The COVID pandemic has required all of us to navigate challenging terrain in a landscape that seems to be constantly shifting. This is especially true for recruiters and hiring professionals.
One of the biggest challenges we’re now facing is the question of vaccination status. Some employers, especially those operating in industries like healthcare, education, and government, are requiring all employees to be vaccinated. New rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Labor Department will require all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees to enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead require employees to elect either vaccination or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work. Exemptions are available for workers who are unable to be vaccinated due to disabilities, medical conditions, or certain specific religious beliefs. Some job applicants include their vaccination status on their resumés and LinkedIn profiles.
So, can a recruiter or human resources professional ask a candidate about their vaccination status?
I’ve been asked this question so often that I’ve decided to share my thoughts in this blog. But first, a caveat: The vaccination mandate is being legally challenged in several states, and it is critical for employers and recruiters to carefully monitor the local, state, and federal regulations in place to ensure up-to-date compliance. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that employers cannot ask applicants questions that are likely to reveal the existence of a disability before a job offer is extended. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that simply asking about COVID-19 vaccination status is permissible because it is not necessarily requiring a candidate to disclose a disability; there are multiple reasons why a prospective employee may not be vaccinated.
It’s easy to see why there may be confusion. Let me offer some clarity.
As a general rule, yes. Yes, you can ask an applicant about their vaccination status.
But because questions about vaccination status must be handled carefully, let me encourage you to consider a slightly different approach. Instead of asking, I suggest telling. Rather than making vaccination status a screening question, explain why it is important. Make it part of your conversation about an employer’s intent to create a workplace where employee health and well-being are priorities.
Know why it matters
Begin by identifying why determining an applicant’s vaccination status is important for the hiring process. For most employers, this is quite simply a safety issue—ensuring the safety of all employees and, in certain industries, of customers or clients. For others, it may be a critical compliance issue. An employer may be in an industry where vaccination is required or may have set a policy that all employees must be vaccinated. If a COVID vaccine is required to perform a specific job, it should be identified as such in all employment materials, including the job description.
For recruiters, your priority should always be transparency. You want to match the best candidate with the right opportunity, and this strategic matchmaking involves all requirements to perform the job effectively and correctly, including vaccination requirements. Candidates should be informed of vaccination requirements at their first contact. Rather than waiting until an interview or job screening to ask about vaccination status, include it in all information you share about an opportunity. Provide a statement in writing that vaccination is required by the employer and repeat it verbally during your conversations with candidates. Don’t ask candidates if they are vaccinated; instead, use language like this: “I want you to be aware that, if you are hired, this organization will require you to prove that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine or have a valid religious or medical reason not to be vaccinated.”
Be clear with candidates that they do not need to—and should not—reveal any additional information about their vaccine status. Your goal is to simply inform them of the employer’s expectations before they start work.
For hiring professionals
I recommend this same policy of clarity and transparency to the hiring professionals with whom I work. Include a clear statement about vaccine requirements in the job posting or advertisement. It should also be included in the initial application process using a simple yes or no check box. You might use language like this: “We require all employees to be vaccinated. Are you vaccinated or have a valid medical or religious exemption from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine? Check Yes or No. Do not provide any additional information.”
I stated earlier that it is generally acceptable to ask about vaccination status during an interview. But it’s important to be aware that you cannot ask any follow-up questions that may violate state or federal laws. What you ask—and how—must be thoughtfully reviewed in advance to prevent candidates from revealing disability-related information to you or to their prospective employer. If you determine that the question should be asked during the recruiting process, follow a script informing the candidate that vaccination is a condition of employment and intentionally instruct them not to provide any information either than a “Yes” or “No” to the question. You may wish to consult a legal expert to ensure that your communications are in compliance with all current regulations.
I generally suggest, when COVID vaccination is a condition of employment, that candidates be informed of this both verbally and in writing. However, I recommend that recruiters and hiring professionals share this information without requesting proof of vaccination until an offer of employment is made.
Finally, remember to protect the candidate’s privacy. This applies to all information that they share, including their vaccination status.
Be transparent with your expectations. Ensure that you are in compliance with all regulations. And protect privacy. Recruiters and hiring professionals are accustomed to these practices as a cornerstone of successful engagement with candidates. Questions about vaccination have given them a new urgency.