In September, President Biden asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enact a new rule that would require any company with over 100 employees to either mandate vaccinations or require weekly testing. So far, most of the large companies have supported this, with 80 percent of CFOs in a recent survey agreeing with Biden’s mandate. Many organizations, particularly in the healthcare and travel industries, have already gone ahead with their own mandates. Kaiser Permanente, for example, has suspended 2,200 employees who chose to remain unvaccinated out of approximately 216,000 total employees, and United Airline stands ready to terminate several hundred employees (a small fraction of their employee base) unless they get vaccinated by the company’s deadline.
Despite all this, it’s helpful to remember that there is still a fair amount of controversy over this issue. Worker-led protests against vaccine mandates continue in cities throughout the country, with some groups taking legal action to try and prevent organizations from enforcing their mandates. So, it is all the more important for organizations to use effective, constructive communication and messaging about their stance on vaccine mandates so as to minimize conflict and maximize compliance.
The need to know your audience
First, it’s helpful to make some clarifications and distinctions. The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, backed by empirical evidence, is that the COVID vaccines are safe and they work. Ideally, this shouldn’t have to be such a politically contested issue. In fact, it really shouldn’t be political at all. It’s a public health issue and, in an ideal world, it would be a straightforward, cut-and-dry affair.
But we do not live in an ideal world, and the social reality is that the issue has become politicized. And there’s no turning back from that, at least not realistically. So, employers must be practical and work within this current reality, which is that there is a portion of the population that is continuing to not get vaccinated for various reasons.
Next, employers must know their audience. They can’t just follow the lead of other organizations who are mandating vaccines for their employees because different organizations employ different populations. It’s one thing to be an organization located in a major U.S. city on the East or West Coast that employs a diverse group of employees, for example, and it’s another thing entirely to be an organization based in a more rural area whose employee base is more homogenous.
A number of surveys have shown that up to half of unvaccinated employees would rather quit than get vaccinated, and it is a real possibility that a mandate could severely backfire for an organization. On the flipside, organizations must also consider the risk of what could happen if they do not mandate vaccines.
- Will a significant portion of employees feel that their workplace is unsafe?
- What are the potential consequences of that?
Whether you choose to mandate vaccinations or not, how to communicate your position, and how you enforce that position should therefore all depend on who your employees are (and hopefully it goes without saying that all organizations should encourage vaccinations whether they choose to mandate them or not).
To “know your audience” also isn’t just about assessing demographics. It is also about assessing the degree of actual risk. If most of your employees are still working remotely, for instance, then arguably there may be no real need to mandate vaccinations just because other companies are doing so. On the other hand, even if your employees are remote, if their work requires them to interact with clients and partners at workplaces that do have vaccine mandates, then that would certainly be a reason to mandate vaccines for your own employees anyway.
Lastly, knowing your audience also means understanding the full range of reasons behind their decisions to get or not get vaccinated. Just because a hefty portion of your employee base isn’t vaccinated doesn’t mean they’re unvaccinated for the same reasons. We know, for instance, that there has been a gap in access for lower socioeconomic communities and communities of color. “Access” also means workplace flexibility. Concerns about taking time off work to get the vaccine, or to recover from immune response symptoms, is a fairly common reason that many people haven’t gotten vaccinated, and the solution can be quite straightforward from the employer’s perspective: Bring the vaccinations to your workers, and if they need time off, give it to them.
Persuasion and values-based messaging
Even in situations where a sizable portion of employees are resistant, it may be important for organizations to mandate vaccines anyway. Hospitals and airlines are two good examples of organizations that are requiring vaccinations despite the potential pushback due to the potential for high-risk contact. In such situations, it then comes down to an issue of messaging and persuasion. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini, the “godfather of influence,” has made an entire career out of researching the art and science of changing attitudes and behaviors. Because of this, his “principles of persuasion” are widely used in marketing, but they can absolutely also be used in the service of good causes such as public health.
Whether they are consciously doing so or not, various organizations have been harnessing Cialdini’s principles in their efforts to incentivize (or nudge) employees to get vaccinated. For instance, Dr. Bronner’s has been offering a $1,000 bonus for employees who voluntarily get vaccinated, an example of Cialdini’s reciprocity principle. Cialdini himself has suggested using social norming (e.g., “Everyone’s doing it”) as a way to get hesitant people vaccinated. It all depends on the audience, however, and incentives and social norming may not be effective tactics for your particular audience.
Some employers are relying instead on what employees have to lose with ultimatums in which employees must either get vaccinated or must face various kinds of penalties, such as having a $200 surcharge added to their health insurance premium, as Delta Airlines is doing, or be required to undergo weekly testing, as Amtrak is doing. Delta’s recent move was apparently successful at getting 20% of its unvaccinated workers vaccinated within just two weeks of the announcement.
Whatever methods you use, it’s always important to also communicate the rationale. Ideally, keep the messaging grounded in values that resonate with your employees (again, the importance of knowing your audience).
According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, appealing to what intrinsically motivates people, such as a shared sense of purpose, is more powerful and effective than either incentives or penalties. A good example is United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby’s emotional statements about how personally painful it has been to watch his employees die unnecessarily from COVID and that he could not bear to see a single more death.
In addition to being a strong value-based statement it also taps into Cialdini’s unity principle, wherein Kirby is creating a sense of unity, inclusion, and of his employees being a part of the extended family. It is so much more of an emotional, and therefore powerful, way of persuading people than citing vague principles or abstract statistics.
As compelling as Kirby’s messaging is, perhaps for a certain kind of audience it may be more effective to focus instead on themes of freedom and independence, how vaccines are not antithetical to freedom but actually make freedom possible—the freedom to be healthy, to succeed as a business, and to continue being able to provide for our families. It’s all about creating compelling narratives resting on values that speak to your specific audience and imbuing those narratives with sincere feeling. For individual companies, there may be a lot riding on whether or not we are able to finally gain control of this virus. But there is even more riding on it for us, collectively, as a society. It is precisely for this reason that organizations must know their audience and communicate to them the importance of getting vaccinated in the ways that are most likely to resonate with them.
Dr. Leilani Carver is Director of Graduate Strategic Communication and Leadership, the Director of Undergraduate Communication and an Associate Professor of Strategic Communication and Leadership at Maryville.