As companies start navigating a return to the office, it’s natural for people to wonder if their employees, coworkers, and customers have been vaccinated. Some employers are removing the uncertainty by mandating the vaccine for their employees, but others are not.
If you’re thinking about broaching the subject, your first question might be: Is it legal to even ask?
Yes, says Sahara Pynes, a labor and employment attorney at Fox Rothschild’s Los Angeles and New York offices. “Asking anyone if they are vaccinated is generally not protected by HIPAA unless you are asking a doctor or health care provider to disclose someone’s vaccination status,” she says. “There is a lot of misinformation about HIPAA and its application, but it doesn’t apply [here.]”
How you ask, however, is not so cut and dry. It will depend on the person and your goal.
How to Ask Employees
Business owners are allowed to ask employees about their vaccination status either by requesting a copy of their vaccination card or through a self-attestation of vaccination, says Pynes.
“Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines require this information to be kept confidential, so I recommend HR or a high-level designated manager maintain all records, rather than having more widespread knowledge of everyone’s vaccination status,” she says.
Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School, says it’s not a good idea to put supervisors in charge of asking. “Some things you have to be careful about, and unless a supervisor is trained, they can easily mess it up,” he says. “It’s better for HR to do the asking. Once you get the information, there are obligations associated with it, such as record requirements from OSHA.”
Pynes agrees that managers should not be asking follow-up questions on why employees may be unvaccinated unless they are trained in providing disability and religious accommodations, which are two recognized exemptions to mandatory vaccinations.
How to Ask Coworkers
If you want to ask coworkers because you have a preexisting condition or immunodeficiency, a better approach may be to go to management or HR, says Pynes.
“You should advise them of the condition and ask for an accommodation, which may include working in a private office, remote work, or other physical partitions or separation,” she says.
If you plan to ask your coworker directly, Pynes suggests saying something like, “I’ve been pretty locked down and careful, especially since the most recent surge. Would you mind sharing if you are vaccinated, so I can continue to take precautions?'”
“Basically, make it a health and safety concern, rather than a judgment or political statement,” she says.
Cappelli suggests sharing your status first. “This isn’t like asking, ‘What do you think about the Eagles’ chances this season?'” he says. “This is a question you are going to act on, which impacts the person who gives you the information.”
Starting a conversation is a better way to get people to talk. “Instead of saying, ‘What do you think about [getting] vaccinated?’ you could say, ‘You know, I got vaccinated early on,’ and hope they respond and tell you what’s going on with them, which is the social norm for most people,” says Cappelli.
How to Ask Customers
The information you can seek will depend on your location. While most states allow businesses to ask customers about their vaccination status, a few, including Florida and Texas, prohibit such inquiries, says Pynes.
Alternatively, businesses located in New York are allowed to require customers to show proof of vaccination. And Pynes says businesses in California should be mindful that California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act may require publicly accessible businesses to accommodate customers with disabilities or religious beliefs that prevent vaccination.
“I recommend putting a sign outside the store if businesses require customers to be vaccinated,” she says. “We have heard from so many business owners that customers have yelled at, harassed, and berated their employees for asking customers to wear masks, so a notice outside can be the first line of defense, given both mask and vaccine mandates are highly charged topics.”
Pynes says employees can greet customers warmly, adding something like: “Thanks so much for shopping with us today, I just want to confirm that you are vaccinated, in accordance with our store policy and to keep our community safe.”
What to Do with the Information
Once you have the information, know what you plan to do with it. Elaine Varelas, managing partner at career management and leadership development firm Keystone Partners, suggests being prepared with alternatives if the person isn’t vaccinated.
“One way to ask this in a professional manner would be, ‘I see we are scheduled for a face-to-face meeting, and I want to ensure both our safety. I have been vaccinated and am comfortable meeting outside without masks, inside with masks, or any variation that works for you,'” she suggests. “Whether this is a conversation with an employee, customer, or colleague, it needs to be respectful and based on protecting your own health and the health of those around you.”
If someone is not vaccinated by choice, only those in HR or a legal position should be questioning their status, adds Varelas. “Instead, you can say, “I’m not comfortable meeting face-to-face and we can have a Zoom meeting instead, if that works for you.”
Ruth Pearce, founder of In It Together, a strength-based coaching firm, says the most important step is to be kind. “I made the decision to get vaccinated, and believe it’s the right thing to do, but I also don’t believe it’s anyone’s business if I’ve been vaccinated,” she says. “What is appropriate is taking appropriate precautions.” For example, companies can require wearing masks or allow employees to continue working remotely.
Organizations should focus on keeping employees and customers safe, says Pearce. “Then create a menu of options, one of which may be [getting] vaccinated or getting tested on a regular basis,” she says.