Christian Torres found himself in an unfamiliar spot in his job search. He was incredibly excited about the possibility of making a major career move as an auditor for a large accounting firm. In preparing for the interview he read everything he could about the company. But he couldn't find their policy about COVID-19 vaccination and their workplace.
"It was important for me to know if they had protocols or if everyone on the team was vaccinated," said Torres, 34, who held positions at two smaller accounting firms. "I wasn't sure how to bring up that question during the interview or even if I should. I didn't want to overstep."
As COVID-19 vaccines roll out and more workers return to the office, employer vaccination requirements and what they can (and can't) ask is a hot and sometimes heated topic.
Federal courts have weighed in on this issue and sided with employers in some industries, like health care, stating that employers can require workers to be vaccinated so long as they provide reasonable accommodations to employees with legitimate medical or religious reasons for not being vaccinated.
Here's a guide for job seekers on how to handle the question of your COVID vaccination status.
1. Be proactive.
Before submitting your resume, read the job description and research the company thoroughly. Now it's not just about learning who they are and what they do, but also how they handled the pandemic, if there are safety measures in place and if they have a policy about the COVID-19 vaccines.
"You don't want to be in a company that doesn't value the same things you do. You must not only research the employer but also the industry; understand what the industry as a whole is doing in regards to COVID-19," said Lorena Pabón, an HR generalist for National Airlines. "While you're looking for that information, you need to look for hints of how they handled the pandemic and safety in general. You don't want to waste the recruiter's time if you have all the qualifications they need, but in the end, you're surprised when they say that getting vaccinated or wearing a mask is a requirement to get hired."
If you see something that may not align with your beliefs or lacks information, you should consider your options well — you know better than anyone your wants and needs. Perhaps the opportunity to get a job outweighs everything else, or working with a team of people who are vaccinated is non-negotiable. Maybe you don't want to work somewhere that mandates a vaccine and would rather find an employer with a more flexible policy.
If you apply and are called for an interview, write down any questions you may have.
2. It's OK to ask about safety protocols.
The interview process goes both ways. The employer is getting to know you as a candidate, and you're getting to know them. When the time comes for you to ask questions, if the topic of COVID-19 safety protocols hasn't been touched, don't be afraid to ask. Are employees required to wear a mask at all times? Are social distancing measures in place? Do employees periodically get tested for COVID-19?
Just remember that you can't ask point-black if everyone is vaccinated; the person interviewing you can't answer that question.
"Asking about safety protocols is more than acceptable," said Pabón. "Generally speaking, talking about safety protocols will probably lead you to the vaccination policies. Employers don't have to be specific on who is vaccinated or not, but they can give a general sense of how it's being handled. I know of employers who are not requiring vaccines in the workplace, but they continue to mandate masks and social distancing for the time being to help mitigate the illness."
3. Be graceful, polite and respectful.
Approaching topics like the COVID-19 vaccination policy and security protocols during an interview is not as weird as you may think. Many HR professionals, recruiters and hiring managers are equipped to answer any questions you may have regarding their policies. Just be sure to maintain a polite and respectful approach.
"I believe that the best way to ask questions, both personal and professional ones, is by doing so directly but respectfully," said Grace Fernández who works for PathStone Corporation, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
4. Keep in mind that reasonable accommodation is not for everyone.
A reasonable accommodation is a change in a person's hiring process, the job, how the job is done, or their work environment that allows a qualified person to perform the job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. A candidate must meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to be eligible.
If getting the COVID-19 vaccine isn't an option for you due to medical or religious reasons, your potential employer may accommodate you.
"Job applicants should remember that reasonable accommodation can be done as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship on the company," explained Pabón. "When requesting medical accommodation, the employer does have the right to request your medical documentation and engage in a conversation to find out if there are other ways to accommodate you."
5. You don't have to answer about your vaccination status.
Every employer is different. Some might state in the job description that being vaccinated is a requirement to get hired but others may not. If you're asked about your vaccination status during the interview and you don't feel comfortable giving a yes or no answer, you have other options.
"One answer I have recommended job candidates to say is: 'I would rather not discuss that now but will more than happily talk about my vaccination status if a job is offered,'" Pabón said.
Fernández suggested: "I apologize for answering with another question. Is being vaccinated a requirement to work for this company?" or "I'd rather focus on my qualifications and see if I'm a good fit for your team. If it's necessary, we could go over the safety protocols and available options."
You must understand the fallout that may come from not answering — you might not get the job.
"It's OK if an applicant chooses not to provide an answer about their vaccination status, be it for personal or other reasons. However, in the case of our company, our offer letters now state that the offer is contingent upon the applicant getting vaccinated unless reasonable accommodation is needed," Pabón said. "We have the legal grounds to rescind the offer if the applicant will not get vaccinated because for us, it's akin to them not wanting to comply with a background check or a drug testing."
This, of course, may not be the case for every employer you encounter. Each company handles its policies differently, and their requirements to get hired may vary.
As a job seeker, you need to understand that the COVID-19 vaccines can be a new player during your job search. So gear up with information and conduct your research to make an informed decision that benefits you and your career goals.