COVID-19

Dear Communicator: An Open Letter on Vaccination Policies

Dear Communicator,

It’s happening again, and if you’re like us, it feels like a major blow.

Just when teams were starting to get together again for work and for fun… when shopping and dining was starting to feel safe, previously closed storefronts were finally reopening and customers were returning to them… when things were finally starting to feel (dare we say it?) “normal,” the Delta variant has reared its ugly head.

For some, this plot twist feels existential… will we survive another spike that keeps customers coming and/or buying?

For others, it’s the workforce that’s most at risk… will essential workers make it through another push or is that simply asking too much?

And for yet another group, it’s the long-awaited return to the workplace that’s slipping away along with all the benefits they hoped to realize in terms of employee development, productivity, innovation and social interaction.

Yes, friends, it seems like many of us are going back to the drawing board to think about the policies and protocols that will get us through the remainder of the year, and for many of our clients, that means revisiting policies related to vaccination and masks.

Here are our top tips for companies rolling out mandatory vaccination policies as part of their next normal…

  1. Know going in that you will not please everyone… and that’s ok. Every client we’ve spoken with has been concerned about the backlash linked to mandating vaccines – and for good reason. This is a highly personal issue and any accommodation made for groups of employees with different roles, religious beliefs or medical conditions creates risk that others will claim, at best, inequity and, at worst, discrimination. We spend a lot of time thinking through all the likely questions and preparing leaders to address these issues head on.

Here’s what we’ve found: Irrespective of the specifics of the policy, the reaction is mixed. Some will applaud the decision to finally take a decisive stance, arguing you’ve been “strongly encouraging” for too long and that it’s about time to give vaccinated team members – and their family members who may not be able to be vaccinated – the best possible chance of staying healthy. Others will claim the company is overreaching – that this is a personal choice and teams have operated in ways that respect those choices for months. Why change now?

No matter what you do, there will be people who love it and people who hate it. Embrace that. Ask your teams to embrace that. Capture and share a clear rationale with reinforcing facts. And move forward. There is no perfect answer… just choices to be made and communicated with as much empathy as possible.

  1. Clearly communicate how policies will be enforced and what the consequences of non-compliance will be. We’d be the last people to claim communications is easy, but let’s be real: Communicating these policies is far easier than enforcing them. If you take one thing away from this letter, please, please, please be sure you ask your policy team how vaccination status is being tracked, when those systems will be ready (i.e., are we really ready to take this step?), what roles managers need to be prepared to play day-to-day and what happens when some employees inevitably choose not to be vaccinated.

As communicators writing those legendary Q&A documents, we need to be the ones looking ahead to upcoming conferences, team outings, sales cycles and return-to-the-workplace milestones – the moments where not being vaccinated means you’re no longer meeting the requirements of the job. How will policies be enforced and is the company really ready to take these actions? If the answer is no, your policy isn’t really mandatory, and communications must reflect that, which brings us to…

  1. Be mindful of perceived inequities. Inequity has been a recurring theme during the pandemic. Essential workers went in while corporate staff stayed home – often within the same company. Vaccines and access to healthcare were more readily available to certain groups, particularly on the global stage. As vaccines launched, some groups felt underrepresented in the research or left without options because of religious convictions.

Vaccine mandates raise the issue yet again because (1) a number of companies are creating more stringent policies for office workers relative to teams in the field and (2) any effort to accommodate religious beliefs and medical conditions puts a spotlight on those differences at a time when most companies are working to be more inclusive. So, what can communicators do? Explain the rationale for decisions clearly and concisely even before the question is asked, and double down on efforts that demonstrate inclusivity, empathy and care. The goal is to ensure employees know the issues were thoughtfully considered, hopefully gain “points” for transparency, and demonstrate consistency in the ways you’re living core beliefs and values.

One landmine we’d flag specific to return to workplace plans: We’ve seen multiple instances in which leadership teams eager to get people back together view not being able to come into the office as a consequence, but team members thriving in work-from-home arrangements may not see it that way. Coming to the workplace takes time out of the day, costs your employees money and creates risk for those who are genuinely concerned about picking up the new variant. To put it bluntly: Being required to come into work while the only “consequence” for unvaccinated team members is that they must continue to work from home may feel like a vaccine tax for those team members who got the jab. And while they likely don’t want their colleagues to be fired, they also don’t want to be held to a higher standard or absorb additional work to accommodate the choices of others.

If one group of employees is being allowed to work from home in lieu of getting the vaccine, there is a strong case to be made that all employees should be able to continue to work from home as long as they continue to get the work done. Any perceived inequities open companies to lawsuits and talent loss. 

  1. Establish clear rules of the road for front-line managers. As managers hear new vaccine requirements for the first time, their minds will immediately jump to the team members they know are unvaccinated and to those who’ve been silent on the issue to-date. Those on the front lines will want to understand if it’s their responsibility to ask for proof of vaccination, report those in violation, play “bad cop” on the masking requirement (if that’s an option for those who are unvaccinated), and/or fire people who draw a hard line against compliance (without a health or religious reason for doing so). All of these protocols must be navigated while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved (e.g., the need to disclose an underlying medical condition or simply the fact that birthdates are included on vaccine cards), so clear communication and training will be needed. Getting this launch right is important, but it’s just the start.

The tougher question is whether managers should engage in any personal conversations intended to persuade employees to be vaccinated. We as communicators rely on the fact that frontline managers typically have the closest, most trusted relationships with employees. But when conversations focus on constantly evolving health data and medical research, frontline managers may not be the most credible. In fact, research conducted by FTI indicates that medical experts are the most effective ambassadors of vaccine-related content.

Equally important, empowering managers to have one-on-one conversations intended to understand personal motivators and encourage vaccination can create legal risk if conversations touch on personal health information, appear to discriminate and/or are perceived as intimidation. We at FTI are advising clients to have their Legal teams make the final calls on whether and how managers should engage on this topic. If managers are communicating in any way, we also are strongly encouraging clients to upskill them on active listening, the importance of unconditional respect, the appropriate balance between fact and emotion, and (most important, of course) the privacy and other regulations in play – both during the conversation and in the way employees are treated in the aftermath. It’s critical for managers to know all the facts, have access to experts and know when to stop, too.

  1. Ensure you’re walking the talk – live the principles driving vaccination policies in other aspects of the business and culture. We don’t have to tell you that a large part of the communicator’s role is to hold up the mirror to help other leaders understand how policies and actions are perceived by employees and other stakeholders. When it comes to COVID-related safety protocols, it’s essential that mirror has a wide-view lens.

If employee health and safety is the driving factor in mandating vaccines, is the company living that in other elements of the employee experience? If the Delta variant is the driving force for the change, are other policies (e.g., the requirement to be onsite when it’s not necessary to be there, travel stipends for those dependent on public transportation, cleaning protocols, health checks) being re-evaluated at the same time? Vaccination is personal to a lot of people, so it should not be perceived that the company is using a vaccine requirement as the easy answer. It has to be seen as part of a broader commitment, and leaders must be seen walking the talk.

We hope you uncovered a few strategies that help you get to the solution that’s best for your organization because, at the end of the day, that’s what we’re looking at… highly customized solutions that seek to build understanding, credibility and a sense of fairness (even if not everyone agrees). It’s a challenge, but luckily, we’ve all gotten really good at embracing challenges, and we know you’ve got this one, too.

Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or let us know how we can help. We’re always here for you to commiserate, celebrate and work it out together.

Thanks,

Your Friends at FTI Consulting

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