By Anne Hardie

Employers are being urged to avoid the potential conflict between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff by being proactive about the culture within their workplace and clearly communicating their expectations.

Vaughan Granier is national workplace relations manager for HR Assured NZ and he says there could be hard times ahead for employers such as farmers as they navigate the uncharted waters of the Covid-19 workplace.

The last thing anyone wants is accusations flying between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees which may create a toxic workplace culture. That’s just one aspect of the vaccinated-unvaccinated dilemma.

Employees need to know early on if they need to be double vaccinated in their role and what restrictions they face onfarm, or with contractors, vets, AI technicians and anyone coming onto the farm, if they are unvaccinated.

At the same time employers need to remember privacy laws and employees don’t have to tell them if they are unvaccinated. Though if they don’t say they are vaccinated, they will be considered unvaccinated because employers need to have a plan in place.

Ideally, Granier says employers need to start communicating with their staff early – before conversations are weighed down with emotional content.

“When an employer does nothing about culture, then the employees create that culture,” he says.

Employers should never talk about who is vaccinated and who is unvaccinated and shouldn’t treat anyone differently. Rather, they should try to create a culture where everyone is treated the same. When an employee informs their employer of their vaccine status – or doesn’t – the employer must treat it as personal information which comes under the Privacy Act 2020. That information is only shared internally on a need-to-know basis.

“Employers should encourage people not to have those discussions among themselves – employees should respect privacy and stay away from inflammatory debate.”

If employers have had discussions with staff about their expectations, he says staff are more likely to be self-censoring and not cross the line. Employees can be given informal warnings if they are causing conflict and he says employers should keep a record of what they are doing and what has been said, in case they then have to give a formal warning.

For the wellbeing of the workplace, ongoing warnings might lead to termination of employment, although Granier wouldn’t recommend any employer to terminate an employee in this situation without thorough legal advice. Clarity on where the law stands will depend on some cases being heard in the courts.

While employers can’t discriminate against someone’s view on vaccination, he says they can require employees to be double vaccinated for certain roles because of health and safety reasons. On farms, a particular role that interacts with people coming onto the farm may need a vaccinated person because of the potential impact of transmitting the virus to someone who could then take it far and wide.

At the same time there is the need to minimise the impact of getting an infection within the farm’s workforce and employers may have to change roles around to keep people safe.

He suggests employers should ask staff to tell them if they don’t want to be vaccinated so they can find alternative roles for those unvaccinated people if it is an issue in their specific role.

Though as mentioned, employees have no obligation to tell employers whether they have been vaccinated or not and don’t need to explain their reasoning.

Employers have the right to then assume they are not vaccinated against the virus and must tell the employee of their assumption and what it might mean for their ability to continue working in a role that needs double vaccination.

Granier suggests a quiet one-on-one with that person to say the role will need a double-vaccinated person from a certain date. On a farm, it’s going to be easier to find alternative roles than a lot of businesses, but it still needs thought that becomes a plan.

For that reason, and other legal reasons in case there are any problems with employees down the track, he says employers should follow a health and safety assessment.

Discussions with staff need to be done with a huge amount of delicacy, rather than going in “like a bull in a china shop”, especially when discussing the need for vaccination for a certain role with someone who may not be vaccinated.

Though the Government has provided broad-brush guidelines, he says employers are going to be working a lot of issues out themselves and though Auckland businesses have had longer to get their head around Covid-19 issues, those in provincial New Zealand have a steep learning curve ahead of them.