Office politics has been a thing of the past for most of us over the last 18 months, as millions of people worked from home throughout Covid-induced lockdowns.
Now, as many employees return to their offices, tensions appear to be emerging along new lines: Those who are vaccinated against Covid, and those who are not.
In the U.S. in particular, companies have taken a rigorous approach towards employees’ Covid vaccination status, with many announcing that their staff must be fully vaccinated in order to return to the workplace.
Then, in late August, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid shot in late August.
This approval is already reportedly inflaming workplace conflicts because it has meant that fewer employees can remain “on the fence” regarding vaccine safety, with some workers now hardening their stance on whether vaccines should be mandatory, particularly when it comes to their co-workers, according to one workplace consultancy.
Seyfarth at Work conducted surveys of hundreds of employees through to late August and found there was an increasing number of workplace conflicts related to vaccination.
Dividing respondents into two camps — the “vexed vaxxed” and “unnerved unvaxxed” — it reported that both sides of the debate, those for vaccination and those against it, felt a growing sense of resentment.
Some 37% of companies surveyed by Seyfarth at Work reported that vaccinated staff were angry and frustrated at the transmission risk posed by unvaccinated workers. The consultancy cited one East Coast fix-it company worker as saying: “I have a grandma and a toddler at home. Why should some twenty-something science denier put them both at risk?”
Vaccinated staff are also reportedly annoyed at the prospect of having to cover for colleagues who may become ill, while others object to differing workplace rules (such as two sets of masking protocols) due to those that are unvaccinated.
The unvaccinated, meanwhile, are complaining about their treatment at work, with 21% of the companies surveyed noting that unvaccinated staff are “crying foul at what they consider harsh judgment by others or better opportunities for vaccinated office-mates” as well as the burdens of regular testing requirements.
At one engineering firm, a group of unvaccinated staff have formed an ad-hoc support group (calling itself, the “Vexcluded”) with one group member explaining that “our vaccine fears have turned us into veritable office outcasts.”
Corporate lawyer Philippe Weiss, the president of Seyfarth at Work, told CNBC that workplace disputes fell into four categories:
1. Verbal and email/Slack/intranet altercations/arguments.
2. Separation — people refusing to sit or work near one-other.
3. Protest – conflicts between employees and managers over policies affecting vaxxed vs. unvaxxed workers.
4. Angry online posts.
“In some workplaces we have seen a significant spike in hostility. Human Resources contacts report the stress of attempting to manage the introduction of oft-changing Covid safety policies with, in some cases, an inundation of gripes from both the vaxxed and unvaxxed,” Weiss said.
Weiss said he expected the divisions to grow as more people returned to workplaces.
“Those individuals who were required to remain on site — or had to come to offices regularly during the last year are already accustomed to changing workplace rules and have often developed some understanding and elasticity,” he said.
“Now, millions of formerly remote workers returning — many of whose views on vaccine and other measures were reinforced after months associating with like-minded acquaintances, and they are apt to be less adaptable and open-minded.”
Anthony Mingione, an employment lawyer and partner in the New York office of law firm Blank Rome, said disputes and resentment over vaccination and mask-wearing in the workplace were now coming to the fore — and it was having an impact on the return to the office.
“The tension between vaccinated and unvaccinated colleagues is a key issue behind the slowing rate of large-scale office returns,” he told CNBC Wednesday.
“One of the conflicts we are seeing is the clash between vaccinated workers who have returned to the workplace, and unvaccinated workers who continue to work remotely. Many times vaccinated employees feel like they are being unfairly forced to shoulder work responsibilities for unvaccinated colleagues.”
Mingione said employers were now having to impose their own Covid policies, as governments relax the required safety protocols, finding themselves in a gray area.
“Without the cover provided by hard and fast rules, businesses seeking a return to the office must adopt work rules that get employees back onsite while also keeping them safe — all against the backdrop of a polarizing political climate,” he said.
Lucy Lewis, a partner with global HR lawyers Lewis Silkin, agreed that this was proving difficult for businesses.
“Almost invariably employers want to act in a way which is both fair and protects the health and safety of their workforce and customers,” Lewis told CNBC Tuesday. “The biggest challenge is the lack of specific government guidance on the parameters of what they should be doing to achieve that and, in particular, the part that vaccinations should play.”
There are a growing number sectors, both public and private, where employees are required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Although the U.S. ruled out making Covid vaccination mandatory earlier this year, some states are moving to make the shots compulsory for some trades and activities. Such action has proved controversial, sparking large protests in parts of the country.
Last week, President Joe Biden was notably tougher on the issue, however, pressuring more private employers to immunize their workforce, as well as mandating the shots for federal employees, contractors and health-care workers.
The U.S. is not alone in this, with similar moves being introduced in the U.K. and other parts of Europe.
Vaccine policies in the workplace could determine whether employees remain in or leave their jobs, however, according to one study of more than 1,051 American workers over the age of 21 by online survey company Qualtrics.
The survey, conducted in August, found that while most (60%) of employees are supportive of vaccine mandates for in-person work, almost a quarter of employees (23%) said they would strongly consider leaving their place of work if their employers mandated vaccines.
The survey found that support for vaccine mandates differed across industry, with 75% of workers in tech supporting vaccine mandates at work, while 58% of government employees supported mandates.
More men (63%) supported vaccine mandates at work than women (56%), and political affiliation also affected the evident level of support, with 81% of those who identifying as Democrats saying they support vaccine mandates at work, while only 45% of Republicans said the same.
Some employers have been reluctant to enforce workplace rules on vaccines and masks in an effort to avoid conflict, Blank Rome’s Mingione added, but this could lead to more conflicts down the road.
“Selective enforcement of any policy—even with good intentions—can lead to dropping morale, employee conflicts, and low productivity. As the Delta variant runs rampant and stories of breakthrough infections permeate the news cycle, these workplace conflicts have continued to increase.