What will you do if an employee refuses a COVID-19 test? Experienced HR advisor, Mike Kealey, tackles this challenge and more

When we caught up with Mike (Managing Director and a founder of Vero HR) this month, we discussed a few of the topics currently foremost in HR professionals’ minds: COVID-19 vaccinations and testing, and bringing workers back from long-term furlough. Vero HR has over 16 years’ experience delivering a wide range of HR solutions, from employee relations to employee wellbeing, so Mike is well placed to give insights into how HR can meet its most pressing concerns.

vero covid-19 interview

What do you think is the current feeling in organisations around the COVID-19 vaccine?

A lot of different considerations are coming up when companies think about their approach to the COVID-19 vaccinations and their workforce. Health and safety (H&S) for employees is crucial, and how physically closely employees work with each other might impact on how hard of a line an organisation takes on vaccinations.

There is also the feeling that vaccinations can been seen as a moral obligation to society, especially for companies who have staff in direct contact with the public. Frontline medical staff, for instance, might be under more pressure to be vaccinated than people who can work from home. Any work that generates a higher risk of passing COVID-19 on to others will up the ante for employers in terms of wanting their workforce to be vaccinated.

Business leaders should start to think about what their response will be if an employee refuses to be vaccinated when their turn comes around. They also need to have a plan for employees who need to travel for work overseas, and if a vaccine will become a requirement of travel. And they need to balance how much they encourage employees to have a COVID-19 vaccine against how they would respond if an employee were to then have an adverse reaction to a vaccine. COVID-19 vaccination isn’t an easy issue for organisations to tackle.

Has testing for COVID-19 been an easier issue than vaccination for businesses to address?

From what I’ve observed, there’s actually a very high degree of cooperation from employees for COVID-19 testing; very few organisations are having to deal with people refusing to have the test which is great. People are interested to know their results and to understand the risk level they pose to others. COVID-19 has increased people’s awareness of their actions in relation to the health of others – through mask wearing for example.

If necessary, employers could potentially approach COVID-19 testing like they would drug and alcohol testing, with the assumption that if people refuse a test, they’re then treated as if the test was positive and sent home. Hopefully, strong support for testing continues and employers don’t have to go down this road.

Legal considerations that HR and business leaders need to keep in mind around testing include GDPR – employers will essentially be keeping medical records when retaining data on staff testing. There’s also an unanswered legal question as to whether testing can be imposed or not – I haven’t seen any clear Government guidance on this to date. Employers will have to decide if non-compliance with testing will result in disciplinary action as the reasonableness of any action taken by employers will take account of the specific circumstances.

Testing can be a loaded issue because it encompasses H&S, legal, human rights, and moral concerns. For employers, I think that the top concern needs to be risk management, especially as more people return to on-site working. With increased workplace testing, the hope is that employers can bring COVID-19 risk levels down. I’d describe workplace COVID-19 testing as a ‘test of reassurance’, but most definitely not a test to replace government testing or advice.

What advice do you have for employers bringing people back from long-term furlough?

I’d say that it’s one thing to bring people back to the office who have been working from home for the last year, and quite another to reintegrate long-term furloughed workers!

I’ve seen some employers take a very organised approach with something resembling an onboarding process to bring back furloughed workers. They’ve done a mini induction, spelling out any new rules, and providing reassurance by evidencing COVID-19 compliance. I’ve also seen businesses take a more informal ad hoc approach for their returners, especially when they’re coming back in smaller numbers.

The biggest hurdle in bringing people back from long-term furlough (and I’m sure this applies to any sort of long period away from work), is to rebuild people’s confidence in their ability to do the job. When people first return from being off work, they typically experience anxiety and worry about whether they can still do their job. We all feel a bit rusty after a week or two off work – HR should think about how it would feel after months off so they can relate to how their returning workers will be feeling.

And it’s not just the person’s confidence in their skills at play, it’s also their engagement with the organisation. Despite the best internal comms efforts, people who have been off for a long time will feel detached from their organisation and the culture that they used to feel a part of. Their attitudes to work might have also changed, with time away allowing space to rethink priorities. Employees might have moved house to be further away from city centres and work, they might have adopted pets, and they most likely have found new ways to spend what used to be their travel budget and be very reluctant to return to expensive daily commutes. All of these factors will add up to what I’d term ‘furloughitis’.

A furlough return-to-work programme could work very well. People were in many cases furloughed really quickly as the crisis hit last year. But employers can, and should, take more time, care and thought when bringing furloughed people back to work. People will need to be phased back into a work and commute routine if employers are to reduce the risk of staff leaving. It might be appropriate to rotate people between home and office work to ease them back (if the intention is to go back to mostly on-site working in the long run).

Perhaps employers could also think about doing something similar to KIT days (Keep in Touch days, used during, for example, maternity leave). If the Government allows it under the training provision for furloughed workers, HR could devise a way for furloughed employees to reconnect with the workplace before they are officially due back from furlough – to reengage and reorient the employee.

I’d also advise businesses to be aware that employees who are returning from furlough might be coming back with some negative feelings; HR should help managers prepare for the full range of emotions from their returners. For example, someone might question why they were furloughed when their colleague wasn’t. The ‘soft stuff’ is very much the hard stuff in this scenario, and it might not be an easy journey bringing people back and reengaging them with their employer.

To find out about Vero HR’s advice on flexible working, read Homeworking – Is it right for your organisation?

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