How to take the politics out of vaccine mandates in the workplace

So the show can go on.
So the show can go on.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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The idea of vaccine mandates in the workplace is less divisive than its critics would suggest. But US president Joe Biden’s Sept. 9 directive to businesses with 100 or more employees—that they prepare to request proof of vaccination or test employees weekly for Covid-19—is being cast as a totalitarian edict by those who oppose vaccines and by those who oppose Biden’s politics.

Companies that have not yet announced how they’ll handle the vaccine mandate on a practical level may be wondering what they’re in for, watching news reports of skirmishes and hot tempers over vaccine verification systems at restaurants or grocery stores. One small study by Seyfarth at Work found that a minority of the “vexed vaxxed” and “unnerved unvaxxed,” as the legal compliance firm put it, are angry and resentful of their counterparts.

But there are ways to introduce the mandates and minimize any political tension about them, says Angela Corbo, an associate professor and chair of communication studies at Widener University in Pennsylvania. For example, when introducing the mandate, share information about the number of employees who already are vaccinated, to emphasize the positive, she says. Use multiple channels of communication to give employees the facts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and what real-world examples have taught us about hospitalization and death rates among the unvaccinated.

Here’s what else companies can do to take politics and other sources of tension out of a mandate roll-out:

Acknowledge that change is difficult and our social skills are rusty

Urge all employees to remain empathetic as they talk about the new regulation, remembering that most adults have not previously encountered a vaccination rule in the workplace. The pandemic has forced us to make constant large and small adjustments to the way we live and work, and this much change is “hard for everybody,” says Corbo. What’s more, many people have been working at home or working under increased strain over the past 19 months and may have lost some of their ability to socialize gracefully and be empathetic listeners.

Stay focused on employee health

The key message around the mandate should focus on health and wellbeing, not compliance. “It will be hard because we live in a politically divided world,” she says. Whether this mandate came from a Democrat or Republican, the other side might have had something to say about whether it goes too far or not far enough, she adds. But for companies, the most important thing at this point is to focus on employee health.

The message ought to be unapologetic: “Our job is to take care of you.”

Offer or maintain incentives for getting vaccinated

Biden has given companies “a shot in the arm,” says Vishal Gupta, an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. But the government’s mandate doesn’t need to be the sole focus of a company’s vaccination effort.

“Companies should continue with their policy of offering carrots to people for getting vaccinated,” he says, because people are more likely to be compliant that way. It could be a gift card or extra time off, he notes. The reward doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.

Apply a vaccination mandate to all, including part-time and remote workers

OSHA is currently developing guidelines for Biden’s vaccine mandate, leaving companies with unanswered questions as they wait. When he announced the directive, Biden didn’t say whether it would apply to remote workers or part-time employees. “If I was advising these companies I would say just do it across the board, because it raises equity issues,” says Gupta.

Some companies already have hourly workers in retail outlets or warehouse jobs who have been working on-site through the pandemic and “your boss’s boss is probably sitting at home and issuing orders and requests,” says Gupta, and now those corporate employees could be exempted from mandates too. That would likely lead to increased resistance and discord.

Back workers’ rights to free speech

Some employees will want to make their political agenda part of the discussion. In response, company leaders can say, “We respect your politics. We respect your personal choices, and we know that living in America, we have freedom of speech.” Respect that, Corbo suggests, and acknowledge everyone’s right to an opinion on politics and vaccine mandates, but get back to a message along the lines of: “In order to work in our environment, we have to keep everybody’s health as a priority,” she adds, and leave it there.

“Once you start saying more, that’s when you open the door for more debate and you just fuel [conflict] a little bit more,” says Corbo.

Show concern for people’s health beyond their vaccination status

Make sure that the push to secure a 100% vaccination rate does not become the company’s only wellbeing initiative, and that it doesn’t come exclusively from the top. “Have people at all levels of the organization who can do things to promote health and well being, in general,” says Corbo, “not people who are all about ‘You must get vaccinated.’”

For example, look for ways to offer people flexible work options and other steps to promote health and longevity. Remember that people are not machines that need to be tweaked before they can return to the assembly line.

Generally speaking, Gupta urges businesses to adopt a “no team member left behind” message to communicate the company’s goal of retaining workers, rather than presenting the vaccine-hesitant with a stark ultimatum.

Emphasize the health and safety of employees’ families

“We management professors like to believe that a company’s policies should appeal to the better sense of people,” says Gupta, which in this case would normally mean asking employees to do this for themselves, their fellow human beings, or their country. “In the highly politicized, highly charged atmosphere we are in, it doesn’t seem like ‘Do it for your fellow human being,’ is really working out,” says the professor. Instead, he would connect vaccination with the safety of workers’ families and loved ones.

For people who are hesitant, the message should not be, “Hey, listen, if you don’t get it, you are the evil person in this company who is going to make everyone sick.”

Share Covid-19 vaccine facts from diverse and credible sources

Like any diversity and equity issue, the key to vaccination status is understanding who is in the room, says Corbo. When a company shares resources and vaccine facts, it should include those from trusted sources within various communities, reflecting the diverse population of the staff. “Allow people to feel the choice is theirs,” says Corbo. “After some thought and deliberation, they will feel better about getting the vaccine, as opposed to feeling forced.”

It may also be wise to include resources that explain the lived experiences with the medical system of marginalized populations in your workforce. For example,  studies show that, on average, African Americans express greater levels of mistrust of the medical establishment than white Americans because of documented incidents of conscious and unconscious racism in the healthcare system, and the legacy of atrocities like the Tuskegee experiment.

Especially if you’re dealing with vaccine bullies, says Corbo, articles or links to documentaries and videos that can give your workers’ perspective on what others are feeling should inspire compassion. People need to respect that “not everyone is going to have the same level of gratitude for this vaccine.”