Even as coronavirus cases continue to surge around the world, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has more companies planning for the eventual transition back to the physical workplace in some form. After nearly a year of working at home in isolation, employees are understandably concerned about their safety at work, especially amid recent well-publicized COVID outbreaks at workplaces, including call centers, across the United States.
Many workers simply don’t feel safe being in an environment that they have no control over. While employers may fully comply with local and national workplace safety guidelines, businesses are operating in uncharted territory—and the risks have never been higher for employees and their families.
Should Vaccination Be Part of Your Return-to-Work Policy?
The rampant spread of highly contagious variants of the virus has more companies grappling with whether to require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace. Vaccination mandates may reduce the risk of transmission to other employees and customers. However, there are many workers who have concerns about the efficacy and safety of vaccines that have been developed within a shortened timeframe and who may want to wait until more information is available. And some may opt out altogether. According to a Pew Research survey, 21% of U.S. adults say they do not intend to get vaccinated and are “pretty certain” more information will not change their mind.
So, then, can employers compel workers to comply? “An employer can, in fact, require their employees to get vaccinated before returning to work—and if the employee refuses, it’s the employer’s right to terminate that employee,” explains employment attorney Jonathan Bell, Founder of Bell Law Group. However, “There are exceptions to the rule that employers must be aware of: If a person qualifies with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or a local state law, and they cannot get vaccinated due to their disability, they can request a reasonable accommodation.
“Second, there may be an issue if there is a bona fide religious belief. So, if a vaccination in any way affects someone’s religious belief, there also may need to be an accommodation. Other than those circumstances, the employer can require the vaccination.”
To avoid the potential for liability, Bell adds, make sure that you listen to the reason the individual is refusing to get vaccinated or wear a mask. “If it’s a medical reason, you want to tread lightly and make sure you’re following the steps to see if they fit within the bounds of offering a reasonable accommodation,” he says. “If not, you’re opening yourself up to potential liability.”
Currently, most employers are strongly encouraging employees to get vaccinated, but they are not yet making it a requirement, Bell says, adding: “The landscape may change once the vaccination becomes more readily available to the public. But while it is within your rights as the employer, you don’t always have to pursue it. This vaccine is very new and people are afraid of the side effects, so try to be sympathetic. If you find that an employee is afraid but can do their work from home, you may want to give them an exception, as long as you don’t do it in a discriminatory manner, meaning you don’t take race, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation into consideration.”
As of press time, the new administration’s aggressive COVID-19 response plan is still being rolled out: On January 21st, President Joe Biden signed the Protective Worker Health and Safety Executive Order directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to release new “science-based guidance” on COVID-19 workplace safety within two weeks, and to determine whether any emergency temporary standards are necessary, such as mandatory masks in the workplace. If so, those standards must be issued by March 15th.
Take the Pulse of Your Workforce
Despite the science behind virus transmission and prevention, basic COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and social distancing, have become highly polarized topics in the United States. Add to that the uncertainty that some employees may have regarding the coronavirus vaccination and it creates an unpredictable environment in which COVID-related return-to-work policies can fail, or worse, destroy employee morale and the workplace culture.
Recently released data from Perceptyx, the employee survey and people analytics platform, delved deeper into workers’ views on safety measures as they return to the workplace. Over 1,000 employees were asked to select the top three mitigation efforts that would help them feel safer in the physical workplace. Mask wearing (57%), social distancing (54%) and frequent cleaning (39%) topped the list, with required vaccinations (27%) ranked fourth.
Perceptyx found that employees’ opinions were divided on mandatory COVID vaccinations: Nearly half (47%) of those surveyed believe employers should require employee to be vaccinated, while 43% said they would consider leaving their organization if the vaccine was a requirement. However, the report points out that employees are slightly more likely to get vaccinated if their employer encourages them to do so rather than mandating vaccinations. And, in fact, they found encouragement in the form of incentives to be fairly effective: 60% said they would get vaccinated if their employer offered a monetary incentive of $100.
While employers are understandably anxious to provide a safe workplace for staff to come back to, mandating the vaccine out of the gate is certain to cause mixed reactions from many employees across all industries, says Brett Wells, Ph.D., Director of People Analytics at Perceptyx and co-author of the report.
“There are a couple of ways that policies and communications backfire,” he points out. “One is by responding to concerns without first gathering employee feedback. Another is asking for feedback from employees, and then not responding to issues using that feedback. The best strategy is to connect the dots for employees. Ask about concerns. Communicate back with employees what you’ve learned after collecting the information and then lay out how the feedback has affected your approach to vaccination.”
Wells recommends employers take the pulse of their people more frequently due to fast-changing COVID developments. “When you have been thrown a new curveball, it’s a ripe opportunity to ask questions and get employee feedback so you know what the right next step is,” he says. “Survey as frequently as your context changes and you can appropriately connect the dots between the survey feedback, action planning and communication.”
Embrace a Multi-pronged Communication Approach
An interesting finding from the Perceptyx survey was that employees who had strong relationships with their managers were nearly two times more likely to get the COVID vaccine if their employer recommended it.
Because of the one-on-one relationships they establish with their direct reports, frontline managers play a critical role in keeping employees informed about policy changes, helping them to understand the reasons for each business decision, and calming fears and anxieties about their safety at work.
Agents returning to a brick-and-mortar environment likely will look to their frontline managers as the most trusted communicator of COVID mitigation protocols and policy changes. However, to create clear messaging that answers the difficult questions on agents’ minds will require a multi-departmental approach that includes human resources, the legal department and contact center management.
Above all, honesty and transparency are critical to ease tension and fear. Have the courage to be straightforward, says online communication expert and writing coach Leslie O’Flahavan of E-WRITE. “Model your communication on that one friend we all have who feels brave enough to speak candidly. Don’t treat tough questions as a third rail; it’s not too scary to go there. Admittedly, this is very difficult to do, but that is the best model—be the company that can talk about anything.”
O’Flahavan points out that corporate communications and human resources are experienced at communicating sensitive topics, such as sexual harassment, diversity, inclusion, racism and layoffs. “Use the lessons learned from those difficult topics that you have already communicated about successfully,” she explains. “Don’t treat the vaccine conversation like it’s different from all others. Even though it is unique in content, your communication approach should be similar.”
Decisions related to COVID-19 safety policies and whether to mandate vaccination will be made by executives and the legal team. “As communicators, we don’t have to make that determination, we just have to convey it,” O’Flahavan says. However, “part of this communication challenge is that we don’t have a lot of practice with this particular topic. There are areas of legal risk, so the company’s lawyers will need to have a big hand in this communication.”
The challenge is that language which is intended to protect companies from risk is often impenetrable, she adds. O’Flahavan’s advice to managers? “Call on your legal department to express these decisions in a way that’s understandable so that we don’t confuse agents with this legal policy about the vaccine.”
While frontline managers should not be responsible for communicating company decisions about vaccinations or related policies, they are, however, well-positioned to ensure that frontline employees feel heard and supported.
Use the messaging developed by the communications, legal and HR teams, but be prepared to answer questions, says O’Flahavan. “Let HR carry that message, and then make yourself available to listen and talk to agents at both scheduled and unscheduled times. The ability to see and support employees as individuals will be even more critical as this situation plays out.”