What Should Business Owners Do About Employees Who Refuse Vaccination?

Business Insights

It’s finally here: the end of the tunnel. Shots are in arms across the planet, the spread of the pandemic is collapsing in vaccinated areas, and something like normal life is at last resuming. I even went to a movie recently, and apparently, I’d forgotten how incredibly loud they were. There’s traffic on the streets, and pollution in the air, it’s almost like old times.

“Almost,” of course, is always followed by “not quite.” Throughout the English-speaking world, at least, there remains a critical barrier to normalcy: anti-vax misinformation. “Herd immunity,” the fully-immunized percentage (estimated to be 70%) at which non-immune people face essentially zero risk of infection and which became the rallying cry of the anti-mask right wing, certainly hasn’t kicked in; unvaccinated people are getting infected at steady or even increasing rates. Which puts business owners like me and very possibly you in the awkward position of determining whether vaccination should or shouldn’t be required in the workplace.

There are arguments, of course, to both sides. On the one hand, the vaccine clearly works and is demonstrably safe. Infection rates are plummeting as even the highly-virulent delta strain simply encounters fewer and fewer vulnerable hosts, bringing a potential end to a global mass-casualty event. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who, for one reason or another, legitimately do not trust that this vaccine is safe (some of which are extremely valid, especially in communities that have had negative experiences with medical professionals). So what do you do? However unfounded antivax claims are—no, the vaccine won’t turn you into a human magnet—the sheer number of people who believe them means we have to reckon with it.

It’s easy to say that everyone should make their own decision, after all those who are vaccinated are protected, but it’s more complicated than that. Without herd immunity, the virus can continue to spread and mutate, potentially into more virulent and deadly forms that outmatch the vaccines. And even vaccinated immunocompromised people may not be able to achieve full immunity through no fault of their own. What do we owe workers with immune deficiencies? There’s a saying that your rights stop where someone else’s rights begin; the reality is, unfortunately, not so simple. Vaccination, as a public health measure, is key to ensuring community safety writ large; as a workplace policy, it protects both workers and unvaccinated customers alike from infection while ensuring you can keep your business open reliably. And while it might not be possible to change every vaccine skeptic’s mind, there are some communication strategies that can help.

So, I’d like to offer some recommendations.

  1. Start from a place of empathy. Attempt to understand why your employee is hesitant to get the vaccine—what exactly are they concerned about? Really listen first. Then offer clear, concise, and fact-based evidence. Remember, without empathy, you aren’t really communicating, so listen and understand their concerns.

  2. Remove practical barriers. Make getting the vaccine easy for your employees. Provide time off, even transportation if needed, and extra sick days for those who get the vaccine in case they feel unwell after.

  3. Incentivize vaccination with bonuses, paid time off, or other concrete, direct benefits. While there’s been limited success to this strategy, it’s worth trying, and keying vaccination to reward rather than punishment is going to sway some people.

  4. Appeal to employees’ emotions—what are they missing out on by not being vaccinated? Champion the message that the vaccine is what allows us to enjoy all of the things we've had to miss out on.

  5. Prioritize the safety of immunocompromised employees if you can. Schedule so that unvaccinated workers do not share shifts or common workspaces, and keep the workplace thoroughly disinfected.

  6. Restrict unvaccinated employees from public-facing roles where they could more easily and readily spread disease. Make it clear that vaccination is not a condition for employment, but that the company has an obligation to ensure the safety of its employees and customers and that other work will be found for them unless and until they accede or the pandemic subsides.

  7. Require frequent PCR infection tests for unvaccinated employees, and furlough infected workers until they’re clear.

These are practical accommodations that, while not fun for anyone, attempt to respect both the agency of unvaccinated employees and the safety of everyone else. Are some of them onerous? Yes, but COVID-19 isn’t something we can wish away, and safety will require ongoing life changes for people who, of their own volition, decline vaccination. You can’t take responsibility for their decisions, but you have every obligation to respond to those decisions appropriately. Take care of what you can.

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert.