Straight talk: How to communicate effectively with employees about the COVID-19 vaccine

With the COVID-19 vaccine readily available for almost anyone who wants one, employers are searching for ways to talk to employees about vaccination in a way that is respectful but clear. Employers who want their workforce to vaccinate can make or break their chances of achieving office-wide herd immunity depending on how they communicate their intentions and engage employees. In simple terms, it’s easy to screw up. Read on for tips about how to communicate effectively in a way that inspires confidence and builds trust.

Note: This post is meant to assist employers who are making employee COVID-19 vaccines optional. Employers who plan to mandate vaccines should take a different approach that incorporates legal advice.

Words matter: Choose them carefully
Employee communications should not come off as directives, but encouragement. Be sure to emphasize that vaccination is a choice. Words and phrases like, “if you choose to vaccinate against COVID-19” or, “for employees who choose vaccination” will be interpreted better than “when you receive your vaccine” or, “go get your vaccination as soon as possible.” Employers must acknowledge the very real hesitancy some employees have about the COVID-19 vaccine. Using language that underscores personal choice and body autonomy will be better received.

Dispel myths and share facts
When communicating with employees, clearing up misinformation about the vaccine can be useful if done well. For example, simply telling an employee they are flat out wrong about something is not likely to go over well. Instead, acknowledge that many viewpoints are held about the COVID vaccine, but most trusted experts, like family doctors, believe the vaccine is safe and effective.

Medical professionals who are closer to employees, like a family physician, are viewed as more trustworthy than high-ranking public health officials in Washington, D.C. Encouraging employees to talk to their health care provider about vaccination is likely to be more effective than citing CDC data.

Be honest about vaccine unknowns
COVID-19 has been with us for less than two years, and the vaccine for less than that. Acknowledging that questions about long-term safety and efficacy are legitimate is likely to build trust between employer and employee. Blithely insisting the vaccine is 100% safe and involves no risks or side effects is not going to inspire confidence.

Of course, vaccines undergo rigorous safety and efficacy studies before they are approved for use — that is absolutely true. But the issue here is how to communicate with employees in a way where they believe what you say.

Acknowledging the vaccine is new and that having questions is understandable will go a long way. As a follow-up, encourage employees to pose the hard questions to their health care provider. This approach meets them where they are, and redirects them to someone whom they likely trust.

Consider vaccine incentives
We’ve seen the news reports about million-dollar raffles, free sporting event tickets, and even drawings for Alaska king crab for vaccinated people. Some companies are offering additional paid time off, gift cards, or old-fashioned cash to employees who choose to vaccinate.

Is this approach a good one for your team? Maybe. It may offend employees who are strongly opposed to vaccination, but it may help those sitting on the fence decide to go ahead. So, providing incentives is not without risk, but could also help.

If it sounds like too much to manage, think differently about how you communicate about what constitutes an incentive. For many people, the message that the sooner the populace gets vaccinated, the sooner the economy and schools can fully reopen is compelling. For certain workers, learning that quarantine may no longer be necessary for vaccinated employees may be enough to motivate them to vaccinate. Bottom line, think about your business’ unique circumstances and make your decision based on what you know (or can find out) about what drives your employees.

Make it easy
It’s a tale as old as time: the easier you make it for someone to do something, the more likely they are to do it. Do this by setting up a mobile vaccine site at your workplace. Several organizations are offering free clinics for companies that want to bring vaccines straight to their employees. The Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services can help if you’re interested in setting one up.

Take advantage of free resources
Free resources are readily available for employers who need to communicate with their employees about the COVID-19 vaccine. Available tools include printable handouts, templates for letters to employees, key messages, social media graphics, and more. Here are just a few:

CDC Employer toolkit

U.S. Chamber of Commerce toolkit

National Institute for Public Relations toolkit

National Safety Council toolkit

Alaska Chamber webinar

The Alaska Chamber recently hosted a free webinar on this topic. Speakers include an attorney; a communications expert (hey, it’s us!); and several Alaska employers, large and small. Use the access passcode x.2T!N8?

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