Walking the Line: How to Keep Your Employees Healthy, Safe — and Respected

by Eric Yaverbaum

There was a moment this summer when it seemed the end of the tunnel was finally here. Something like normal life blossomed for a couple of months before the Delta surge; I even went out to a movie at one point. It was almost like old times.

Now, with national vaccine mandates in place covering tens of millions of workers and private mandates coming into force at countless American businesses, anti-vaxxers are raising their voices in umbrage. If this seems strange to you, it only means that you are still sane; unvaccinated individuals are almost 30 times more likely to get infected and as carriers are more likely to spread the virus. That puts companies and particularly HR executives and professionals in the difficult position of determining how to move forward with unvaccinated but otherwise solid employees who remain hesitant or hostile to getting their shots.

However misguided anti-vaccination is, for millions of Americans it’s a deeply and sincerely held belief reinforced by a crumbling collapse of their trust in political and health authorities. Some of these people believe the vaccine is harmful and are genuinely afraid. So, our goal needs to be about communicating, providing information, filling gaps and tackling misinformation so that those who are vaccine hesitant can make informed decisions on their own. 

Vaccination as a public health measure is essential to ensuring community safety writ large; as a workplace policy, it protects both employees and unvaccinated clients and customers alike from infection while allowing workplaces to reopen and in-person meetings to resume. And while it might not be possible to change every vaccine skeptic’s mind, there are some communication strategies that can help.

Begin with empathy. Employers should do their best to understand why the employee is hesitant to get the vaccine — what exactly are their concerns? Really listen and reserve judgment; remember, empathy is key! Employers can then offer clear, concise and fact-based evidence addressing their concerns. 

Remove practical barriers. Employers should make getting the vaccine as easy as possible for employees. Provide time off, offer transportation and additional sick days for those who get the vaccine in case they don’t feel well afterward.

Incentivize vaccination. Employers should consider offering bonuses, paid time off or other material, direct benefits. While there’s been limited success with this strategy, it’s still worth trying. Linking vaccination to reward rather than punishment is inevitably going to sway some people.

Appeal to positive emotions. What are employees missing out on by not being vaccinated? Employers can champion the message that the vaccine is what allows us to enjoy all the things we’ve had to miss out on for 19 months — without having to worry about infecting ourselves or others!

Prioritize the safety of immunocompromised employees (if and wherever possible). A helpful strategy is to schedule employees returning to the office so that unvaccinated workers don’t share shifts or common workspaces with immunocompromised employees, and to keep the workplace thoroughly disinfected.

Restrict unvaccinated workers from public-facing roles. This will help prevent inadvertent spreading of the disease. Employers should make it clear that the company has an obligation to follow federal mandates in order to ensure the safety of all its employees and clients and that other work will be found for unvaccinated employees unless and until they accede or the pandemic fully resolves.

Require frequent and regular PCR infection tests for unvaccinated employees. Employers need to have a system in place to track and check the results and furlough infected workers until they’re clear. It’s also important to stay up-to-date on and follow federal mandates, guidance and reporting practices in order to avoid any potential fines.

These are practical recommendations for any HR professional to consider that, while not the most fun, attempt to respect both the agency of unvaccinated employees and the health of everyone else. Are some of them a pain? Yes, but as we all know by now, COVID-19 isn’t something we can simply wish away, and safety for everyone will require ongoing life changes for people who, of their own volition, decline vaccination. While HR can’t take responsibility for their decisions, companies have every obligation to respond to those decisions appropriately and ensure the safety of their employees, clients and customers — doing their best to take care of what they can.   

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and author of Public Relations for Dummies and Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs, is a 40-year public relations veteran and communications expert and the bestselling author of seven books. He is a regular TV pundit, and his expert commentary has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost, CNBC and PR Week, among others.

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