Office vaccine passports: Great in principle, but businesses should approach with caution

People are ready for vaccines and to get back to the office, yet employers are urged to be wary of pandemic management changes, according to a new Forrester report.

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Image: iStock/Firn

For even the most optimistic, there remains an uncertainty surrounding when and if we'll ever be able to return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. We're now officially past the one-year anniversary of the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 30% of U.S. and 40% of European employees are ready to return to the office and mass vaccination programs are well underway throughout the U.S. 

But a new report from Forrester urges employers to be cautious before making any office pandemic management plans. Employers will be required to prepare for new privacy, ethical, legal and compliance challenges as they plan to leverage vaccine and immunization passports to get staff back in the office.

Forrester's report, The Opportunity, The Unknowns, And The Risks Of Vaccine Passports In The Workplace, outlines operational, privacy and ethics, and legal and compliance risks of vaccine management in the workplace that employers must assess and mitigate, particularly in relation to the deployment of vaccine passports to advise return-to-work strategies. 

Because of "doubts regarding the vaccines' effectiveness [and] significant country-by-country variation in administration priorities," the report noted, employers need to be cautious as they define their pandemic management plans. 

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Employers who deploy vaccine passports—a digital document that provides evidence of an individual's immunization status—should be aware of several risks that will need to be addressed to inform return-to-work strategies.

Multiple types of vaccines bring both good and bad news: It signifies protection for the vaccinated and the potential for recovering of social and economic activity, but marked with potential problems ranging from supply shortages to distribution difficulties. Forrester noted, "Just recently, several European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, temporarily suspended the usage of a particular vaccine in response to safety concerns."

Risk exposure includes sensitive data mishandling, discrimination, labor union mobilization, diminished cybersecurity and negative impact on the customer experience. Forrester recommends employers make moderate—not radical—changes to pandemic protocols. Unanswered questions regarding vaccines' effectiveness and deployment timeline remain, as well as concerns regarding the vaccine variants around the world.  

Key highlights from Forrester's report include: 

  • Vaccines are not a silver bullet. Strategies, depth of understanding of the virus, variants and vaccine efficacy means "employers must plan to continue anywhere-work policies and hybrid experiences to balance convenience with well-being," the report stated. 

  • Avoid the privacy and ethical pitfalls of a "no jab, no job" policy. Despite many reporting they're ready to go back into the office, Forrester warned, "asking employees to carry proof of inoculation with them to enter the workplace introduces privacy and ethics risks."

  • Follow principles of proportionality, fairness and transparency. "Employers should collect only the minimum amount of data needed to trigger specific policies." Plan to "encrypt medical data and enforce strict access, sharing, and deletion policies to ensure fairness and protection."

  • Employers must navigate compliance and legal risks. In the U.S., "the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agreed that employers can make the vaccine mandatory for employees, but several state legislatures have challenged the legality of such a requirement. In the EU and UK, each country has its own approach."

  • Be mindful of customer experience and perceptions. Perception for the employees themselves as well as any clients they interact with is relevant. If an organization decides to relax protocols for distancing, sanitization and mask-wearing, the business risks a negative impact on how associates, colleagues, competitors and customers view a brand and could affect a willingness to do business with the organization. 

"While COVID-19 is loosening its grip, it's not going away," said Enza Iannopollo, senior analyst at Forrester. "Vaccine passports don't offer the silver-bullet solution that many might hope for easing pandemic protocols and restrictions, and businesses should be planning for life with COVID in the medium to long term. Our overarching message to organizations everywhere is one of caution. With the right planning and consideration, the return to work will be smoother and more successful for all involved." 

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By N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is a writer at TechRepublic and based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist coveri...