I'm a manager in a small company. Today I overheard one employee asking around his co-workers if they had been vaccinated against covid-19.

I took him aside and told him that's not appropriate to quiz other staff members on their health status. He claimed he has a right to know for his own safety.

I realise this is a contentious issue for many people but I'd rather not have this going on within the office.

How can I deal with this?

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    Any answer will depend on location. Sep 15, 2021 at 18:37
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    HIPAA does not have any influence over an individual's ability to share information. Nor does it prohibit someone from asking. HIPAA controls how a healthcare provider handles a person's health/medical information. I'm free to ask you and you're free to answer or not answer regarding your vaccination status. Granted the asking may be considered rude or prying but HIPAA has no bearing on it.
    – jwh20
    Sep 15, 2021 at 21:02
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    @JoeStrazzere, No, don't say that. "HIPAA only applies to HIPAA covered entities – health care providers, health plans, and health care clearinghouses – and, to some extent, to their business associates." hhs.gov/answers/… Instead, this is what you should say: "If someone doesn't want to tell you, please respect their wishes. If someone is immuno compromised with cancer/lupus/AIDS, please recognize that they may not want to tell you. And if you don't work for HR, please don't try to do HR's job for them." Sep 15, 2021 at 21:10
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    @JoeStrazzere That's incorrect - HIPAA laws prevent certain entities from disclosing health information; they don't prevent individuals from asking about it. Sep 15, 2021 at 21:21
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    This is location specific, in my locale vaccination status is not a secret
    – Kilisi
    Sep 16, 2021 at 0:45

10 Answers 10


This isn't complicated and is only controversial because people are making it so; employees have the right to a safe working environment which includes potentially lethal airborne viruses, whether you agree or not. The question should not be, "What do I do about this employee who claims to want a safe working environment" but "What can I do to ensure that the people I'm managing ARE in a safe working environment."

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    People also have a right to privacy. So, because there is an equal claim to both of these rights, this question is necessarily controversial. It's not just "because people are making it so". It's a legitimate question that we're currently navigating as a society.
    – PC Luddite
    Sep 16, 2021 at 3:34
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    @PCLuddite It's an equal claim in the sense that both are true, sure. It's not an equal claim in the sense that the outcomes are equally valid though. No-one ever died from saying whether they're vaccinated or not, but that is genuinely a risk from working in close proximity with others during a pandemic. The right to not be killed trumps everything else, always.
    – Graham
    Sep 16, 2021 at 8:04
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    This is not an answer it's an opinion.
    – Pieter B
    Sep 16, 2021 at 9:22
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    @StianYttervik You have an innate right to request that information. The other person has an innate right to refuse, of course. More than that though, you have an innnate right to demand that your employer provide a safe working environment, which means the employer has an innate responsibility to demand that information from their employees. If we were in the middle of another round of Spanish Flu, I would certainly expect the same for influenza.
    – Graham
    Sep 16, 2021 at 9:44
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    Just a reminder folks, comments are not for debates about the efficacy or side-effects of vaccines.
    – motosubatsu
    Sep 16, 2021 at 10:24

This depends on your locale and regional laws.

In most locales, what you did was correct. Employees have no right to know each others' health information; in fact there are legal statutes in most locales which explicitly counteract this "right" (HIPAA in the USA and PHIPA in Canada, among others). That said, they also have the freedom to ask about it and the freedom to answer a question if asked (and also the freedom to not answer such a question if it makes them uncomfortable, or to question the premise of such a question, or any number of other such things).

If this employee was asking, and being belligerent if the question went unanswered or unanswered satisfactorily, then you did the right thing by reprimanding him. If he does not want to work alongside coworkers who are not vaccinated or do not want to disclose their vaccination status to him, that's his problem; he is free to quit the company if he so chooses (and the ramifications thereof, including lack of severance pay, unemployment insurance, and so on). If he becomes belligerent to you, along the lines of "we need to force everyone to get vaccinated" etc, then you can fire him for cause for insubordination or something of the kind ("this is not your problem or your business, now do your work; it's the company's business to ensure a safe workplace and we are, and that's all you need to know"); in this case the termination would be "for cause", which would also, in most locales I believe, forfeit the employee's right to severance pay and unemployment insurance (IANAL).

