September 9, 2021

Requiring Vaccinations: 3 Steps to Getting It Right

Stephen Massey
Managing Director, Health Action Alliance

Our new guidance will help you prepare and communicate your vaccine policy.

The Delta variant continues to wreak havoc on unvaccinated communities. U.S. hospitalizations have more than doubled since last Labor Day, and new COVID-19 cases more than quadrupled between last Labor Day and this one. It is also blunting the nation’s economic recovery, lowering consumer confidence and slowing hiring. With that reality as the backdrop, companies are strengthening their vaccination requirements, and even more plan to do so, according to recent surveys of both large firms and small businesses.

For companies considering a workplace vaccination policy, thoughtful preparation is key. Julia Christenson, Executive Vice President and Employee Experience Group Head at Edelman, shared three key tips with companies at our recent briefing for business leaders:

  1. Gather employee feedback through surveys or focus groups. You may find backing for vaccination requirements: already, three-quarters of adults have received at least one vaccine dose, and according to a recent AP poll, half of all workers now support vaccine requirements, compared to only 26% who oppose. Listening to your employees’ opinions will also give your company a better idea of what to expect and how to meet any challenges. 

  2. Plan ahead. Anticipate the questions that arise with a vaccine requirement — what is a realistic deadline for employees to get vaccinated? How will you confirm and enforce the policy? Who will handle terminations if necessary, and how can you backfill those positions or those of staff who resign? If you choose to require regular testing for unvaccinated staff, who will pay for the tests, and for how long? Are there steps you can take, like paid time off or free transportation to a vaccination appointment, that will increase uptake and remove barriers for employees with less access to healthcare?
  3. Offer a thoughtful rationale. When Delta Air Lines announced a $200 monthly healthcare premium surcharge on unvaccinated employees, CEO Ed Bastian told employees that the average COVID-19 hospital stay was costing the company $50,000. (For your company, the lost productivity from mandatory quarantines or long illnesses might also be useful examples.) Bastian also reminded his employees of all the ways Delta has prioritized a clean and safe work environment since the beginning of the pandemic, and thanked those who have already driven the company’s vaccination rate to 75% — statements that cast the new measure as an extension of existing, strongly supported company safety policy.

Explaining Your Company’s Vaccine Requirements to the Public and Press

Employers can expect media interest and press questions about your vaccination policy. Having thought through the practical questions of a vaccination policy and articulated the reasons behind the policy to your employees is excellent preparation for answering questions from the public and press. Here are a few additional considerations to help you represent your policy with confidence.

Rely on simple, straightforward messages. 

  • “We want to create a safe workplace and a healthier community.  We all want to turn the tide on COVID-19 so our employees, our families, our economy and our communities can thrive.  A fully vaccinated workforce creates the safest possible workplace environment for employees and customers.”

  • “Vaccines are safe and effective. Nearly 200 million Americans have received at least one shot of the vaccine. The FDA’s full approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine should reassure anyone that these vaccines are safe and they work.”

  • “This is about what’s safest for our workers and our customers. We have an obligation to keep our workers safe. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for companies, but this is what we need to do to keep our employees and community safe.”

Lean on those messages if you get tough questions.

Your safe, simple, straightforward messaging can answer almost any question that arises.

Q: Are you sure it’s legal to require your employees to get vaccinated? 

A: Yes, absolutely. Federal law supports workplace vaccination requirements. Other businesses may decide to do something different. This is about what’s safest for our workers and customers.

Q: Is it fair to require employees to get vaccinated to keep their jobs?

A: Employers have an obligation to keep their workers safe. COVID vaccines are proven to be safe and effective at keeping workers healthy. A more prudent question is whether it’s fair for employers to create unsafe workplace environments by not requiring vaccines when we know they are safe and effective [and supported by the majority of our workforce]. At the end of the day, this is about what’s safest for our workers and our customers.

Q: Why are you doing this now?

A: We want to create a safe workplace and a healthier community. The vaccines are proven to be safe and effective. And a fully vaccinated workforce creates the safest possible workplace environment for employees and customers. So we’re requiring vaccines because we want to do what’s best for our workers and customers.

Q: Are you prepared for employees to quit rather than get vaccinated?

A: Despite all the evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, despite the financial challenges workers would be bringing on themselves, despite all of the reasons for a person’s health, their career and their families, there will be some minority of workers who will not get vaccinated. We never like to see anyone go, but we are prepared for it and we have to do what’s safest for the rest of our employees and our customers.

Make use of employee feedback and the rationale you gave your workers.

  • Tell the press or public the same compelling story you told your employees — for example, about the costs your company bears for COVID-19 hospitalizations, the number of days lost to quarantines or long-term illnesses, and the steps your company has already taken to incentivize the vaccine.
  • Tell the media anything valuable you learned from gathering employee feedback, including support for a vaccination requirement or current levels of vaccination.

Be real. Be yourself.

  • The messages in this guide are intended to be safe ground to allow you to answer questions without going too far or setting off a debate. Still, you should make them your own and feel comfortable with what you are going to say. Whatever you choose to say, own it. Presenting your workplace vaccination policy with thoughtfulness and confidence will help dispel skepticism from the press or public.
  • Share powerful stories. If you have lost employees or family workers to COVID-19, if they have expressed regret about not getting vaccinated, if you can describe the damage that the Delta surge has caused in your community, these will help create understanding and sympathy, and help your audience see you as a full person, not just an employer.

For more guidance, review our updated Conversation Guides for Managers and for Small Business Owners.