As more of us return to our office buildings, we’re navigating new norms around what it means to work together in one space again. Sixty-six percent of workers who have been remote because of the pandemic said they would be willing to return to an office only if their co-workers are all vaccinated, according to a survey this month of 400 U.S. professionals.
That leaves one major question in the back of many peoples’ minds: Did my colleague next to me get vaccinated against COVID-19?
While employers are allowed to ask for proof of vaccination, team members are likely to be less certain about who among them is and is not vaccinated. If you are wondering whether you can legally ask your co-worker if they’re vaccinated, the short answer is yes ― but be careful not to push for more information.
Navigating the vaccination question with peers means respecting the boundary of “mind your own business.”
Because managers are representatives of a company, they can ask direct reports for their COVID-19 vaccination status for business-related reasons, such as when it’s a requirement for working in-person. Additional questions about why or why not can be legally dicey.
“Asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be ‘job-related and consistent with business necessity,’” state guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Peers have neither the same reason to ask a colleague about their vaccination status nor the same obligation to answer. In other words, you can ask your peer-level co-worker if they’re vaccinated, but they also have the right to refuse to tell you.
“Sure, you can ask,” said Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment attorney. But she noted that how you handle their response matters a lot.
“It might be discrimination if you harass a co-worker for refusing to answer or if they tell you they aren’t vaccinated,” Ballman said. “There can be protected reasons for not getting vaccinated, including disability, pregnancy and religion.”
“By asking someone about their vaccination status, it seems like it would be more for you to feel better, and to feel safe, and that shouldn’t be what makes you feel better or feel safe. It should be the protocol and processes that your company has put into place.”
Ballman noted that similar to the manager-to-employee scenario, you don’t want your question to force a co-worker to disclose a disability, which could be an ADA liability.
If you have a casual relationship with your colleague, Ballman said you could try discussing your own COVID-19 vaccination as a way to prompt discussion, such as telling them how glad you are that you’ve had it and can now go unmasked in restaurants.
But if you have a difficult relationship with the person, “then maybe talking to your manager, rather than the co-worker, would be the way to go,” Ballman said.
Danny Speros, vice president of people at Zenefits, also recommended making it more of a conversation and less of an interrogation.
He suggested easing into the conversation slowly with questions like, “‘Oh, how are things going? Are you excited to take some traveling this year? Are you excited to be back in the office? Are you nervous at all about the virus?’ And then segue into — based on their answers on those kinds of things — ‘Oh, have you had the opportunity to get vaccinated?’”
That way, he said, “it’s less of a conversation about ‘I would like a piece of information so I can use it to judge you’ and more of a conversation to get to know you better, see how you are doing.”
Or you can just not ask. Keni Dominguez, a human resources consultant, said you should consider what is behind your urge to ask before you enter into a potentially awkward conversation.
“By asking someone about their vaccination status, it seems like it would be more for you to feel better, and to feel safe, and that shouldn’t be what makes you feel better or feel safe. It should be the protocol and processes that your company has put into place before they bring you back, not just someone’s verbal confirmation of their vaccination status,” she said.
Instead of trying to hold your peers accountable, Dominguez said, you should direct your energy into holding your HR department accountable so that one-on-one conversations with your peers feel less necessary to ensure workplace safety. You could ask your company to conduct a pre-return to work or work safety survey and share the results, for example.
“Instead of focusing on who are the specific individuals in my unit or my department that do or don’t have it, it’s more about what safety measures do you have in place, how are you protecting us?” she said. ”If employees have a high level of trust in their organization, they are more likely to not feel like they have to have these one-off conversations.”