That said, if the employee was asking "out of curiosity" or "to make conversation" (which does not appear to be the case), then you acted wrongly. Employees should be free to discuss whatever they want, whenever they want (as long as it doesn't interfere with their work), and can share whatever they want. It's not your business to interfere. However, based on the question this does not appear to be what happened.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 16, 2021 at 6:06
  • Why are you saying "what you did was correct" and then "if ... then you acted wrongly"? Those two statements seem to contradict one another, or, at the very least, the former seems to be assuming belligerence based on very little information.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 16, 2021 at 9:05
  • It is very much dependent on local laws. Unless the employer is a biotech lab, the employment contract will not include anything about potential exposure to airborne pathogens as part of job duties, so this must be regulated by law, last but not least to establish liabilities. In countries with little regulation, the health insurer might want to adjust premiums due to increased risk, and whether the salary at your company remains competitive after this adjustment is unclear. In countries with strong regulation, an infection contracted at the workplace might be considered work related. Sep 17, 2021 at 18:54
  • Last but not least: an environment where people are given the choice between accepting health risks and moving on will likely retain mostly those employees who have no other options. Sep 17, 2021 at 18:56

Working while a pandemic is ongoing is bound to create anxiety with some employees, whether you like it or not. And you will not be able to wish this away.

Meet the few influencers in the workforce, understand their concern, and work with your boss and company management to come up with a plan to address atleast some of their concerns. For example, announce that the company will be doing a "workplace risk assessment" and implementing guidelines as outlined by the WHO (or your country's government). (See Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Health and safety in the workplace ).

Don't encourage any debate about vaccination, or politics, or the science - just listen, and make up the workplace rules according to your government's guidelines, and if somebody complains about it, tell them to take it up with their political representative and not waste your time on it.

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    @JMERICKS - I am aware of a company that has more than 2 million employees, but they have not made the process to attest your vaccination status known to it's employees, despite the fact the vaccination is now required to work there.
    – Donald
    Sep 15, 2021 at 20:13
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    @Donald. Maybe they just don't wanna sift through two million sheets of info to find out if they are vaccinated or not. At this point I'm unaware if there's any regulation regarding whether or not companies have to make sure it's workers are vaccinated. Maybe it's the honor system
    Sep 15, 2021 at 20:46
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    @JMERICKS - President of the United States, signed the EO a few days ago, requiring all of its employees to get it. They have 75 days to get it or they could face HR actions. There is no formal process to attest that status, and it’s already been 30, after he signed the first EO that also required it
    – Donald
    Sep 16, 2021 at 0:13
  • @Donald If there's no formal process outlined then it's being left up to the individual companies to figure it out
    Sep 16, 2021 at 14:20
  • (In reply to comments.) There are legitimate reasons such as health/disability for not getting vaccinated, and you may well violate disability rights legislation if you allow disabled people to be victimised for not being vaccinated or discriminate against them by requiring vaccination. Hence it's best for a company to make a policy and communicate and enforce it, not for individual workers to run around conducting witch hunts against fellow employees.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:17

Can you judge the social relationships in the team?

I work in a mid-sized company in Germany. The management asks everyone who comes into the office if they are vaccinated, recovered, or recently tested with a single box to check. No need (and no way) to specify which one applies.

