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Are Vaccine Mandates Good Company Policy?

By Scottie Barsotti

Attempts to get back to pre-pandemic operations and implement return-to-work and back-to-school plans are butting up against vaccine hesitancy and refusal as the Delta variant fuels new surges in cases of COVID-19. Organizational Behavior expert Denise M. Rousseau has ideas about how organizations and managers can deal with this issue without dividing their workforce.

As soon as there were whispers of viable COVID-19 vaccines, chatter began in earnest about how soon we can get “back to normal.” And while the “normal” we’re supposedly getting “back to” is a subjective idea, it remains the case that effective vaccines—in addition to improved therapeutics and continued mitigation strategies like masking and social distancing—are collectively our best way out of this pandemic.

As shots started going into arms by the millions this winter, everything seemed to be progressing along that path. Companies started floating back-to-work timelines. School districts started bringing students back for in-person instruction. And everyone started dreaming of a reclaimed summer to make up for the one we lost last year, fueled by shared immunity and economic stimulus.

Now, as the Delta variant reminds us that this pandemic is very much not over, organizations from local governments and school districts to private companies of all sizes have a new set of challenges to navigate. Chief among them: Should we require vaccination among our staff and/or patrons, strongly suggest the vaccine, or offer no guidance at all?

Denise M. Rousseau, Heinz College University Professor of organizational behavior and public policy, says for companies it depends on whether they consider mandating vaccinations to be part of their “duty of care” for their employees.

“The duty of care describes the kinds of protections or supports that an employer provides in order to keep employees safe from dangers that are held in common,” said Rousseau. A safe work environment is a duty of care, for example. Having training and protocols in place to prevent injuries is a response to that duty of care, as is offering wellness and employee assistance programs. Duty of care can include any steps an employer takes to ensure employees leave work in the same condition they arrived in, if not better.

“When this takes the form of safety measures, workers don’t always like that at first, whether you’re talking about anything from masks to safety helmets or goggles. The messaging has to clearly communicate the risks and how to reduce them,” she said. “A lot of employers blow that message, because they’ll present safety measures as compliance, or a response to the government’s requirements. That leads to mixed messaging because people react very differently to governmental authority.”

Values and mission tend to be much stronger motivators than compliance. Professor Denise M. Rousseau

Instead, employers should focus their messaging around deeper shared values—such as the well-being of employees, their families, and their customers—and stay consistent in that messaging. “Values and mission tend to be much stronger motivators than compliance,” said Rousseau. 

That messaging may become even more crucial in the months ahead. In August, the Food and Drug Administration granted its full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, making it the first COVID-19 vaccine to clear that bar. With that change in official status, we may see a rush of new vaccine mandates.

Even before the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, many hospitals and health systems, including the Mayo Clinic and the Department of Veterans Affairs, had already mandated vaccines for front-line workers. The Department of Defense mandated vaccination among active-duty service members in the U.S. military. And some state and local governments had announced mandates for some or all employees, as well as “vaccine passports” for in-person activities like live entertainment, fitness, and dining. (On the other hand, some states have preemptively sought to ban such mandates, including mask mandates). 

President Biden has urged private companies to “step up” and mandate the vaccine for employees. Rousseau suggests this could be effective because while people differ in attitudes about government, mandates from private employers may not meet the same level of resistance overall.

That means organizations each have to set their own policies surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations—and figure out how to handle conflicts that may result from any decision they make.

“Managers need to stress that we’re all in this together. Keeping each other is safe is everyone’s job, and that puts a greater demand on the people who aren’t vaccinated to shoulder whatever additional precautions are necessary to not put their colleagues at risk,” said Rousseau. That may include employers assigning some burden to people who don’t get vaccinated, such as restricted access to shared spaces, paying a premium for testing, or some other penalty.

“Employers need to make the organization valuable to people. This means promising not only a safe place to work but also a compelling future. And protecting that future for your employees includes those who choose to be unvaccinated, because they deserve a safe environment, too.”

Major companies including Disney, Google, Netflix, Facebook, United Airlines and many others have affirmed that they will require vaccination among employees working on site. It is possible vaccine mandates may become a way that companies signal their corporate cultures and shared beliefs not only to the public, but to prospective employees.

Rousseau suggests that as companies choose whether to follow suit, the most important thing is to listen to their employees and pay attention to what will make them feel comfortable and safe at work.

“Clients and customers are important, but your employees are a means by which you manage relationships with your clients and customers,” said Rousseau. “Employees enact your business practices, so listening to them is important.”

She also stresses that companies and managers need to have a “learn by doing” mindset, adjusting their policies as they learn from employee and customer feedback. She says that many companies have fallen short in this regard.

“How you mask or what types of masks workers use may vary depending on the work environment and its conditions, and that may differ across locations and departments. As you implement a policy, you have to try things and evaluate them by gathering input,” said Rousseau. “Many companies have failed to do that. They aren’t including their employees and customers in their learning process.”

Some recommendations Rousseau has for employers and managers in the age of COVID-19 related mandates include:

  • Adopt a learn-by-doing mindset, and be honest about that process with employees as a policy is implemented. Policies shouldn’t be written in stone.
  • Be clear, honest, and transparent about why decisions are being made.
  • Recognize there may be the need for local arrangements. There may be a need for adjustments and accommodations for different working conditions or health conditions.
  • Pay attention to “faultlines,” or the ways that members of different identity groups relate to one another. Vaccination status has the potential to become a cultural or political faultline in the workforce.
  • Identify “front-line” managers who work directly with employee teams and who understand their needs; train those managers with messaging, supports, ability to provide feedback from their employees, and insight into how and when to make exceptions to a policy. 

Rousseau says she would like to see a conference of industry leaders, union leaders, and public health officials to create a collective understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t, and provide each other with knowledge of the different environments, challenges, and needs that affect their stakeholders. She thinks such an interdisciplinary conference is long overdue, but that the ramping up of vaccine and mask mandates may be the right time for such collaboration.

“We couldn’t rely on historical solutions to guide behavior under COVID. Everyone had to learn by doing, consult the best available evidence, and make decisions under uncertainty with imperfect information,“ she said.

“Many companies, as well as federal and state authorities, tried to act like they knew all the answers, and that’s a dumb thing to do when you don’t have all the answers.”