We may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel with COVID-19 cases, but we cannot ignore the lingering biases people hold about mask mandates and vaccination status. Federal mandates ordering businesses with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated have created even more COVID-19-related challenges toward bias. Generally, bias refers to unconscious tendencies, associations, and preferences people hold that affect their thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and/or emotions toward others. Heightened stress, fear, or uncertainty can amplify the impacts of bias in the workplace.
With more employees returning to work—and as companies adjust to hybrid models—two sources of bias have emerged: vaccines and masks. A person’s decision to get vaccinated or to wear a mask has created implicit biases that many companies must address.
Because vaccination status is not a protected category (as opposed to, say, race or gender), you can legally discuss it. However, exceptions based on medical health history or religion are indeed protected categories, which bars you from discussing them. Thus, it’s better to avoid discussing these topics.
The vaccine has created two factions: those who favor the vaccine, and those who oppose it. This struggle for a cure has become almost like a religious divide (e.g. those who believe in the vaccine and those who don't; those who believe in using masks and those who don't). Many from each faction vehemently condemns the other for ignorance and fights more avidly over intangible rights and beliefs than against a tangible disease.
Legal ramifications about vaccines
The Covid-19 pandemic has led thousands of workers to file discrimination claims with the EEOC, with the majority related to disability bias on top of a surge of vaccine-related charges in the wake of workplace mandates, according to data provided to Bloomberg Law.
Between April 2020 and December 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received roughly 6,225 COVID-related charges of discrimination under federal civil rights laws, the latest agency data show. In addition, the commission received more than 2,700 vaccine-related charges, most of which were in 2021 when vaccine requirements were introduced.
Some employment attorneys are hearing many concerns from vaccinated people reluctant to work alongside unvaccinated people. This has made it increasingly important to ensure that this new protected class of employee—unvaccinated—isn’t bullied or harassed at work, experts say.
These observers note that harassment can become evident when someone is coerced into sharing his or her vaccination status with co-workers. Therefore, the attorneys add, it’s wise to establish guidelines in the workplace around these types of conversations.
While employees should feel free to discuss general information about vaccines—such as whether people have experienced side effects or which shot they received—they may cross a line if a co-worker feels pressured into revealing personal information. Employees may or may not be required to vaccinate in order to return to the workplace. This varies based upon company and location but generally, while vaccination status is not a directly protected category (meaning you can legally ask about it), exceptions that are based on medical history and religious faith are. As a general best practice, unless you are in an HR role or required as part of supervisory duties, it’s best not to discuss vaccination status with colleagues.
Legal experts point out that a company’s decision whether to bar an employee from the workplace should be balanced across overall concerns about worker safety. If, for example, an employer decides to prevent a worker from physically entering the place of business, the employer would need to clearly communicate to that employee the reasons it made that decision. Doing so would help prevent any claims of bias or legal entanglements. If, on the other hand, an employee takes action against the company, the employer would need to demonstrate that the decision was bias-free and in the interest of protecting business operations as well as the health of other employees. In other words, experts say the action would have to be deemed “reasonable and necessary.”
What about masks?
COVID numbers have been dropping. Accordingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed its mask guidelines on February 25, giving each county in the US a “low, medium or high” risk ranking and advising on mask recommendations, according to the New York Post. Mask wearing is no longer recommended in indoor public spaces, including schools, in low-risk areas.
In some situations, companies have signs that say that masks are only required for non-vaccinated individuals. If vaccinated individuals stop wearing masks, does it create a caste system in the workplace? Will individuals who wear masks be judged for not being vaccinated?
According to a study in the journal Global Biosecurity, bias can play a major role in the decision to even wear mask in the first place. People “are prone to making errors in … decision-making” during a crisis such as a pandemic, the study says, pushing them closer to “a wide range of cognitive biases.”
The study points to a “groupthink phenomenon and a desire for conformity, resulting in dysfunctional judgments, including the bandwagon bias—when we tend to do or not do something because it is the norm.”
Additionally, the journal’s study discusses “reactance bias” in which people can perceive mask mandates as a threat to their freedom. This phenomenon can be traced back to the influenza outbreak of 1918, which resulted in a major anti-mask movement in the U.S.
What to do
So, what can employers and employees do to mitigate their own bias during this fraught time? First, it’s important to avoid making assumptions about someone’s vaccination status. Some colleagues may choose to wear a mask while others may not. This does not reveal their vaccination status.
There are a number of reasons why someone may choose to mask or not—and those reasons may have nothing to do with vaccination status, political party, religious beliefs, or medical status.
Second, it’s important to pay attention to how you respond to people who are masked or unmasked. Similarly, pay attention to how you respond to people you believe are vaccinated vs. those you believe are not. These factors can be important triggers for bias and provide critical information about your own biases. If you experience elevated levels of stress or unease, talk to an HR professional or workplace counselor. These are new and challenging circumstances, so avoid judging yourself and—most important—don’t let these symptoms go untreated.
Third, use inclusive leadership to heighten awareness and promote connection. It’s easy to retreat when we experience fear or to villainize someone who may contradict our beliefs or even company protocol. Instead, draw upon cognitive empathy to assist you and others in understanding different viewpoints. When stress or fear are at work, you can ask yourself, “What might this person be experiencing that I’m unaware of?”
Keeping our workplaces safe is critically important and keeping them inclusive and equitable in the process is everyone’s responsibility. So, refrain from making assumptions, notice how you are responding to triggers, and leverage inclusive leadership skills that promote cognitive empathy, suspend judgement, and promote reflection.
To learn more about mitigating biases related to COVID-19, masks and vaccines, watch this short video.
Not just diversity. Inclusion.
Diversity is not just about numbers. It’s about people’s experiences in the workplace. If you’re ready to understand how bias impacts your company—with data to make effective changes, contact us now.