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Effectively Communicating Vaccine Requirements Amid a Heated Political Environment

November 10, 2021
By Geoff Mordock and Josh Rogers

The U.S. Department of Labor issued new rules for vaccination and regular testing developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The OSHA guidance covers organizations with 100 or more employees. When coupled with previously introduced rules for Federal Contractors and healthcare workers, the guidance covers nearly 100 million Americans. There are significant penalties for each infraction. More details on the guidelines are available on the Federal Register.

Can employers require COVID-19 vaccinations?

Vaccine requirements aren’t new. For example, public schools have a broad slate of vaccines that are required for admission. Healthcare systems have long required vaccines for workers in patient-facing environments, if not their entire workforce. Depending on risk and occupation, the U.S. Military requires more than a dozen vaccines for service members.

Amid the current political environment, COVID vaccine requirements are a heated issue with a vocal minority dissenting (reflected by polling that indicates fewer than 15% of Americans would not get the vaccine). While many companies are concerned about losing employees who refuse the vaccine, the order will similarly apply to a broad range of companies. To date, organizations applying their own or previously issued guidelines have recognized very high levels of compliance.

We’ll leave the details of implementation to the legal and HR experts but given the heated political environment we can provide insight into how to communicate as effectively as possible to encourage high participation with minimal disruption. Regardless of the political lean of your own company’s workforce, pointing to the order to ensure adherence to the guidelines can be the most effective and rational message. In short: you are simply enforcing an order to ensure that your company does not face significant penalties.

How to communicate with employees about the COVID-19 guidelines

Here are a few things to consider as you develop your own communications program related to the COVID-19 guidelines:

  1. The separate Federal Contractor and OSHA guidelines provide “air cover” for employers. Use it. There are penalties that could lead to significant consequences directly for companies and indirectly for their stakeholders. Most employees, customers and other business partners will understand this.
  2. Communications should not be apologetic or wade into politics, instead focusing on fact-based details and the importance the organization places on safety for employees and other stakeholders. 
  3. At the same time, understand that those most resistant to the vaccine may consider the vaccine itself unsafe. Regardless of reasoning, they will need to have sources of information available for them to help reduce this fear or concern. Third-party resources – whether it be from government agencies or other evidence-based, well-respected medical authorities – may help.
  4. Some employees – and potentially external stakeholders – who oppose the vaccine or the new guidelines may protest or voice their concern. Think through the scenarios you are likely to encounter, including those involving dissenting employees, and develop a response so you’re prepared if the situation does arise. Include your HR, Legal and Labor Relations teams, as applicable. 
  5. If your corporate culture encourages engagement and discussion, keep in mind that conflict drives attention and any interaction/disagreement could bring conflict. When having discussions with unvaccinated employees about their vaccination status or plans as the deadline for compliance approaches, hold those in a 1:1 setting.
  6. Larger companies (or companies with a large presence in a certain market) may get inquiries from the media. As noted above, conflict drives attention and it’s best to be as matter-of-fact as possible and avoid anything political in response (should you elect to respond). Keep in mind that most other companies in the area (or your industry) will similarly be subject to the guidelines. It won’t be a situation unique to your company.

Throughout the process, it’s important that your actions are consistent with your corporate culture, priorities and principles while being empathetic and respectful. Although these new protective measures against COVID-19 are required, it’s important to keep in mind the human component, namely that not every employee will willingly be vaccinated, and adapt your approach accordingly. How you handle these situations can help strengthen or weaken your organizational culture, which may already be feeling the pressures of some or more employee groups working remotely for an extended amount of time.

Taking a compassionate, people-first approach can serve your organization and employees well as they look to round the corner of the pandemic and embark on new ways of working together in the post-COVID-19 era.