United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby on Why He Requires His Entire Global Staff to Be Vaccinated

Right now, as the highly transmissible Delta variant surges across the country, many businesses are focusing on getting every worker vaccinated. Doing so successfully requires employer trust to combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. It may also take employer resources to educate employees and communities to increase vaccination rates.

Few people know this better than Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines. He announced on August 6 that all employees will be required to be vaccinated, becoming one of the first companies, and the first major U.S. based airline, to do so. United, which has about 67,000 employees in the U.S., has required new hires to be vaccinated since mid-June and unvaccinated workers to wear face masks at company offices. The company started mandating vaccinations for pilots and plane staff months ago, says Kirby, when they were traveling to places such as India that were seeing increasing death tolls and Covid-19 spikes.

During a panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week, Kirby discussed why he took those steps and how he’s going about implementing it at United. Here are his tips:

Allow for some flexibility.

Each employee at United Airlines will have to send an image of their vaccine card to the company or else face termination. But Kirby knows that not all employees will be getting the vaccine, so the company has made space for religious and medical exemptions. He also gave employees until October 25 to get the vaccines, or five weeks after the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to one of the vaccines, whichever date comes first. He says the timeline will largely allow for those unable to get a jab to have ample time to do so.

Make it personal.

When family members of an employee have lost their life to Covid-19, Kirby writes a letter to the family. To him, the letters are a constant reminder of how the policies he has implemented effect those outside of the work environment, such as those who have immunocompromised family members, or who might have children who aren’t yet eligible for a vaccination.

In addition to vaccinations, Kirby says United has implemented safety precautions, such as deep cleanings and extra time for air filtration before customers or staff board flights. The mandates and additional precautions, he says, also address an unspoken need for many in the workforce: to be able to focus on their job and not the fear of getting someone they love sick.

Expect pushback.

About five percent of employees have had an adverse reaction to the mandate, Kirby says. It’s mostly employees who don’t feel like it’s the company’s right to mandate a health policy as such. He advises business owners speak to those people individually, especially managers, and explain the decision in terms of safety. He explains that the airline industry has thousands of other rules to protect an individual’s safety during travel and that this is no different. He says employees don’t have to agree or like the decision, but talking in terms of safety metrics and infection transmission puts the decision in a framework that they can understand. 

“We’ve made a decision. And you know, I feel better about this decision than any decision I think I’ve ever made in the business world. Because I know we’re saving lives and protecting people.”



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