Where We Stand on Vaccine Mandates — and How to Plan for Employee Turnover Tied to Them

February 25, 2022

Contributor: Jackie WIles

Take these five actions to size turnover risk, mitigate its impact and protect the employees who remain.

In short:

  • As the Omicron surge peters out, companies are resetting return-to-office dates, many as soon as March. 
  • Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the vaccine mandate for large companies, a significant number of organizations have or plan to implement a mandate, and 6.8% of employees could leave as a result.
  • Five steps can help employers manage the impact of attrition, from sizing the threat to managing resource deployment and prioritizing recruitment.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to block — and the federal government’s subsequent choice to withdraw — the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers, organizations are back in the hot seat when it comes to whether to require their employees be vaccinated. 

In a recent Gartner poll of 120 private-sector executives, mostly from HR and finance, 46% reported the Supreme Court ruling would not impact their plans; 21% said they would consider changing course. Only 3% claimed they would drop their vaccine mandate altogether.

Although 39% of these leaders believe that a vaccine mandate will improve their employer brand, compared to 23% who feel the opposite, additional recent Gartner data shows that, on average, executive leaders believe mandates could prompt 6.8% of employees to leave — either because they quit in protest or earn dismissal by refusing to comply. 

For more insight on workplace change, visit the Future of Work Reinvented Resource Center.

“No one can predict just how many employees will quit as a result, but the high number shows apprehension among leaders — with 34% of employers seeing termination as the only option if an employee refuses to be vaccinated,” says Sumit Malhotra, Director, Gartner. “This makes it necessary for business leaders and their HR partners to plan proactively for the possibility of mass attrition.”

These five steps can help you manage the impact.

Step 1: Assess the risk of attrition

This is closely tied to employees’ views on vaccinations and the mandates themselves, and can vary widely across employee groups, geographies and roles. Assess turnover risk by segments rather than on an organizational level, and identify first those roles that are critical to the organization. 

Identify local risk indicators among different employee segments, and rate that risk from high to low. Information sources to consider include insights from internal pulse surveys, employee feedback, data on the number of unvaccinated employees, and publicly available information on employee resistance and mandate response by segment, industry and the like. Prioritize mitigation efforts to focus on roles where turnover potential or the impact of their loss is high.

Read more: Don’t Overlook Critical Talent Intelligence in Your Postpandemic Location Strategy

Step 2: Review workflow prioritization and redeploy talent

A sudden employee exodus could create workflow gaps, so functional and business unit leaders must work together to identify what can be deprioritized in such an event. Options include reducing the complexity of projects, consolidating processes and negotiating budgets for temporary talent to support critical projects. Reprioritize workflows based on decision criteria, such as the importance of workflows to strategic business goals, business process impact and talent investment required.

Also consider redeploying in-house talent to fill at-risk critical roles and workflows, and skills gaps. Identify employees with prior experience in an at-risk role who you could tap quickly to return temporarily so as to minimize knowledge loss.

Finally, build a skills inventory to determine where available skills could be effectively matched to priority projects. You can audit employee skills using both formal channels (job descriptions, internal résumés, performance reviews or coaching data, and mentoring conversations) and informal channels (LinkedIn profiles and one-on-one interviews).

For more insight on workplace change, visit the Future of Work Reinvented Resource Center.

Step 3: Expedite knowledge management

Loss of institutional knowledge will be a substantial challenge if many employees leave at once. To plan for knowledge transfer, differentiate employees’ knowledge into two types, tacit and explicit, as each requires a different mechanism for knowledge transfer.

Explicit knowledge includes information found in records, data files, customer relationship management systems and other physical or cloud locations (for example, the records of clients’ information and their transactions). Explicit knowledge is easier to pass on, as it is documented and shared without much disruption to work, but make sure to review employee access to sensitive and privileged information to ensure intellectual property isn’t lost or compromised when employees leave. Quick wins for explicit knowledge transfer include simple tactics like requiring employees to store information on shared drives.

Tacit knowledge includes unwritten information that is context-dependent. For example, a sales executive has operational knowledge gained through years of experience navigating the intricacies of a client’s organizational structure. Losing this insight can potentially hinder business continuity, so be proactive in capturing tacit knowledge. Try to scale tacit knowledge transfer by incorporating it into existing lines of communication. You might, say, facilitate informal meetings during which more-tenured employees share role- or function-specific business knowledge with junior colleagues.

Step 4: Manage employee morale

Employee morale can take a big hit in the event of a mass turnover. As has been the case since the onset of COVID-19, your response will define your employer brand

Employees are likely to experience high levels of anxiety, frustration and confusion if their peers leave in large numbers. Make sure that those who stay feel valued and receive regular updates on the organization’s decisions and plans. Solicit their questions and feedback, and address their concerns proactively and openly to avoid future disengagement and further turnover. Share relevant information, such as the mandate timeline and next steps. Communicate how vaccine mandates align with your organization’s values or impact its ability to achieve its vision, mission and priorities.

Step 5: Prioritize recruiting efforts

Proactively equip recruiting teams to deal with suddenly increased hiring volumes. Set clear criteria to determine and prioritize high-impact roles, build pipelines for them and ensure the requisitions for these roles are filled first. 

Mix your talent strategies to bridge skills gaps and tap contingent and temporary workers where relevant — but ensure that the onboarding for non-permanent workers is good enough to have them begin contributing quickly. 

Assess the size of talent pools and rethink ways to expand those pools. Revisit criteria around required credentials, experience and even job location. Consider expanding the amount of potential candidates and supporting more cost-effective hiring by including those who could potentially learn the skills needed, including those with skills from adjacent disciplines.

This article has been updated from the November 2021 original to reflect new events, conditions and research.

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