Delta’s Smart Approach on Delta

Corporations are struggling these days with how to handle covid vaccinations — because in modern America everything has to be done the hard way, so of course the idea of getting a free vaccination to prevent a potentially deadly illness is controversial. It’s a difficult question for many businesses.

So I was intrigued by Delta Airlines, which may have stumbled onto an approach that’s especially astute. Policy management mavens and corporate compliance officers should look closely at what Delta said and did.

What Delta did, of course, was announce plans to impose a $200 monthly surcharge on employees who choose not to get vaccinated. Starting next month, unvaccinated employees will need to undergo weekly covid-19 testing. By October, the company will no longer provide extended sick pay for unvaccinated employees who miss work because of the virus. By November, unvaccinated employees who participate in Delta’s health insurance plan will face the $200 surcharge. (Employees unvaccinated for medical or religious reasons will be exempt.)

Why is this approach so clever? Why does it fit so well with a company’s desire both to uphold ethical values and achieve business objectives? Let us count the ways. 

First, it puts the risk with the correct risk owner: the unvaccinated employee. As much as anti-vaxxer kooks might like to babble about personal freedom, nobody has the right to make themselves and others sick with a virus and then have others pick up the costs — which is what happens in the United States, since so much of our healthcare system already is paid by the taxpayer or individuals’ insurance premiums. 

Compliance officers gush all the time about how “the business should own the risk,” and that is indeed how things should be. Delta’s policy just takes that axiom to its logical conclusion: if you want to turn down a covid-19 vaccination, you need to accept the consequences of that decision. One consequence is paying more for the additional healthcare you’re likely to need.

Second, employees always have a way to avoid this policy if they want: they can get vaccinated! It’s free, safe, and readily available in the United States. 

Delta even ran one of the largest vaccination clinics in the state of Georgia on one of its properties. Like many businesses, it’s gone out of its way to help employees get vaccinated.

Third, Delta has framed this decision in just the right way: as a matter of accountability. Perhaps that’s just another way of stating the point we made above, about putting the risk with the risk owner (unvaccinated employees). The word itself is still worth saying, because a strong, ethical corporate culture is based on accountability. So I was delighted to find this sentence from Delta chief health officer Henry Ting in a Wall Street Journal article about Delta’s new policy: “We felt there was an accountability unvaccinated people should be sharing in.”

In fact, a great many companies list accountability as one of their core ethical values. Even among those that don’t, accountability is still crucial to upholding whatever values they do list. 

For example, Delta’s core values are honesty, integrity, respect, perseverance, and servant leadership. No, accountability isn’t on that list; but Delta wouldn’t be able to uphold respect for fellow employees and the company overall if it didn’t hold people accountable for their decisions — including one’s decision to remain unvaccinated, exposing others to additional risk and cost.

So I would argue that this policy of a $200 surcharge flows directly from Delta’s core values.

Fourth, Delta has the evidence to justify its policy decision. As outlined in a memo from Delta CEO Ed Bastian, an employee who ends up in the hospital with covid-19 typically costs the company around $50,000 — and in recent weeks, all Delta employees who did end up in the hospital with covid were unvaccinated. 

According to Ting, the health officer, he worked with Delta’s HR and legal functions to determine those healthcare costs in a precise manner, and then to find a surcharge that would capture employees’ attention but not scare them too much — hence the $200 a month. (I suspect the surcharge could actually be much higher, and still not reflect the full burden unvaccinated employees are creating.)

So, to recap: Delta devised a policy for covid vaccinations that… 

  • Flows from its core values;
  • Supports business objectives;
  • Obeys the law;
  • Is supported by data; 
  • Exempts those who can’t follow it for medical reasons;
  • Holds the right people accountable for the risk; and
  • Has an easy exit clause for anyone who dislikes it. 

That’s how policy management is supposed to work.

All businesses will need to confront questions about covid vaccination sooner or later, and they could do worse than to follow Delta’s lead. It’s a great approach, and a great policy.

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