The colleagues in the team debated if one should get vaccinated, if it was more or less risky to get AstraZeneca as soon as possible or BioNTech some weeks later, what the individual side effects were, if we got the digital certification in addition to the paper one, and what we think about the semi-lockdown measures. We gave each other a heads-up before vaccination in case someone would need some days off afterwards. Unless somebody was evasive (no way for me to know that ...), I know that we're all vaccinated, with light to moderate side effects. The free-wheeling debates make some attempt to avoid divisive political issues, at least while we are on the company premises, but vaccination was no divisive issue for us.

With members of other teams, or in writing/email, it would be "X is unexpectedly away for health reasons, we expect him or her back soon. Can I help you in the meantime or can it wait?"

You used the terms "asked" and "quizzed". I agree that it is not appropriate to pressure or pester a colleague for medical information. But if the team is comfortable with that degree of frankness, a gag order might not be a good idea either. I realize that management might be walking a tightrope here (where it comes to preventing a hostile work environment), but the best option might be to ask the other team member if he or she was uncomfortable with that line of questioning.

  • The issue with this is if someone has health reasons that prevent vaccination. Maybe this doesn't apply in your workplace, and everyone is young and healthy and can be vaccinated, but it's unfair to require people to disclose their detailed health history to everyone, and likely to violate disability law.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:20
  • @StuartF, in my immediate team we trust each other at least with the generalities of that. Beyond the immediate team, I'd censor the information. My point is that a team may or may not have that level of trust, and management action should respect it. Step in as management if one employee is pestering or pressuring another, but first find out what is going on in this case. Ideally by talking with the employee who might have come under pressure.
    – o.m.
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:41

This will depend on the location.

For example, this is a very common question in my country (Sri Lanka).

Even Sri Lanka make Covid-19 vaccine certificates mandatory from Sept 15 to visit some public places

(Source: https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/sri-lanka-to-make-covid-19-vaccine-certificates-mandatory-from-sept-15-121081301866_1.html)

So even government make mandatary covid 19 vaccines to visit public places, most of our co-workers ask this question from other co-workers. But in most western countries, employees have no right to know each others' health information.So this depend on the location.


There's a lot of debate going on here, but everyone's avoiding one core issue:

You are a MANAGER. Your job is to implement policy, not set it.

Go to whomever IS in charge of setting policy, and ask for a written copy of the policy, and then DISTRIBUTE AND IMPLEMENT the policy. Handle policy violations as you would any other policy violation issue.

This is a very common problem in so many small companies: When an event occurs, everyone tries to develop new policies and procedures. This is the time when your EXISTING procedures need to be used. As the old axiom says, "Don't try to change horses in mid-stream."


I wouldn't say that someone has a right to know the health status of individual coworkers. Although they have a right to ask, as long as it's in a conversation where all participants are happy to talk about it, it's not causing animosity and they're not harassing anyone over it (and others have a right to decline to answer).

If he randomly goes around asking "Have you been vaccinated? Have you been vaccinated? Have you been vaccinated?", then you should tell him to stop that. If he wants to discuss this in a respectful consensual private conversations with people, he can do so, but randomly asking people that out of the blue would be crossing the line of what's appropriate workplace conduct. If he gets to a point of harassing people about it in public or private, then just treat that as any other form of harassment.

The above said, I would say they have the right to know whether some environment they frequent is protected from a deadly disease through widespread vaccination and/or testing.

I might even go one step further and say they have a right to work in such a protected environment, because no person should have to choose between their job and their health.

Although, even if you think COVID is practically harmless, I would still argue that they have the right to know whether an environment is protected so they can make an informed decision about their health. If they want to worry about COVID, it's their right to do so.

At least be upfront and clear with them about whether you're going to enforce vaccination or testing in any way, now or in the future, so they can decide whether to start looking for a new job, or to take any other steps they deem necessary to protect their health.

Note that the above is based on workplace etiquette and morality, not on what the law says.

Local laws may require employers to enforce vaccination or testing of employees, so do make sure to know what those laws are and to follow them.

