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United Minds

Five Company Considerations for Communicating About Vaccine Mandates

By Alex Plavin, Senior Associate and Morgan Galbraith, Director

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues — most recently with a surge in vaccine mandates — here’s what companies need to know as it relates to implementing workplace policies and communicating with their workforce.

The recent FDA approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, coupled with the increasingly prevalent Delta variant, is causing companies to reevaluate their vaccination policies — quickly. Multinational organizations like Disney, Walmart and Tyson Foods were some of the first companies to incentivize employees and require proof of vaccination.

The Society for Human Resource Management reported that Disney employees are required to show proof of vaccination before returning to the office. Similarly, Walmart is offering a $150 incentive for those that get vaccinated and Tyson Foods is offering a $200 bonus to front line workers and will require vaccination for its unionized workforce and new hires.

As more companies begin to mandate employee vaccination, careful consideration needs to be given to how these policy changes are communicated and enforced. Organizations should also be prepared for strong, varied reactions from employees. In fact, a recent Gallup poll indicated that two-thirds of U.S. employees either strongly favor (36%) or strongly oppose (29%) vaccine requirements.

However, there’s evidence that employee sentiments are shifting toward greater levels of support, as the same study found that 52% of employees are in favor, 38% opposed and 10% neutral.

With these types of polarizing responses, any organization that is considering implementing mandated vaccine policies should be prepared to address vaccine hesitancy and resistance — and answer employees’ most pressing questions.

Five considerations for communicating about vaccine mandates

Throughout the course of the pandemic, we’ve continued to guide our clients on return to office and vaccination communications. When it comes to communicating around vaccine mandates, we’ve identified five key considerations:

#1: Be straightforward and confident in the decision, not apologetic.

All communications should be simple and transparent. Make it super clear what the company is enforcing, when and how — not just for the mandated vaccination policy, but other measures still in place and new requirements that support it. This may include how to prove vaccination, how to request legitimate exemptions and what will happen if the new policy is not followed.

While you should not be apologetic in your decision, it is important to remain empathetic and recognize that employees may react with a variety of emotions. And while the company respects these different opinions, it has a responsibility to prioritize the safety of its people and vaccines have proven to be the most effective protective measure.

#2: Reinforce company values in messaging and communications.

A company’s purpose defines why it exists; its values guide the beliefs upon which the business is based. Both should drive all major decisions, including how you respond to the pandemic and subsequent actions.

Communications should always connect back to your company purpose and values. These can help reinforce why the organization is implementing these new policies — to fulfill the promise made to employees, customers and communities. This is an important moment for your employees and other stakeholders to see your values in action.

#3: Equip people leaders with the right information at the right time.

When it comes to vaccine information, employees only trust a handful of sources: reliable organizations such as the CDC, WHO and HHS, leaders like Dr. Anthony Fauci, their primary care physicians that know their personal health history, trustworthy community leaders and ‘people like them’ who are vaccinated. In fact, people are more likely to act if “you’ve talked to your neighbor, co-worker, cousin, or golf buddy about having done so.”

Within an organization, managers and people leaders are the number one channel for reaching employees. They need to be equipped with the information needed to support any new policy, including how to talk about misinformation and address questions and concerns.

As an employer, this means:

  • Going beyond just memos and equipping people leaders to manage tough questions and navigate their own team’s dynamics when the company implements a new policy.
  • Giving them an appropriate heads up before the announcement goes out to all employees, so they can be comfortable with the materials provided, have an opportunity to ask questions and even take time to manage their own reaction to the news.
  • Reminding them not to make promises they cannot keep; they should lean on internal communication resources and be comfortable with saying “I don’t know but will find out the answer” if there’s a question they are unprepared to answer.
  • Urging people leaders to maintain channels for two-way feedback. This can be done by establishing office hours or inviting employees to have open dialogue and share feedback.
  • Encouraging all leaders to be attentive and empathetic. Employees are people too. Remember these are difficult times and we are all doing the best we can with the information available.

#4: Address the elephant in the room: What are the consequences of not following company policy?

There will be employees who disagree with a decision or policy, and many may even be angry about the decision to require vaccination. In your communications, openly respect the varied reactions employees will have and even explicitly say you know not all employees will want to follow these guidelines, but understand they are in place to help ensure workplace safety.

The important thing is to be clear about the consequences of not adhering to the policy. This may include immediate termination, being placed on leave or something else. And while you should recognize there will be some special exceptions, these will truly be exceptions. The process for requesting exemption should be reinforced.

Keep in mind that there are many reasons why people are hesitant to get the vaccine but providing additional support — helping with access to vaccines and testing and sharing credible information — can be useful to those considering getting vaccinated. Understanding reasons for vaccine hesitancy and how they vary among employees is also critical to addressing concerns. By understanding the intersection of health and racial equity, you can ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded into your policies and communications.

#5: Keep listening to employees and establishing lines of two-way communication.

Throughout 2020, leaders and organizations did a great job of listening regularly and keeping a pulse on employee sentiment. This behavior should be embedded within all future engagement with employees, regardless of the internal and external environment.

Despite the mandate being a directive and not open for discussion, leaders and communicators should create an open and inclusive culture that invites conversation and incorporates feedback from employees. While the company may not change its mandate, it should continue to build trust with its employees by showing it cares about their concerns and is willing to be flexible in other ways.

Still on the fence about mandating vaccines?

For companies still debating whether to take a stance on vaccine mandates or instituting new company policies, download Weber Shandwick’s Plan VX research study, which provides more information and considerations for communicating with employees on this critical topic.

No plan is foolproof, but we hope these best practices and recommendations encourage companies and their leadership to address employee concerns and take the next steps in facing change and uncertainty head on. While this is certainly an unprecedented time, organizations have the opportunity and responsibility to engage employees thoughtfully and frequently.

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Morgan Galbraith

Morgan Galbraith

As a Director with United Minds, Morgan helps companies navigate complex transition periods while helping to win the hearts and minds of employees.