With the development of new COVID-19 vaccines, many people felt hopeful for the first time since the pandemic began last year. However, with this newfound hope and positive outlook comes a new workplace challenge: how to react and respond when not everyone in the office chooses to get vaccinated.
Deciding which internal rules or which guidelines to follow has become a difficult challenge for leadership to navigate, and it has grown into one of the more sensitive and polarizing topics organizations face.
This predicament becomes especially delicate when a small fraction of employees choose not to receive the vaccine. These individuals become the target of workplace bullying by their vaccinated colleagues. Very quickly, this surmounting pressure can turn the workplace into a toxic and difficult setting for everyone.
Workplace leaders are tasked with helping all of their employees come together and respect one another, regardless of their personal beliefs and decisions. This can be a stressful and overwhelming situation for even the most seasoned leaders, especially if they have not found themselves in this type of sensitive dilemma before.
The answer, which probably won’t surprise you, is communication. Understanding the needs and wants of vaccinated employees and reconciling those with the concerns of unvaccinated employees is the only way for an organization to get through this in one piece. Leaders who don’t have a great deal of experience handling these types of conversations may want to seek help, as the consequences are more severe than ever.
In the meantime, here are three tips to help you communicate with your employees and lead your organization to a balanced and amicable understanding!
Use common sense.
The guidelines released by public health organizations are constantly shifting and changing when new information comes out. This has and will continue to cause confusion in all areas of life — and especially in the workplace. Both employers and employees are constantly struggling to keep up with these changing guidelines to keep everyone safe and comfortable at work. So, how should employers and leaders handle these constantly changing and evolving guidelines?
The answer is simple, but certainly not easy: use common sense. We know from our grade school days that if someone is feeling ostracized or bullied, they are unlikely to be productive and engaged. The same goes for employees. If you have one or two employees out of the group who have chosen not to get vaccinated and feel targeted by their peers, use common sense to address this.
Common sense would indicate that they have a reason for not getting vaccinated. While it’s not our place to understand the specifics of that reasoning, it can be helpful, and reduce workplace tension, to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The last year and a half has given many of us tunnel vision in terms of what we ‘know’ about others. As we finally start to get back to normal, it will be valuable for all of us to strive to really understand people and where they are coming from.
Be patient and tolerant.
Having patience and tolerance and being a compassionate leader will help you connect with all of your employees, no matter which side of the equation they are on, and will allow you as a leader to bring everyone together.
Ask questions of your employees:
- Why are they so upset about the situation?
- Does their anger come from fear?
- How can you as a leader help them to feel more comfortable so they will feel less angry and resentful towards an unvaccinated employee?
Instead of responding to those ‘bullies’ with animosity or punishment, respond to them with empathy. They may not be aware that their behavior is hurtful to others and are likely coming from a place of uncertainty and discomfort. Approach them with understanding and allow them to give their perspective. You will be able to reach a deeper understanding of the core reason for their frustration and find a path forward.
Bullying and shaming the unvaccinated often comes from a place of wanting to convince someone to change their mind. A recent article in TIME Magazine said, “‘The thinking has been that the more you shame people the more they will obey,” says Giovanni Travaglino, an assistant professor of social psychology at Kent University. “But this turns out to be absolutely wrong.’”
Discussing these ideas with your employees can teach them that shaming and bullying others isn’t more likely to accomplish what they want, and is only going to make those with other viewpoints dig in and put their guard up. Simply put, it does more harm than good.
Only through understanding, patience, and tolerance can we convince colleagues to change their minds about the vaccine.
Stop the line!
(Engage employees in conversation)
In healthcare, there is a saying that goes, “Stop the line! I need clarity.” Nurses and doctors will say this before or during a procedure when they are unsure of something and need to check in with the team. This strategy can be used in any workplace setting as well.
If you have unvaccinated employees in the office and you notice workplace bullying, as a leader, it is your responsibility to STOP THE LINE! No one is in a better position to bring your employees together through communication — either one-on-one or as a group.
We understand that in order to broach this subject effectively, you will likely need to have some difficult conversations. However, if you let the problem linger, we assure you the problem will take care of itself — though your outcome will be significantly worse.
Every organization needs their own practical solution.
When dealing with employees with differing opinions and decisions regarding the vaccine, the most important thing is to treat all of your employees with respect.
A recent article in HR Zone discusses ways to manage vaccination conflicts and summarizes it well: “The key here is to honour the employee’s right to choose.” Each employee will make the decision that is best for them, and your role as a leader is to bring your employees together in conversation so they can better understand and appreciate each others’ perspectives and concerns. Leading with compassion will help you navigate this new and difficult workplace challenge.
Recognizing that your employees have reasons for getting or not getting vaccinated is an opportunity to show them you care about their physical, mental, and emotional health. Identifying their concerns and fears, and finding practical solutions that meet the needs of everyone involved is the only way to ensure all of your employees remain engaged, productive, and safe.
We continue to live through an unrivaled and confusing time for leaders. If you or your HR team need help navigating vaccine guidelines and conflicts among workplace employees, Flynn Barrett Consulting can help! Schedule an initial consultation for some complimentary ideas on how to nip your vaccine problems in the bud!