En español | Whether you're already back in the office or preparing to return, you may have questions about the safety of your workspace. And a fair amount of that concern may have to do with how many people in your office have been vaccinated. According to MassMutual's Consumer Spending & Saving Index, which measured attitudes and behaviors about returning to the office, nearly one-fourth of U.S. office workers (24 percent) are stressed about colleagues who haven't been vaccinated. And 27 percent worry about their offices not adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
While it may be possible to simply come out and ask coworkers about their status, it's a good idea to think about a few things before doing so, says industrial organizational psychologist Adam Bandelli, managing director of New York City-based consulting firm Bandelli & Associates and author of What Every Leader Needs. “It's important for everyone's safety and well-being to know what's going on in their workplace,” Bandelli says. But determining how to get the information you need to feel comfortable while not alienating others in the office can be tricky.
As you face new expectations about how you should interact with coworkers while also considering your own safety concerns, here are some tips to navigate this tricky situation.
Start with your company policy
Some aspects of office life will require trial and error. Figuring out whether to shake hands or how to navigate a meeting where half the people are remote may require you to make adjustments to your personal etiquette in the office. But one area where the guidance should be coming directly from the company brass is the COVID-19 safety protocol.
In July, the U.S. Justice Department offered its view that federal law doesn't prohibit employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines as a condition for getting or keeping a job, with exceptions for medical conditions or religious beliefs that prohibit vaccinations. Several state legislatures, however, are considering banning vaccine mandates, and Montana recently enacted a law that does. Your company likely will have a COVID-19 safety and vaccine policy in place based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other federal, state and local authorities, says Kelly DuFord Williams, of Slate Law Group in San Diego. Williams says it's best for employees who have questions about the vaccination status of coworkers to address those concerns to specific company representatives instead of approaching coworkers directly, especially because the topic can be so contentious.
But since there's no legal reason employees can't ask about vaccine status, it's likely some will. So, it's also important to set ground rules for behavior, says employment attorney Marta Manus with San Diego-based law firm Marble. Employers shouldn't demand that employees not discuss vaccines or ask about vaccine status because there's nothing in the law preventing that. However, companies should have strong, written policies about behavior expectations, including what constitutes harassment. If vaccine-related questioning becomes hostile or bullying behavior, then it may be in violation of harassment policies and require disciplinary action. “They should just make sure their employment policies regarding harassment and bullying are tight and legally compliant,” she says.
How and if you ask someone directly about their vaccination status may also depend on how well you know that person, Bandelli says. If you're work friends and have a good relationship, the individual may be more inclined to share their status than if you are not well-acquainted. And it's a good idea to lead with your own status to establish trust.
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"Sharing that first before asking questions of others is important. As people start to get back to work and engage with each other and have conversations, be open and transparent about where you are on your COVID journey,” he says.
If you do decide to broach the topic, tread carefully. Bandelli suggests some conversation starters:
- "My family has recently gotten our COVID vaccines. How have you and your family dealt with it?”
- "I hope your family has been successfully navigating through the pandemic. What are your thoughts around the vaccine? My family has taken this position ... “
- "Leaders in our organization have been trying to modify and improve our policies around COVID and our return-to-work plan. Have you been vaccinated? I was and I believe it is important to create a safe environment for our colleagues."
If you sense that the individual is not willing to answer or the questions make them uncomfortable, back off, Manus says. Pushing the issue could lead to ill will or even make the other employee feel bullied or harassed.
And, of course, there may be situations in which you don't know the coworker personally, but you have concerns about their vaccination status due to their proximity — in a meeting or on an elevator ride, for example. If you are uncomfortable voicing your concern in that moment, consider discussing the circumstance with your supervisor or human resources as soon as possible afterward.
Clear up misconceptions
It's a common misperception that asking about vaccination status is a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
HIPAA and the guidance issued after the law was passed do make certain provisions for health information privacy, but those apply primarily to health care providers, insurance companies and so-called “covered entities” that help those organizations carry out their duties. But HIPAA doesn't prohibit coworkers asking about vaccination status.
"HIPAA doesn't quite apply here. But what does apply is the confidentiality of [Human Resources],” Williams says. Employees have an expectation of privacy when employers have access to sensitive health information. “So, as a company, you shouldn't be going around saying, ‘Oh, by the way, Bob's not vaccinated,'” she says.
Think before you ask
Asking about vaccination status can be very polarizing, as people have strong opinions on the topic. And there's no guarantee that you're going to get the information you're seeking, Williams says. For example, you have no way of knowing whether the answer your coworker gives you is an honest one.
But if you are still concerned for the safety of your own health in the office, speak to your supervisor or human resources department. While they will not — and should not — disclose the vaccination status of individuals, they may be able to ease your concerns or answer questions, Manus says. For example, if the company has a vaccine mandate — as many employers now do — they may be able to give you the percentage of people vaccinated in the company.
Keep up other safety measures
In addition to asking about vaccination status — or not — you also can focus on controlling the factors within your power. There are many ways you can do so, Manus says. Learn about your company's safety protocols. Ensure that you're following recommended vaccine schedules, including booster shots, when you are eligible. Find out whether and how the office will be configured for safety. Wear masks, wash your hands regularly, and maintain appropriate social distancing protocols. If your office offers hybrid or remote work arrangements, explore those if working outside the office more will make you feel more comfortable.
If you continue to feel uncomfortable about the risk of COVID-19, speak to your supervisor or human resources department. If you have underlying conditions that could make working in the office dangerous for you, there may be accommodations that can help, Manus says. But you may not know your options until you ask, she adds.
Gwen Moran is a contributing writer for AARP who specializes in business and finance. Her work has appeared in many leading business publications and websites, including Entrepreneur, Kiplinger.com, Newsweek.com, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine.