Setting clear expectations about COVID-19 vaccine requirements at the start of the hiring process and ensuring consistent recruitment messaging are some of the main responsibilities talent acquisition professionals should fulfill when their employer mandates vaccines for employees.

More employers are imposing vaccine mandates in anticipation of an imminent federal rule. In September, President Joe Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard mandating that all employers with at least 100 employees ensure that their workers are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or produce, on a weekly basis, a negative COVID-19 test. Some major U.S. companies had already announced they would require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before the Biden administration order, and more employers continue to roll out vaccine mandates since the president’s announcement.

For those companies already struggling with hiring and retention challenges since the pandemic began, vaccine and testing requirements are a new hurdle to get over.

“More and more TA [talent acquisition] leaders are asking about how to manage vaccine requirements,” said Jamie Kohn, research director for the HR practice at research and advisory firm Gartner.

Kohn said any additional requirements will make recruiting and hiring more difficult, but vaccine requirements are a double-edged sword. “On the one hand, they will push some people out and keep some people from applying, but on the other hand, people who have safety concerns may be more likely to return to the office or seek out an employer with a vaccine mandate. You lose some people but potentially attract other people,” she said.

“Any vaccine mandate will add a new element to hiring difficulty, but being thoughtful around how you comply with a mandate is what’s important, because how you do that is what impacts employee and candidate experience,” said Julia Anas, chief people officer at Qualtrics, an experience management platform based in Provo, Utah.

Qualtrics is currently waiting on the upcoming federal rules before instituting a mandate but is encouraging employees to get vaccinated and offering time off to do that. “I think many companies are having to be agile and remain flexible,” Anas said.

Jim D’Amico, global talent acquisition leader at chemicals company Celanese, based in Dallas, is also waiting to see what the OSHA rule will hold. He added that the rule will “hopefully level the playing field again,” affecting all covered employers equally, referring to the fact that some companies have mandates in place and some don’t.

“As more companies across markets and industries mandate vaccines, it may reduce the impact on candidate pipelines,” said Tara Cassady, executive vice president at recruitment process outsourcing firm Cielo in Brookfield, Wis. “With current market dynamics and the increasing talent gap already making recruitment a challenge, vaccine mandate or not, TA needs to be prepared to address quickly shifting workplace conditions while remaining competitive.”

That begins by first mapping out the impact of a vaccine mandate on talent strategy and the hiring process. “TA leaders can start by assessing the current state of vaccination at their organization,” Cassady said. “Doing so can help prepare for potential resignations, although research shows that a majority of employees support vaccine mandates.”

Be Clear Upfront

Employers must be clear about vaccine requirements as early as possible, D’Amico said. “Too much effort goes into attracting and interviewing candidates to waste time because of an issue around vaccination.”

Kohn said even though companies are understandably very reluctant to add new requirements or limitations to job postings that could turn somebody off from applying, it is important to allow people who may not be the right fit, based on whether they will be vaccinated, to self-select out.

“I recommend being explicit about vaccine requirements [and exemptions] in the job posting and in the application process and having recruiters reinforce it,” she said. “Being explicit early on will reduce the time you lose when talking to candidates who will not be able to work at the company.”

Vaccine policies need to be communicated effectively to prospective hires, Cassady said. “Consider adding messaging to your careers website or application portal. To prevent any disputes later in the hiring process, one major retailer added a check box to its job application forms requiring candidates to acknowledge vaccination as a condition of employment.”

Cassady added that talent acquisition teams should also equip recruiters with verbiage for every stage of the hiring process if questions about the policy or enforcement arise.

“Recruiters and hiring managers need to be equipped with explanations about why the employer is requiring vaccines,” Kohn said. “Just saying, ‘The government requires it’ isn’t good enough. Instead, focus the message toward the safety and health of the workforce.”

In addition to feeling that their health and well-being is a priority, candidates say they need clear expectations, Anas said. Another important practice is showing empathy, she noted. “Listen to what candidates are saying and try to understand what they need, both personally and professionally.”

That includes asking unvaccinated candidates if they would consider getting vaccinated, instead of just discounting them, and giving them information on how to request an accommodation due to medical or religious reasons. Have a clear process for handling those requests.

Kohn said the most appropriate time to ask for proof of vaccination is during the onboarding process, along with filling out an I-9 form and other new-hire requirements. 

“TA will need to work closely with HR to predetermine who will collect documentation once a candidate begins the pre-employment process,” Cassady said. “Get a clear picture of how and where vaccine documents will be verified and stored, and who will need access to this information for enforcement.”

The Society for Human Resource Management provides several additional recommendations to ensure an employer’s recruitment policy is applied consistently with a vaccine mandate in place.

The Remote-Worker Question

Cassady added that hiring managers and business leaders can help identify departments or teams that might be disproportionately affected by a mandate and help determine which roles require an onsite presence and which can be performed remotely, and whether both groups need to be vaccinated. 

The details of OSHA’s emergency standard are not yet known, but it’s likely that remote employees will not be covered by the rule. OSHA usually avoids safety issues related to employees working from home, and U.S. Department of Labor officials said in a September webinar that remote workers who are not in contact with other workers would not be covered by the rule.

But experts and practitioners who spoke with SHRM Online said it’ll probably be easier to apply the vaccination mandate across the board, including for remote workers.

“Our remote workers are generally in sales and customer-facing, so I think that they will be required to be vaccinated,” D’Amico said. “Also, they will be coming into an office at some point, for a meeting or an event, so we figure they should be vaccinated.”

Kohn said employers are also concerned about equity, not wanting onsite employees to feel that they are subject to requirements that their remote counterparts are not. “My recommendation would be that companies need to think about the trade-off between asking everyone once for vaccination verification and potentially having to track who has and who has not been vaccinated when workers in remote and hybrid arrangements come into the office.”

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