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To Ask or Not to Ask? That Is the Question

Is vaccination status a personal boundary or a legal obligation to disclose?

Key points

  • Whether or not an employer can ask an employee if they have been vaccinated is a legal and psychological question.
  • Federal law permits employers to ask employees whether they have been vaccinated, but they should be sensitive to the boundary issue.
  • There needs to be a balance between the rights of the individual and the protection of the masses.
  • The employer should create a psychologically safe place where this conversation should be discussed.

This post was written by Robert Goldman, Psy.D., J.D., and Jaclyn Gordon.

Asking about someone's vaccination status

In addition to the legal implications of this question, the possibility of violating someone’s personal boundaries to the point of distress is also possible. How can we find a balance between protecting the legal rights of each other while also inquiring because of the moral obligations to public health and safety?

Like most legal questions, “it depends.” Firstly, it is important to check with local state law. This issue is still evolving as employers grapple with the “new normal.” According to the Federal Guidelines, as outlined by the EEOC, it appears that employers can inquire as to whether or not an employee has been vaccinated, especially if their job involves direct contact with other individuals. However, employers should be careful to limit their inquiry.

Added to the legal implications, employers should also keep in mind their obligations to care for their workers' social-emotional well-being. Resilient employees create resilient companies, and many employers will have to jump over the coming hurdles to ensure the health and safety, as well as the emotional well-being of their employees simultaneously. This is no easy task, as many of us have conflicting opinions and values regarding the topic of vaccination.

Whilst consulting with local and state regulations, we also suggest taking into consideration the personal boundaries that your employees are entitled to as well.

Respecting personal boundaries

According to social psychologist John Haidt, morality is born out of our instinctive need to survive. Boundaries are not arbitrary or capricious; they are established because of our need to live in harmony with each other. According to the research conducted by Robert Dunbar, when a group surpassed 150 people, it would collapse. This appears to be the magic number that gives humans the perfect amount of social connection while allowing them to not over-exert themselves. This combines what we know about social relationships—that they are critical to survival, but also that we have a limit to how much we can give of ourselves to others.

Employers can keep these two theories in mind and assume that both themselves and those they work with have an inherent inclination to live in harmony with and protect the safety of those around them.

Vaccination status and health status can be considered personal boundaries. Like all other boundaries, everyone’s comfort in sharing this information will differ from person to person. When a boundary is crossed or violated, we can have a visceral, emotional reaction. Sometimes it makes us angry, resentful, and annoyed.

Health boundary setting in the workplace has been tied to employees' resiliency and intrinsic motivation. If a workplace boundary is violated, it can set off a visceral reaction. This type of visceral reaction may be more evident in today’s workplace, as many employees feel their rights are being violated by this question of vaccine status being posed.

Healthy boundaries require a balance between respect for the individual’s privacy and the well-being of the community. The law does the same balancing act. For the sake of workplace resilience, there needs to be a psychologically safe place where this conversation can be had, all opinions are heard, and the health and safety of everyone are protected.

Jaclyn Gordon is a fourth-year doctoral student in Hofstra University’s School-Community Psy.D. program.

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