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Talking vaccines: The new communications hurdle for employers

COVID-19 continues to surge. While the news about vaccines presents a light at the end of the tunnel, the road remains long.

The FDA approvals, distribution protocols and rollout of the coronavirus vaccine bring with them a fresh set of challenges for employer-employee communications -- and as many questions as answers.

Employers will certainly benefit from having workers who are protected from the virus, and it will help drive economic recovery. The New York Times recently wrote: “Public health experts see employers as playing an important role in vaccinating enough people to reach herd immunity and get a handle on a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans.” 

On Dec. 16, 2020, employers across the US got the green light they had been waiting for from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC affirmed that businesses and employers may require employees to receive a vaccination as a condition of continued employment and can require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Employees who refuse to be vaccinated can be banned from the workplace.

What makes this a daunting challenge for employers is the continuing skepticism about the vaccine, and research that suggests almost 40% of Americans will probably not or definitely not get the vaccine. The December study from Pew Research Center, also found that a little over 1 in 5 Americans say they do not intend to get the vaccine and that their minds are unlikely to change. The Pew survey found that those most likely to get the vaccine were fearful of getting a serious COVID-19 infection, generally get vaccines (e.g., the flu vaccine) and have trust in the vaccine development process.

How can employers lead their teams through this new conversation? Smart communications will strike the balance between education and data with empathy and values. These recommendations will position companies for success.

  • Communicate in a way that is consistent with other company messaging on health and safety topics (like the flu vaccine and other preventative care). For a company that has prioritized communicating on employee well-being, promoting the COVID-19 vaccine should align with that strategy.
  • Provide a clear explanation of company expectations. If the vaccine will be required as a condition of employment, share that information with clarity and transparency. Describe any protocols the company will have in place and what is expected of employees in terms of timing and documentation.
  • Create and deploy a cadenced communications plan. The vaccine will not be available to many Americans for months to come. It is good to begin outlining the company’s plans and a positive message about vaccination, but do not be premature by sharing too much too soon. Align with the public conversation on the topic and cadence communications to increase in frequency as access to the vaccine approaches.
  • Remember employees are people, too. Remember that opinions of the company’s employee base likely reflect the general national breakdown of attitudes about the vaccine. That means about half of a company’s team are skeptical about the vaccine and may not intend to be vaccinated. Going in with a “vaccinate or else” message is sure to fail, while a well-crafted set of messages will build a favorable climate for future vaccination requirements.

  • Provide clarity around company plans. Work with company HR leaders to fully define plans for employee vaccination. Will the company provide onsite vaccination? Must employees bring in proof of vaccination? Do company insurance benefits cover the vaccine? Is there a grace period for when employees must have the vaccination completed?
  • Reinforce relevant CDC and public health recommendations about the vaccine. Provide vaccine resources for employees from recognized public health experts. Make information accessible and easy to understand. Make sure it is translated in all necessary languages.
  • Leverage company values. Vaccine communications should lean into the values of the company. Assure employees vaccine requirements reflect a commitment to the care and well-being of employees. Remind the team that protecting health and safety matters for their welfare, for operational continuity and for prevention of virus spread in the community.
  • Rely on measured and straightforward communications. As communications roll out, create a deliberate stream of frequent, accessible information for employees that is easy to understand. Consider developing resources such as FAQs, fact sheets, break room fliers and other materials that reiterate the company’s position.
  • Create feedback circles. Because the COVID-19 vaccination remains a concern to many, be intentional about providing two-way communication for employees to ask questions, raise concerns or share their opinions in a way that is safe and without risk of retaliation. Assure that managers and supervisors understand the need to be engaged and empathetic.
  • Be patient. Other than frontline health care workers and other high-risk populations, most employees will not have access to the vaccine for some time. Give employees time to get comfortable with the vaccine and to see its early successes. Slow and steady will win this race.

The next few months provide a valuable opportunity to lay the groundwork within an organization to communicate effectively about anticipated vaccination policies. Ultimately, companies should begin communications with the end in mind -- a safe, healthy and vaccinated workforce.

 

Hinda Mitchell is the founder of Inspire PR Group, a full-service public relations and digital firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. With more than 25 years of experience guiding C-suite leaders in diverse business sectors, Mitchell is a sought-after expert in crisis management and response, executive counsel and communications strategy. She can be reached at Hinda@InspirePRGroup.com or on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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