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Delta Air Lines Just Made a Bold New Decision. Here's Why It's So Controversial

Date: May 17, 2021

EDITORIAL By Bill Murphy Jr., INC

This is a story about Delta Air Lines and the most controversial issue in business right now. It's the kind of thing I explore in my e-book, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, which you can download here for free

No matter what industry you're in, it makes sense to follow the airlines. They offer a never-ending series of case studies that can help you make better decisions in your business. 

Today's case study? Whether you realistically can or should require employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Last month, a study out of Arizona State University concluded that about 65 percent of U.S. companies will eventually require their employees to get vaccinated. 

More than a third of those employers said they'd consider terminating employees who refuse.

But on the other side of the table, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that about 28 percent of employees say they'd rather quit their jobs than get vaccinated, if their employers mandated it.

To be up front, I got vaccinated as soon as I was eligible. But I recognize that not everyone sees this the way I do, and that the very idea of vaccine requirements is highly controversial. 

As a business leader, you're likely thinking through what the policy might become at your company: Require vaccinations? Just encourage them? Leave it all to the judgment of your employees?

Last week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian announced his company's policy -- the first airline to go public with its plan. What I find interesting and useful about it, besides the fact that Delta made its decision early and you can compare it with its competitors, is that it's sort of a hybrid approach.

Here are the details:

First off, for new employees, the vaccine is non-negotiable. If you want to work for Delta and you're not already on board, you'll have to be vaccinated, full stop. 

(Data point: In 2017, Delta had 270,000 applicants for 1,700 flight attendant positions, which works out to a 0.6 percent acceptance rate.)

"Any person joining Delta in the future, we will mandate to get vaccinated before they can sign up with the company," Bastian said in an interview on CNN

Second, the airline won't require current employees, of which it has about 75,000, to get the vaccine.

Bastian said this is a moot point for about 60 percent of Delta employees who already have been vaccinated, a number he expects will eventually rise to about 80 percent.

"I'm not going to mandate and force people if they have some specific reason why they don't want to get vaccinated," Bastian said in the interview, "but I am going to strongly encourage them and make sure they understand the risk to not getting vaccinated."

Now, that leaves 20 percent -- roughly 17,000 employees -- who Bastian expects will not be willing to get vaccinated. What happens to them?

Well, they'll still have jobs at Delta, Bastian said, but many of them can expect their jobs to change. 

An immediate example he offered would be that employees who haven't been vaccinated might not be able to fly on international routes.

That's because even if Delta or the United States doesn't require vaccinations, other countries might, and Delta has to comply with their laws when traveling within their borders.

Now, while Bastian is apparently the first airline CEO to outline his airline's policy, he's not the first to address the issue -- or to suggest the possibility or even likelihood of a more restrictive plan.

Back in January, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said at a town hall for United employees that he hopes to make vaccines mandatory at his airline. 

"I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine," Kirby said, "and I recognize it's controversial. I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory."

But, he also added: "I don't think United will get away with and can realistically be the only company that requires vaccines and makes them mandatory. We need some others. We need some others to show leadership. Particularly in the health care industry."

See what I mean about the continuous stream of business case studies from the big airlines? Maybe this debate is already prompting you to ask yourself questions, like:

  • Does requiring vaccines (or not) make my company a better corporate citizen? Is it "the right thing to do?"
  • Will customers or employees be more or less likely to stay with me if I do require vaccines? 
  • Will some customers or employees leave me behind if I make the opposite decision?
  • Should I have different policies for new employees versus current ones?
  • Might I have to change some employees' jobs if they refuse to get vaccinated?

I can't tell you what the answers should be for your business. But I do think it's a lot easier to make these calls when you've had
the chance to study the thought processes and decisions at bigger companies -- like the U.S. airlines.

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