This is a story about United Airlines and a very big challenge that every U.S. company will soon have to face. It's the kind of decision that inspired my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, which you can download here.

This week, United told employees that it's now going to require its entire workforce to get vaccinated against Covid-19, or else risk losing their jobs.

Say this for United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby: Whether you agree with this policy or not -- and I am sure there will be readers who come down on both sides -- it's a bold decision. 

Among the big U.S. airlines, United is now the first to make this choice.

In fact, just yesterday, the CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, reiterated his decision not to require vaccinations. At Southwest Airlines, CEO  Gary Kelly recently said he isn't even in favor of extending the federal mask requirement.  

And while many big companies have rolled out employee vaccination requirements, some -- Walmart, for example -- are exempting lower-paid, customer-facing roles, limiting the rules to employees who work in offices.

The United decision comes with several strict parameters:

  • First, a vaccination deadline -- either five weeks after the Food & Drug Administration gives final approval to a COVID-19 vaccine, or else October 25, whichever comes first. (The message United sent to its employees says United expects final FDA approval will come sometime early next month.)
  • Second, the airline isn't just taking its workers' word for it. They'll be required to upload their vaccination records to United's employee portal, according to the message, which was sent in the names of Kirby and United's president, Brett Hart.
  • Finally, with the exception of a small number of employees who might be able to show legally required exemptions for health or religious reasons, a United official confirmed that the penalty for noncompliance will be separation from the company.

"We know some of you will disagree with this decision," Kirby and Hart's message said, adding:

"But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you're at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.

Over the last 16 months, Scott has sent dozens of condolence letters to the family members of United employees who have died from COVID-19. We're determined to do everything we can to try to keep another United family from receiving that letter."

It's worth noting that United says 90 percent of its pilots and 80 percent of United Airlines flight attendants have already voluntarily uploaded proof of vaccinations to the employee portal.

(They were incentivized to share their information, with extra pay or additional vacation days.)

And, the union representing United flight attendants sent me a statement that didn't quite endorse the mandate, but said it "shouldn't be a big surprise," and that "[e]xperts agree, vaccination is our best defense against COVID-19 and the extension of harm."

So, what's the lesson for your business?

Well, we can bemoan the fact that vaccinations have become an enormous and divisive political issue in the United States, but it's the reality. So, I suspect that some of United's employees and passengers will applaud United's decision, while others will object.

Likewise, you're going to have to decide, if you haven't already, whether a vaccination mandate is a good choice for your company. And, you're going to have to live with the consequences of how your customers and employees will react, either way.

Because even if you don't announce a public policy, people are already asking. And they're making employment and buying decisions informed by where companies land on Covid-19 protocols.

It's why big companies are racing to explain their positions, and why, for example, Yelp revealed a new search function this week, designed to allow people to filter even the smallest local businesses based on their pandemic policies.

To quote the classic Canadian rock group, Rush: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

This all comes down to why I continually suggest that leaders of businesses of all sizes, in almost every industry, should watch what the big airlines do.

They're often facing the same problems you are -- only they have to announce their solutions on a world stage, explaining almost every small decision to analysts, journalists, and stakeholders in granular detail.

This new decision is no different, even if it is a little more controversial than most. Let us know in the comments what you think of United's decision--and what the policy at your company should be.