Handling workplace conflicts about vaccination
Updated: Mar 17
COVID-19 has dominated not just the national and international news for over a year now, but has also been a major topic of conversation for individuals, both in families and in the workplace, be that virtual or physical. Many people yearn for a return to something like normal life, but viewpoints can differ on how to get there, and whether the steps being taken by government are justified or even desirable. That’s when a normal discussion about COVID-19 can become heated, with the potential to make life very difficult for employers.
There are several issues that can cause problems and employers need to be aware of them and how to tackle them.
Clarifying the terminology
The term ‘anti-vaxxer’ is used extensively, most usually on social media to describe those hold unorthodox opinions on the process of vaccination, and who might use more forceful and disruptive measures to impose their conspiracy theories on the wider public. However, the term ‘anti-vaxxer’ has been mis-used as an umbrella term to describe people who may be reluctant to get vaccinated for an entirely legitimate reason. Those people are best described by the use of the less loaded term ‘Vaccine Hesitant’.
The vaccine hesitant may have a reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite the national roll-out of vaccinations and the offer of an injection to anyone in eligible categories.
Vaccine hesitancy is not a protected characteristic, but the hesitancy to be vaccinated may arise out of a protected characteristic, for example religious belief. If this is the case, then that person has a right not to receive detrimental treatment as a result of that protected characteristic.
Handling workplace conflict
Workplace discussions on the pandemic and the use of vaccinations to control it may expose differences of opinion and, as with all emotive topics, tempers may become raised. Without being properly informed, employees may use ill-considered language to describe their colleagues, including directing the term “anti-vaxxer” at those who have expressed their views against receiving a vaccination and are therefore defined as ‘vaccine hesitant’.
Using such a term in a pejorative manner could amount to an act of bullying or harassment, or even victimisation where that person’s refusal to be vaccinated is linked to a protected characteristic or genuine philosophical belief.
It’s a good idea, therefore, for the employer to educate their employees about the difference between the two terms and why it’s not a good idea to use ‘anti-vaxxer’ when they don’t know the reasons behind someone’s opinions on vaccination. In fact, it is a good idea to avoid the phrase altogether, since it is a loaded term and has the potential to cause problems in the workplace.
Of course, freedom of speech means that employees can’t be stopped from expressing their opinions in the workplace, but that freedom comes with the responsibility to consider the effect of words on others, and whether use of phrases in an insulting or offensive way can be construed as detrimental treatment against colleagues. Under Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.
An employer has a duty of care to protect all employers in the workplace, and it’s important for them to able to show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent occurrences of discrimination, harassment and bullying. One of those reasonable steps is to have in place a robust and up-to-date policy on discrimination and harassment, and to ensure that everyone is familiar with the policy, either through training or other measures.
Disruptive activity in the workplace – how to handle it
We have already discussed the opinions and activities associated with the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, which is a broad one and encompasses a wide variety of beliefs, some increasingly bizarre. Whilst they can often be thought of as inhabiting social media and of no consequence for employers, what happens if an employee espouses their beliefs and aims and brings those into the workplace to try and influence their colleagues, often in a forceful and confrontational way?
Members of anti-vaxxer movements can be more strident and militant towards people who are happy to accept the vaccination, and – depending on the tactics and approach they adopt – could find themselves at odds with the values of their employer.
Where an employee is found to have purposefully and over-zealously pursued colleagues with an anti-vaccination movement agenda, such action may, depending on the circumstances, amount to an act of misconduct and may lead to disciplinary action, including sanctions up to dismissal level. Employers need to mention situations like this in any disciplinary policy they use as an example of misconduct or gross misconduct.
Mention of a zero-tolerance policy regarding such behaviour needs to be included in the equality and diversity policy.
The value of a robust social media policy
Much of the misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccination originates on social media and there is little that can realistically be done to counter its effects. However, although employees have a perfect right to use social media to discuss the pandemic, responses to it and the vaccination programme, there is the danger that some employees may find themselves at odds with the values of their employer through what they post on social media and the approach they use, including language and imagery.
It is therefore good practice for employers to have a robust, up-to-date and inclusive Social Media policy which will help manage and set expectations for employees’ use of social media. Ensuring that all employees are made aware of the policy, what it contains and what it means for them is crucial if an instance of misconduct related to social media use arises.