Eric Yaverbaum, President of PR agency Ericho Communications, outlines how organisations should respond to employees who don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine.
The UK and the United States have always felt, at least over here, like black sheep twin brothers, together in virtue and vice. It’s less the Goofus and Gallant situation each country might sometimes want to imagine than it is a pair of facing mirrors, infinitely reflecting back at each other. And that’s nowhere more clear than our vaccination numbers: each stuck at somewhere around 50%.
The rise of misinformation
In both our countries, anti-vaccine misinformation remains a critical barrier to a return to normality. And right as we have reopened in the UK and US, we’ve hit the ceiling on full vaccination. “Herd immunity,” the fully-immunised percentage (estimated to be 70%, but we don’t know exactly yet) at which non-immune people face essentially zero risks of infection and which became the rallying cry of the anti-mask right-wing, certainly hasn’t kicked in; unvaccinated people are getting infected at steady or even increasing rates. This puts business owners like me and very possibly you in the awkward position of determining whether vaccination should or shouldn’t be required in the workplace.
There are arguments, of course, to both sides. On the one hand, the vaccine clearly works and is demonstrably safe. Infection rates were plummeting all spring; even while the highly virulent delta strain showed up simultaneously, the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike started hitting the pubs en-masse. On the other hand, there’re a lot of people who, for one reason or another, legitimately do not trust that this vaccine is safe, some of which are extremely valid, especially in marginalised communities that have had negative experiences with medical professionals; I keep thinking of how many women report that doctors don’t listen to them or take their pain seriously and then remember how websites like Mumsnet turned into major centres of misinformation. There is clearly a crisis of trust. So what do you do? However unfounded anti-vax claims are—(no, the vaccine won’t turn you into a human magnet)—the sheer number of people who believe them means we have to reckon with it.
It’s easy to say that everyone should make their own decision; after all, those vaccinated are protected, but it’s more complicated than that. Without herd immunity, COVID-19 can continue to spread and mutate, potentially into more virulent and deadly forms that outmatch the vaccines, putting everyone at risk. And even vaccinated immunocompromised people may not be able to achieve full immunity (although new research now suggests otherwise) through no fault of their own.
So the important question business leaders need to be asking themselves is simply this: what do we owe our most vulnerable? Namely our workers or customers or contractors with immune deficiencies? There’s a saying over here that your rights stop where someone else’s rights begin, but the reality isn’t so simple. As a public health measure, vaccination is key to ensuring community safety; as a workplace policy, it protects both workers and unvaccinated customers alike from infection while ensuring you can keep your business open reliably. And while it might not be possible to change every vaccine sceptic’s mind, some communication strategies can help.
So with that in mind, I’d like to offer some recommendations.
- Start from a place of empathy. Attempt to understand why your employee is hesitant to get the vaccine—what exactly are they concerned about? Really listen first. Then offer clear, concise, and fact-based evidence. Remember, without empathy, you aren’t really communicating, so listen and understand their concerns.
- Remove practical barriers. Make getting the vaccine easy for your employees. Provide time off, even transportation if needed, and extra sick days for those who get the vaccine in case they feel unwell after.
- Incentivise vaccination with bonuses including paid time off or other concrete, direct benefits. While there’s been limited success to this strategy, it’s worth trying, and linking vaccination to reward rather than punishment is going to sway some people.
- Appeal to employees’ emotions—what are they missing out on by not being vaccinated? Champion the message that the vaccine is what allows us to enjoy all of the things we’ve had to miss out on for well over a year.
- Prioritise the safety of immunocompromised employees if you can. Schedule so that unvaccinated workers do not share shifts or common workspaces, and keep the workplace thoroughly disinfected.
- Restrict unvaccinated employees from public-facing roles where they could more easily and readily spread disease. Make it clear that vaccination is not a condition for employment, but that the company has an obligation to ensure the safety of its employees and customers and that other work will be found for them unless and until they accede or the pandemic subsides.
- Require frequent PCR infection tests for unvaccinated employees, and furlough infected workers until they’re clear.
These are practical accommodations that, while not fun for anyone, attempt to respect both the agency of unvaccinated employees and the safety of everyone else. Are some of them onerous? Yes, but COVID-19 isn’t something we can wish away, and safety will require ongoing life changes for people who, of their own volition, decline vaccination. You can’t take responsibility for their decisions, but business leaders have every obligation to respond to those decisions appropriately and responsibly. Do your best to take care of what you can.
Eric Yaverbaum co-founded 21-year-old US-based Jericho Communications and served as president from 1985 until its sale in 2006 to MDC. At the time, Jericho was ranked nationally as the 11th best agency in the country to work for. He also speaks on business topics, including leadership and technology.