  • No you do not have the right to ask people of their covid vaccination status, or their std status, or their flu vaccination status.
    – paulj
    Sep 16, 2021 at 18:26
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    @paulj I wouldn't want to live in a world where you're not allowed to ask someone you spend like half your waking hours with, that you may be very close to, a very basic question about something many/most people are completely comfortable speaking about publicly that involves something that has defined what the lives of basically everyone in the world has looked like for the last 1.5 years.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 16, 2021 at 22:14
  • @NotThatGuy You could compare it to asking people how they voted: something that certainly has vast effects on the lives of basically everyone in the country for years, and many people speak about publicly. But also something that can be very divisive and cause arguments, fights, and unprofessional behaviour, and therefore may not be appropriate for the workplace.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:22
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    @StuartF As long as it's in a private conversation where all participants are happy to talk about it, talking about politics at work would also be fine. I rephrased my answer a bit so it's more clear what I think is and isn't okay.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 17, 2021 at 18:14

The best method is to tell this employee that he is not allowed to ask personal medical questions as this harassment. If he needs to know the current protocols in place to protect the workplace, direct him to human resources and their memos. If HR has not been actively managing this, then you need to have a discussion with HR about this and that there needed to be policies put in place months ago.

  • This is fine from a policy way, but a manager also needs to be able to reassure staff that their health is being taken care of - that is, in one way or another, a duty of a manager and company.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:24

You take them aside and tell that employee that it is unwise to ask for people's health status because this means that you have to continuously look if he/she is treating people differently because of information that is their right to keep private. Ask them to, for their own sake, stop. It doesn't have to be a formal reprimand, or something you report or write down, but this person is entering a slippery slope and you should warn them. If they continue to do so, alert your HR department.

They cannot treat any coworker differently (within reason, helping a disabled person through the door is nice and non-controversial) based on information about their health. What if he/she went around and asked if people had AIDS? Cancer? Are pregnant? Have hemorrhoids? Is taking hormone therapy drugs? It is the same as all those situations; strictly private and knowing about it is a liability for that person!

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    They cannot treat any coworker differently based on [their vaccination status] -> That's quite an assertion. Sep 16, 2021 at 10:06
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    What do you mean by "differently"? I'm not aware of any laws in the US or elsewhere that prevent you from treating coworkers "differently" in a generic sense. If you harass them, discriminate against them or bring up this information in inappropriate ways, then there are plenty of laws against that, but if you can't avoid doing that when you know something, that's more a problem with you than a problem with knowing that thing.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 16, 2021 at 11:42
  • Unfortunately, being vaccinated or not being vaccinated is turning into a political choice, when it reality for most people it’s a choice about their health. Being unvaccinated is like having a scarlet letter on your forehead, which is a shame, because being vaccinated won’t prevent someone giving someone else COVID-19.
    – Donald
    Sep 16, 2021 at 13:09

Your reaction was absolutely spot on and I applaud you for it.

Additionally, if an employee is scared for their safety from COVID they can themselves go and get vaccinated, so that should be sufficient for them to feel safe.

It is none of their business, however, to enquire about colleagues' vaccination status, nor is it relevant to their own health.

Edit: Since many brought that up: Yes, even if you are vaccinated you can still infect others with COVID. Hence I say it is irrelevant whether your colleague is vaccinated or not if you are truly scared. In any case it still remains advisable to keep distance when possible.

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    Colleagues' vaccination status is relevant to their own health (and the health of their family), because vaccines aren't 100% effective at protecting the vaccinated and some health conditions may make people unable to be vaccinated.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 16, 2021 at 11:31
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    I know the vaccine doesn't completely stop you from contracting or spreading the virus, but it makes it less likely for you to do so. Thus other people being vaccinated reduces my risk of contracting the virus, regardless of whether or not I'm vaccinated myself.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 16, 2021 at 13:09
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    Once more with feeling: comments are not for debates about the efficacy or side-effects of vaccines.
    – motosubatsu
    Sep 16, 2021 at 13:48

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