And mandates will only accelerate in the near future, with President Biden recently announcing plans to mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require employees to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly.
While even more employers will be mandating vaccination, rolling out such a policy is not always simple. A large percentage of Americans are resistant to vaccination, and some employers are wary of losing workers or not making their new policies clear enough. That’s why a strong communications plan is vital, experts say.
“It’s critically important,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. “Vaccines have become so politicized, so one of the things that executives and companies have to do is just be really, really careful about how they’re communicating around any sort of vaccine mandate they’re putting in place.”
So, how can employers that plan to mandate vaccines relay those plans to employees? Here’s what experts say.
Tell employees as soon as possible—even if you’re just thinking about requiring vaccines. The worst thing company leaders can do is stay silent on potential vaccine policies because that leads to more uncertainty and angst among workers. The sooner employers can let workers know they are implementing a vaccine mandate—or even considering implementing one—the better.
“Humans are good at adapting; we’re good at change when we’re supported. We are not good with uncertainty,” says Ben Granger, head of employee experience strategy at Qualtrics. “Communication really, really eases anxieties among employees, and actually, in and of itself could help reduce the impact of that Great Resignation [considering some workers say they would quit their jobs over mandatory vaccination], just by reducing people’s anxiety.”
Be very clear about the reasoning behind a mandate. The majority of executives and companies that plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations are doing so because they want a healthy workforce. They don’t want anyone coming into the office sick, and they don’t want workers to be at risk, Kropp says. That reasoning is important to communicate to employees—that they are taking action to keep all employees safe.
“It’s often to try to create better health,” he says. “But if you don’t communicate the why behind why you’re doing it, the assumption that a significant percentage of your workforce will have is that you’re being forced to do this because of politics, you’re being forced to do this by big government, that you’re taking away [their] rights. Even though, based on the conversations I’ve had with executives, that’s the farthest thing from [many employers’] mind.”
Try different communications—but make sure to put the mandate plan in writing. Employers can use various methods of communication about vaccine mandates, such as company-wide calls, emails and virtual meetings, says Sadie Banks, assistant general counsel and human resources consultant for Engage PEO. But also make sure to put it in writing. “The key is to communicate the newly announced plan and any corresponding workplace policy in writing and create a process to address any questions and/or provide clarification.”
Give employees lead time. Granger says employers should give employees time—both to digest the information and to get vaccinated and comply with the mandate (as well as time to decide if employees want to refuse vaccination and give notice of their resignation). “If it’s abruptly implemented, people who are on the fence or against vaccination are going to feel violated,” he says.
Personalize communication to hesitant workers to get them on board. Even for employers that make the decision to mandate vaccines, it doesn’t mean the education campaigns about the merits of vaccination should end. HR and company leaders would be wise to continue to educate unvaccinated employees about COVID-19 vaccines.
If there are pockets of unvaccinated groups of people across demographics, employers might want to target campaigns to them. One company Granger works with, for instance, found that Black male employees between the ages of 20 and 40 were drastically less likely than other demographics to be vaccinated. So, the employer has created “very targeted marketing, having influential local Black leaders go to the office and just talk to them have educational sessions.” Such tailored education can show those employees the company cares about them and their concerns, while also helping to ease fears.
Communicate about medical and religious exemptions. Although employers can legally mandate vaccination among employees, there are some applicable medical and religious exemptions for employees. It’s best to talk to legal counsel about these exemptions, how they apply and how to communicate them to workers.
Consider telling employees about Biden’s new rule—but keep politics out of it. Employers that may be subject to Biden’s new rule and will subsequently mandate vaccines should “immediately and effectively communicate in writing to their workforce about the new vaccination plan” and include the current administration’s executive order for review, Banks suggests. “Encourage employees to review the order a few times for understanding and invite communication for any questions or concerns.”
However, if Biden’s upcoming rule isn’t the only reason you’re mandating vaccination, think about not mentioning it. Because even saying “Biden’s rule” may turn it into a political statement or something employees don’t want to hear, Kropp says. Instead, make it about your decision as a company.
Lay out the consequences for not abiding by the mandate (with specific dates). A mandate will simply not be effective if there are no consequences, says Kropp.
“You have to lay out the consequences [for not getting vaccinated]—the specific dates by which things will happen,” he says. “If you’re putting this mandate in place, in order for people to take it seriously, you have to have a consequence. One of the realities of putting the mandate in place is, if people choose not to get vaccinated, then you have to fire them.”
Close the loop with communication—and tell workers about the consequences. After the deadline for vaccination has come and gone, send a final communication to employees about what occurred among the workforce, Kropp says. “You have to be able to say, ‘For those who chose not to get vaccinated, they got fired.’ Ten people, 20 people, 100 people, whatever the number is, actually got fired. As part of communication efforts, you have to close the loop.”