing as Freedom of Speech at work.

If you decide to require employees to be vaccinated, it should be stated for the reality of what it is: "If you want to work here, you must be vaccinated." It's important to frame it in a way that is meaningful to the audience you are trying to appeal to. "I am not telling you what you have to do. I'm not imposing my values on you. I'm simply saying if you want to work here, you must be vaccinated. People who work here are vaccinated. The choice is yours. If you choose to work here, you know what you have to do. If you don't want to get the vaccine, that is your choice. And you are choosing not to work here. The choice is yours."

This may be the thing that motivates the vaccine reluctant to finally roll up their sleeves. They may think that keeping their job is more important than their commitment to their belief(s) about the dangers of the vaccine. This likely won't impress the people who refuse the vaccine. And it may even cause them to dig deeper into their position.

Yes, this is a tough position to take. You must weigh whether it is worth it for your business to have your employees exit for this reason. And, of course, you must be willing to follow through. But, remember, the choice is theirs. If they want to work for you, they must be vaccinated.

Andrea J. Applegate is the founder and president of Applegate Talent Strategies.

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