While an outright vaccine requirement — get vaccinated or be fired — is ethically problematic for most employers, there are a number of other options that are ethical and perhaps equally effective. They include incentives and such “soft” vaccine requirements as shots-or-tests. As for schools, an age-appropriate vaccine requirement is perfectly ethical.
A vaccine mandate is questionable for most employers because it can violate an implied ethical agreement. When one takes a job, there is an understanding that the employee will be asked only to meet requirements that one can reasonably expect might come with the job. An Amazon warehouse worker should not be asked to babysit the boss’s kids, for example. A medical procedure like vaccination is rarely, if ever, a condition for most jobs and probably should not be imposed on current employees. It also has practical drawbacks. In some contexts, it can create backlash that leads to resistance, reduced morale, and resignations in a time of labor shortage.
This argument does not apply to employees who work in sensitive environments, such as a hospital or nursing home, where one can expect strict health requirements. Nor does it apply to schools and universities, where vaccination requirements are commonplace.
Some object that the shots may be medically risky for some people, or violate their religious belief. The first one is easy: allow medical exceptions, which are too few in number to undermine the overall effectiveness of a mandate. As for the second objection, no major religion even suggests that vaccination is somehow wrong. Perhaps some small sects take a dim view of medical interventions, but exceptions can be made for them as well.
We also hear arguments that a vaccine mandate is a violation of personal autonomy. This is a misunderstanding of autonomy, which is the ability to make your own decisions freely. People should have the freedom to decide against vaccination, but it makes no sense for them to decide that someone will offer them employment or school admission without vaccination. This is the employer’s or school’s decision, whereupon the autonomous individual can freely decide whether to accept the offer.
When an outright mandate is inappropriate, a soft requirement is an ethical option. It asks employees to get the shots or else accept such mitigation measures as regular tests, masks and distancing. Federal employees and contractors will soon be subject to such a mandate, which may incentivize nearly everyone to get the shots. There is no breach of agreement in requiring medical tests, as this is already common practice for a wide range of jobs. The mask can be viewed as part of the uniform. Employers also make a regular practice of specifying and changing employees’ work location.
Employers who fear backlash from even a soft mandate can offer inducements such as a bonus or perks. Walmart is offering $150 (and requiring shots for office workers), but a larger bonus seems preferable and well worth the expense. The bonus should be immediate, not something added to the paycheck six weeks later. It should be discreet, since some employees fear censure from family and friends.
Given the effectiveness of vaccines and the incalculable cost of an endless pandemic, employers and school officials have a clear obligation to act — now. They have several options and should select the most effective one that clears the ethical and legal hurdles.
John Hooker, professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, is the author of “Business Ethics as Rational Choice" and "Taking Ethics Seriously.” He is founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Business Ethics Education and the blog ethicaldecisions.net.