While the transitions to WFH may have appeared to have been smooth-ish (in hindsight), coming back to work will be all the more anxiety-driving. One apparent challenge is how to get vaccinated and unvaccinated people to work together. While vaccinations are a personal choice, in trying to implement policies, you don’t want to offend anyone, jeopardize anyone, or get sued in the process.
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As an employer, you now find yourself in new and volatile territory. In fact, while you did nothing to ‘find yourself’ in this position, you have a very active role – to chart this territory for your organization, clear a path in the ever-changing terrain, and guide your employees along with as few casualties as possible.
How then can you navigate this task?
I’ve been studying medical decision-making, publishing academic papers about it, and consulting within the industry for nearly two decades now. Health and medical choices raise ethical issues for everyone.
My guiding principle—based on my education and the knowledge that I bring in psychology and behavioural economics—is to make sure that information is conveyed clearly so that people can understand it. As an employer, I suggest you solve the foggy ethical issues by using safety as your guiding principle.
This, followed by principles that consider the complexity of the matter, will empower you to maximize health and minimize grudges.
The ABCDEF model I developed suggests that you:
Acknowledge beliefs and concerns.
Be transparent about your policy.
Cite the law.
Do not get into medical arguments.
Form alternatives, where possible.
But safety first.
The only way an employer can tread there safely is by making employee safety their North Star. Actual safety, in the physical sense, is, therefore, the first item on my list. Ironically, the Safety First movement was formed in the early 20th century to protect employees from hazardous working conditions. Now the hazard to employees comes from their own choices, which they are free to make, as long as safety isn’t compromised. This goes for vaccinations, as well as for masking and other protective measures.
Though people are free to make decisions, their choices affect others, and the consequences can be harmful. The only person that is safer when you get vaccinated is yourself.
Yes, you supposedly decrease viral load with vaccines which then decreases the number of people you infect if you get it, but the best way to really decrease infecting others is to not be in super spreader situations with them. Or to take the proper precautions if you must be in those situations. With that in mind, you should make your workplace into a non-super-spreader event (open windows, good air filtration, meetings outdoors, etc.). That’s actually practicing safety first.
However, such precautions are not always possible. Good luck having an outdoor meeting, or keeping the windows open, when it’s 12 degrees. Good luck being an unvaccinated nurse who needs to measure blood pressure while maintaining social distance from the patient. This is why, as an employer, vaccinations are your best, most consistent line of protection. Some employers, like the City of New York, are now enforcing vaccination mandates, such as for school workers. But not every employer can or wants to take such steps. How then can you keep everyone safe and everyone’s emotions (more or less) intact?
Acknowledge Beliefs And Concerns
Employees’ emotions cannot be wrong, even if their fears are unfounded. It’s a fine line, and you’d better not cross it. People need to be heard, so hear them out, merely reflecting back their words, a technique taken from Imago Relationship Therapy. Acknowledging helps maintain the employer-employee relationship that can definitely be trying when at this point, as employers navigate legal demands, safety concerns, keeping the business going, and employee preferences. This is what acknowledging sounds like: “I hear you. You believe that you eat organic food and work out, and you think this will protect you from COVID, so you do not need to vaccinate.” Mind you, acknowledging does not mean agreeing.
Be Transparent About Your Policy
Trust is the foundation of all relationships, including our relationships with institutions and governments and lack of transparency. When there isn’t reasoning behind decisions, trust is eroded. Create a policy that is founded on the law, and make it known to all, with no exceptions. If the COVID terrain changes and the policy needs to change, then, by all means, change it, but again, make it crystal clear what the changes are based on.
Cite The Law
You are not arm wrestling with your employees when you ask that they vaccinate or that if they choose not to vaccinate, they maintain social distancing, mask up at all times, and provide negative proof of testing once a week. You’re merely following the law. Companies have a legal right to require employees to get vaccinated unless they have a conflicting disability or religious belief. That is one strong argument. In fact, if you neglect to follow the law, you might expect backlash from employees. There have been lawsuits against employers for being COVID-negligent, especially when employees got sick.
Do Not Go Into Medical Arguments
Chances are you are ill-equipped to deal with arguments like, “I have endometriosis, and the vaccine will hurt my fertility even further,” or, “My entire family was sick; my father died from COVID, and I was near him the whole time. So, for sure, I have antibodies or some natural immunity and do not need the vaccine.” These are conversations that you do not want to have or even need to have. Because there is no winning here. As I suggested above, you can acknowledge concerns by reflecting them back, even if you find no medical evidence that they are valid. And in any event, it is not your role to determine the validity of medical claims or to change employees’ views with data.
Rules are worthless unless followed. Remember, COVID vaccination and other rules are meant to protect employees and to allow them to work together. Once you cut corners, such as allowing your most essential employee to show up unvaccinated and unmasked, you compromise safety and throw transparency out the window. That said, enforcement needs to be done both firmly and politely. The employer can say, “Our policy, based on the law, is for unvaccinated employees to bring negative COVID testing. You failed to do so, and I ask you to leave the premises right now.” Insults are unacceptable in any context (such as “are you so stupid that you don’t want to vaccinate against a disease that killed over 700,000 Americans?!). But so is neglecting to follow up on the company COVID policy you’ve outlined.
For example, is it possible for employees to work from home? This would remove the friction between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
If so, offer this possibility to both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, so you’re not discriminating against anyone. Act within reason, all the while remembering that this is a workplace, so it’s problematic if people cannot do their jobs. For example, if a nurse won’t adhere to the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, she cannot phone in an ER shift. Indeed, the State of New York has mandated vaccinations for healthcare workers because safe alternatives could not be found. But it did so with legal backup and allowed time for employees to meet the requirement.
These steps should allow you to keep everyone’s emotions intact: both yours and your employees’ - vaccinated and unvaccinated. And, above all, to keep everyone healthy. Keep everyone productive because when teams are also comprised of friends, they perform better. And most importantly – follow this model to keep everyone safe.
About the Author
Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz is a keynote speaker, consultant, and researcher at the intersection of medicine and behavioral economics. She is the author of the new book, Your Life Depends on It: What You Can Do to Make Better Choices About Your Health. She is full professor at the business school of the Ono Academic College in Israel, senior fellow at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in New York, and a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge. Miron-Shatz was a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University, and a lecturer at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of over 60 academic papers on medical decision-making. She is CEO of CureMyWay, an international health consulting firm whose clients include Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Samsung.