Don’t Fire Unvaxxed Employees: Turn The Challenge Into Management Training

In a business setting, there are a vast number of ways that organizations could accidentally shoot themselves in the foot. For instance, they could switch the breakroom coffee to decaf without warning. They could also schedule a lengthy business meeting ten minutes before lunch, too. However, if they really want to fast-track their way to financial ruin, then what they need to do is fire their unvaccinated employees.

Depending on who you ask, the vaccine mandates were either a smart decision, designed to promote herd immunity, or a vast overreach of individual human rights and a gross violation of bodily autonomy. Regardless of the position you take, though, letting go of your unvaccinated staff is more than just a legal or ethical gaffe.

It could also be, to put it bluntly, a downright foolish maneuver on a managerial level. But this isn’t because it’s unethical, unprecedented, or even unscrupulous. No, firing unvaccinated employees could arguably be one of the worst mistakes a corporate leader could make. Doing so would deliver the wrong message – not only to the employees themselves, but to the higher-ups, as well. It would state, in no uncertain terms, that things are back to the same old “business as usual” song and dance we’ve heard since day one of the pandemic.

To a certain degree, implementing widespread vaccinations for those who were good candidates for it made perfect sense. After all, people are craving normalcy. Familiarity. Routine. To many, the old office job they once hated is now a symbol of how things once were, back in the now-romanticized “before” days.

Yes, we can try to establish a so-called “return date” to cubicle life, but that’s only proven to be a colossal failure so far. Just like goalposts for the number of jabs has changed (first it was just a one-and-done deal, then it was a booster shot, and now a second booster is “recommended”), so has the return to office deadline. First, it was last autumn. Then it was this January. Then it was moved again to some indefinite point in the future.

Regardless of the effectiveness of this goal, the desire for normalcy still remains a cornerstone of the vaccine mandates. Spearheaded by major corporations such as Google, American Express, Amtrak, and Delta Airlines, the frenzied drive to ensure that no employee remained unvaccinated spread almost as virulently as the new Omicron variation.

Yet this leaves one glaring consideration that somehow became the proverbial elephant in the room. There is no “old normal” that we can return to. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all changed in the past two years. Personally, systematically, socially… the “before” is gone, and it’s been replaced by the “new normal.” And any attempt to try to masquerade this so-called “new normal” as the “old normal” could have far-reaching repercussions, leaving a trail of utter devastation in its wake.

So if we’ve all changed, and the normalcy that we crave has been buried alongside the 900,000 lives lost so far in the pandemic, what can be done? For starters, we need to banish the very notion of deeming firing unvaccinated employees as acceptable. Rather than firing these unvaccinated employees, we should instead be learning from the changes brought on by the pandemic. CEOs and business owners can take this provided opportunity to focus on honing their leadership skills on a managerial level for the “new normal”.

This would include:

1. Designing the Work Ecosystem

Throughout history, work was more than just a means to earn a paycheck. It was also a place you went to every single day, whether you flipped burgers for a living or sat behind a computer eight hours a day. It was a sort of social and political structure, comprised of business units and management hierarchies and completely surrounded by policies that promised a harmonious blend of culture and process.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced us to dismantle many of these societal structures, both physically and organizationally. And because of it, we’re now learning to work in different surroundings, whether it’s a makeshift desk at our kitchen table or a socially distanced office suite. Furthermore, we’re redefining how we conduct workplace meetings, with digital meetings becoming the new norm.

The fact is, employees want to work differently. And so, in turn, we’re being forced to learn how to reassess the relationship between the employee and the workplace and redefine them. Because of this, a company that wants to survive needs to scrutinize this existing system under a close lens and try to make sense of it. They need to figure out how to transform this dynamic into something viable, something that can thrive in the hybrid world that we now live in.

And in doing so, they can ultimately learn to become a flexible, agile organization – one where people can know how to do the right work at the right time in response to these changing needs.

2. Updating Leadership Tools

To successfully thrive within this new work ecosystem, leaders will need to learn to rely on skills that were not previously associated with management and success. For starters, managing a hybrid workforce requires more empathy. Re-engaging employees now requires managers to recognize the actual human being behind the cubicle drone facade. Leading a close-knit team of employees requires providing them with the psychological safety net they crave, allowing them to bring the most authentic and committed version of themselves to work.

At the very least, they need to redefine many of the existing managerial tools and skills and learn new forms of communication. In doing so, this can help them hone their ability to connect and build trust, creating more sustainable interfaces and streamlining workflows. They also need to redefine success and set aside many of the current metrics used to measure it. Old, rigid systems need to be replaced by more flexible ones.

A good leader needs to tap into what really defines leadership: the ability to motivate and direct through engagement. This will give staff a reason to try once more, offering them a tangible goal that not only makes sense, but is also worth striving for. They need to know how to determine what matters most to the employee, as well as what matters most to the business. In doing so, they can help coax out their staff’s motivation to bring their all every time they clock in at their workstation.

3. Redefining Flexibility

The flexibility and agility that leadership now needs to learn goes way beyond the question of how many days they’ll allow staff to work from home. These days, flexibility is no longer about time off from work. Instead, it’s about restructuring work and life and being able to go with the flow, drift along with the changing tides.

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how to toe the line between adhering to the rigid procedures already in place and adapting to new ones. It’s encouraged us to focus on personalization and dismantle and redefine existing roles. We’ve had to change the way we approach jobs and processes in order to adapt them to current circumstances and constraints.

Moving forward, managers must learn to let go of the antiquated belief that they “own” their staff and have the right to micromanage them on every level. To put it simply, they need to move from controlling their teams to accommodating them. As it stands, they’re already discovering that they have no choice in the matter. Employees have gotten used to having a say in the hows and whens and wheres of their workplace environment. They will not, under any circumstances, return to a rigid nine-to-five workday at the office.

If anything good has arisen out of the pandemic, it’s that it has forced us to broaden our minds and change the way we think about work. For so long we did things just because it was how we always did it, not questioning our techniques or our approaches. However, the novel coronavirus – no matter which variant mutates itself into existence in the coming days and months and possibly even years – has shown us that we can adapt. Change. Overcome.

In a way, the pandemic has been our gym, and our workplace was the weak and atrophied muscles that we got too lazy to use. The current restrictions and uncertainty have forced us to exercise those flaccid and scrawny muscles, build them up and strengthen them, so we can better handle what’s now looming ahead of us.

No, this time hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it, in fact. Most, if not all of us, have faced loss during the pandemic. Whether it was the loss of a loved one, our sense of stability, or our health, this change has been nothing short of compulsory. But what doesn’t need to be are these archaic and draconian vaccine mandates trying to take us back to what was. And by using this as a way to grow and learn, we can all ensure that we’re able to collectively create what needs to evolve.

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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