Workplace tensions arising over whether co-workers are vaccinated could lead to workplace bullying, an employment consultant has warned.
Business leaders say employers are being caught in a "tricky" situation of vaccinated staff not wanting to work next to unvaccinated staff as they juggle health and safety requirements and human rights.
They are asking for clarity around rules, mandates and verification to avoid employment law issues down the line.
The government has said certain jobs need to be done by vaccinated people and a Bay employment lawyer said being vaccinated could be a job requirement but employers should not discriminate if health reasons were involved.
Bay of Plenty based director of Pillar Consulting Amanda Barker said some clients had workers refusing to get vaccinated despite their work being deemed high-risk.
While she had not come across workplace bullying associated with mandating vaccinations "it could happen".
"Whenever you have an emotive topic – which vaccinations certainly are – and multiple viewpoints/perspectives on it which are opposite, combined with strong personalities and passionate advocates of both perspectives then, yes, certainly bullying could be an issue.
"It is something that employers need to be aware of and something that they should possibly pre-empt."
Communication was key, she said.
"Deciding which line the business is going to take and then making it very clear that they won't tolerate any negative behaviour towards another person who may have a different perspective is a way that they could manage it upfront."
Navigating the challenge of unvaccinated staff was a "very tricky topic" and "tough to answer" but it was important to involve workers, unions, and other representatives in conversations.
"That way they feel involved and can hopefully see all sides."
Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley said employers were in a difficult position where some vaccinated staff were not wanting to work alongside people who were unvaccinated.
"Some staff who have, or are close to people with, vulnerable health conditions are overly cautious about working alongside unvaccinated people.
"Even though they personally might be vaccinated, they would prefer the extra protection knowing their work colleagues are also vaccinated since they spend so much time together."
Cowley said it highlighted how employers were having to balance health and safety requirements against human rights. Bosses were seeking clarity from the Government to avoid employment grievances.
"If employers take a hard stance against unvaccinated staff, we don't want to leave it up to lawyers and our slow court system for them to be retrospectively liable for any potential employment violations."
Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said businesses understood the only way to return to a more normal environment was to increase vaccination rates.
"Clarity around rules, mandates and verification from the Government would certainly help, but expect businesses to encourage vaccinations as best they can."
Rotorua Business Chamber chief executive Bryce Heard said the vaccination rates showed the vast majority of people want to get vaccinated.
Heard said employers wanted to help speed the process, however, to do this "we need clear, consistent, direction and support from Government".
"The rules are constantly changing and confusing to employers.
"Under current law, the human rights of the majority (to be able to live and work safely) seem to be overridden by the human rights of the few who do not want to get vaccinated.
"Clearly there are medical reasons for some, but they can be managed as the exceptions.
Heard said lockdowns were not sustainable and were proving ineffective against Delta.
"Vaccination is the only tool in our toolkit."
Holland Beckett Law employment lawyer Christie McGregor said a number of employers had asked about dealing with vaccinated and unvaccinated staff.
McGregor said without a legal requirement or justified health and safety need, employers could not impose a vaccination requirement on their employees, or dismiss their employees for failing or refusing to be vaccinated.
"The choice of whether to be vaccinated is an individual one and employees have the right to choose to be vaccinated or not."
However, McGregor said if there was a valid legal or justified health and safety requirement for the person performing the role to be vaccinated. Failure to do so in those circumstances might result in employment being terminated.
McGregor said employers might make vaccination a requirement of the job provided it is a reasonable requirement of the role.
"Employers should be cautious, however, not to discriminate against those who are unvaccinated because of health status."
E tū assistant of national secretary, Rachel Mackintosh, said respectful conversations between peers to reduce vaccine hesitancy was key to solving the issues.
Employers could also ensure their workforce had access to information on the science and facts about public health – to increase the understanding that an individual choice about vaccination had implications for everyone in the workplace, the whānau, and the wider community.
Employers should make vaccination as easy as possible, including allowing workers to get vaccinated on work time, and helping with transport where that will make the difference.
"There will always be some workers who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.
"If a risk assessment shows that vaccination is necessary for certain work employers should make the best effort to find suitable alternative work for anyone who is not vaccinated."
Zespri's chief people officer Edith Sykes said it strongly encouraged its people to get vaccinated.
"We've guided our people to official information on the vaccine, promoted the Book My Vaccine site and regularly updated our Bay of Plenty-based team about local walk-in services.
"We have also encouraged people to make use of our flexible working environment to make their vaccination appointments during the day."
Tauranga City Council general manager of community services, Gareth Wallis, said it strongly supported the Government's vaccinations programme.
"Our approach is to give our people access to information so they can make an informed choice. Staff can have vaccinations at any time without taking leave."
But, Wallis said, the council recognised vaccination was a personal choice and did not record the vaccinations status of staff or ask them to say if they would get the jab.
Workplace relations and safety minister Michael Wood acknowledged the vaccine rollout had raised health and safety questions for businesses and said the Government was taking a "risk-based approach" to mandates.
However, he said certain jobs were required to be done by vaccinated people.
A public health order for work at the border to be done only by vaccinated workers had been introduced and extended to health and education workers, he said.
"I am working with other Ministers and key stakeholders, including businesses and unions, to ensure that the settings across the broader employment area are as clear as possible."
He did not rule out further changes for extra clarity for employers but did not envisage eliminating employees' rights to test their rights in court.
"This is a fundamental right in a democratic society ... "