Employers in Australia are beginning to lay their cards on the table as to whether they’ll require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Qantas is the second major Aussie business to publicly announce its new policy mandating all frontline workers be fully vaccinated by mid-November. The remainder of the company’s employees have until the end of March next year to receive both their jabs. Qantas followed similar moves by Shepperton food manufacturer SPC and Brisbane-based Alliance Airlines.
It comes as industry leaders called for the government to lead the decision on vaccine mandates, rather than leaving it up to individual employers to enforce. Last week, the Fair Work Ombudsman released fresh guidance setting out a clearer idea of which types of businesses and industries would be most able introduce a mandatory vaccination policy as a reasonable direction.
Speaking to HRD, Nick Northcott, chief strategy officer at Immediation, said following the fresh advice, boards and executive teams considering mandating the vaccine must now take a proactive approach to policy decisions to manage risk through pre-emptive and non-combative methods.
“It is highly likely that we will see an increase of cases in higher courts due to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations in the next few years, alongside increasing disputes within workplaces as employers clash with polarising views in the community,” Northcott said. “There is a need for non-combative dispute processes and for employers to resolve matters with employees through dialogue in advance of it being pushed to litigation.”
Requiring employees to have the COVID-19 is tricky business, and some employers – particularly those with office-based workers – will struggle to argue that a mandate is a reasonable direction.
However, Sydney’s Delta outbreak has shown just how difficult the variant is to contain – especially once an outbreak occurs within a workplace. Much of the spread within parts of south-west Sydney have been traced back to worksites within essential industries, such as freight, shipping and food manufacturing. As a result, more and more businesses have begun considering mandatory vaccination policies to safeguard their staff and ensure business continuity in the future.
But if business leaders fail to introduce the policy in the right way and most importantly, consider how they plan to deal with exemptions, such as those on medical grounds, they could end up breaching anti-discrimination laws. Laws exist at both state and federal level to protect citizens against discrimination based on certain protected attributes, including age, gender, disability and race. Disability covers diseases, mental illnesses or psychiatric disabilities.
Northcott urged employers to create a process for employees to raise their concerns, such as with their manager or a HR professional, and to openly promote that channel of communication. By pre-empting the fact that not all employees will agree with the new policy, HR leaders can prepare steps to engage with them in a fair and reasonable manner.
“For example, when there are policy positions that may be directly in opposition to employee views, there needs to be a clear and communicated mechanism for people to raise their concerns,” Northcott said. “Employers need to proactively create a process to have an explicit and clear conversation in regards to policy. This will also allow employees to feel comfortable speaking up in a safe way and in a safe environment to manage a workplace issue that they find discriminatory or unfair.”
If employers want to avoid ending up in court over a mandatory policy, either in relation to a discrimination complaint or an unfair dismissal, it’s important to lay the groundwork of a lawful, fair and reasonable direction from the very start.