By Courtney Connley
Like many leaders, Chief Member Angela Primiano, Vice President of Human Resources at Memorial Healthcare System in Florida, worried about the impact a vaccine mandate would have on her company's bottom line.
"You've probably seen it nationally in the news, but there is a severe staffing shortage in healthcare, and that was before COVID-19 even came on the scene," Primiano says. "So COVID and the burnout have exacerbated that, and then vaccine mandates have exacerbated the staffing crisis even more because those who are not comfortable or those who can't get vaccinated are choosing to just leave their profession."
That's why, as an HR executive in healthcare, Primiano knew that she and her team had to be strategic about rolling out a vaccine plan for their more than 14,000 staff members. In July, she and other leaders within the company started communicating to employees that a vaccine requirement would be put in place, but that it would not be a condition of employment. "That was a very important part of our plan," she says, while explaining that "threats and mandates and making people feel like they don't have a choice does not work well." Following initial communication in July, Primiano says she and her team gave employees 90 days to either get vaccinated or follow specific requirements if they chose not to. To date, she says 90% of employees at her company are vaccinated and they've had zero resignations as a result of their COVID vaccine plan due to ample education, fair incentives, and clearly communicated restrictions for unvaccinated staff.
The Importance of Education
Already, companies like Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and Delta Air Lines have implemented vaccine mandates for employees. And soon, hundreds of other companies will follow suit as leaders work to follow President Biden's plan of employers with 100 or more employees having all workers vaccinated or tested on a weekly basis. To ensure staff members feel like they're making an informed decision that's best for them, Primiano says it's imperative that executives provide lots of education and information about why vaccines are needed.
"We found education to be very helpful because there was a lot of misinformation and a lot of confusion in the media," Primiano says. For example, she says her company had a lot of pregnant employees who were concerned about whether the vaccine would have a negative effect on their baby. As a healthcare company, she says they were fortunate enough to have a number of OB-GYNs raise their hands and say, "I want to tell you the difference this can make and why I advise my patients to get it."
"That was really effective because they were hearing from an expert, not their boss or their manager," Primiano says. "They were hearing from someone who had no angle and who just wanted to share information and implore them to do what was best for their health and the health of their baby."
In the event that your company doesn't have a healthcare expert on staff, Emily M. Dickens, Chief of Staff and Head of Government Affairs at the Society for Human Resources Management, suggests leaders look into hiring a chief health officer to educate the staff about vaccines and to provide any support they need for other health-related problems.
"Look, we've probably downplayed the impact of the flu in our workplaces for a long time," Dickens says. "And now, we're talking about it more because that coupled with COVID could lead to more absenteeism and other issues."
If a company doesn't have the budget to bring a healthcare expert on staff, then Dickens says leaders can use people within their organization who were once vaccine hesitant to talk about why they changed their mind.
"Empower members in your organization as part of your culture to talk about difficult issues," Dickens says. "People should be able to say, 'Look, I don't want to get the vaccine.' And someone sitting next to them should be able to have a calm conversation and say, 'This is why I did.'"
The Need for Fair Incentives
In addition to education, Primiano says she and her team relied heavily on incentives to help encourage staff members to get vaccinated. "We did a two-tiered incentive," she says. "We did $150 if you were vaccinated, and we did a team-based incentive where you would get another $100 if 85% of your team was vaccinated. So that not only encouraged employees to get vaccinated for themselves, but that also brought them into helping advance the message with those who may be more influenced by their peers than their managers."
While incentives are a good way to help lure employees into getting the vaccine, Dickens says it's important that company leaders implement fair perks that are beneficial to all employees, including those who got vaccinated early.
"If I'm somebody who immediately went and got my shot and you didn't have to convince me, but now that things are getting tight you're starting to give money to somebody who now has decided they're going to get the vaccine, I might feel some type of way," Dickens says. To ensure all vaccinated employees feel like they're being treated equally, she suggests leaders provide incentives to all staff members, regardless of whether they got their shot before the vaccine mandate.
"You've got to make sure that as you're explaining these incentives — because retention is a big issue — that the people who've been saying, 'Yes, this is the right thing to do for me, for my colleagues, and for the workplace,' that they don't get left behind."
The Value of Communicating Restrictions
In the event that an employee still refuses to get the vaccine for medical, religious, or personal reasons, then Primiano says it is up to company leaders to clearly communicate what protocols they will have to follow in order to remain employed. In addition to regular testing, she says she and the leaders at her company were very transparent with unvaccinated staff about the need to wear a mask in all workplace settings unless they are outside. This includes, she says, not removing their mask to eat in a communal eating space as they discovered earlier in the pandemic that this activity led to an increase in transmission from one employee to another.
If a company has decided to make a worker's employment status contingent upon them getting the vaccine, then Dickens says communication about the consequences of being unvaccinated should be discussed ahead of time without making the staff member feel bad about their decision.
"When you think you've done all you can as a leader, then you need to give lots of notice to everyone and say, 'Look, for continued employment here you're going to have to be vaccinated,'" Dickens says. "They will then have time to make the decision about resigning, and you can let HR be a voice to provide them with any resources they need. You don't want to make it a bad breakup. It's just that the two of you have decided to disagree as you're thinking about the health of X number of people and they're ultimately responsible for just their overall health."
While it may seem impossible to please everyone with your vaccine plan, Primiano says the way in which you communicate it to staff could make a big difference in how receptive they are to following it.
"Talk to employees, understand where their head is at, and if they are reluctant then understand the basis of that reluctance and come from a place of support because the way you communicate it is how it will be received," she says.