Can We Talk? Creating A Dialogue With Your Employees Around COVID Vaccines

Article contributed by Allison Ebner

Spotlight | Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield MA

Lions and tigers and bears…OH MY! The past ten months have been a whirlwind for HR professionals. Battling our way through the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, managing our workforces with absences, illnesses and remote learning, we are now daring to dream that there is light at the end of this very long tunnel: the COVID vaccines.

But with the cure comes some chaos! Employers are grappling with really big decisions right now. Do we mandate the vaccine for our employees? If we do, what about the people that refuse to take it? What do our employees know about the vaccines and where are they getting their information? I had the opportunity to catch up with Kris Hamel, Manager of HR at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield MA recently. Her story is one of hope, strategy, transparency and FANTASTIC employee communication. The end game for Shriners? A workplace that will see nearly 80% of its workforce vaccinated in the near future. How did they accomplish this? Kris graciously shared their story with me in the hopes that it might provide other employers with some ideas for their own vaccine road map. It begins and ends with two words: transparency and communication.

Back when the world went mad in March, the team at Shriners initiated an Incident Command team that met daily to address the crisis and the needs of patients and staff.  When a vaccine was becoming available, Shriners decided that they needed a COVID vaccine task force comprised of people from a variety of different departments: HR, marketing, research, senior management and clinical. This group helped the organization weather the initial crush of information and focused their efforts on creating a vaccination plan for Shriners and providing transparent education to their employees as they moved through this phase of the pandemic. Kris pointed out that having representatives from across the organization really gave them the ability to work quickly to draft their communication plans and create a sound strategy that made sense across the board. An important first step for this group . . . They reflected on their corporate culture. They knew as healthcare professionals, the majority of their employees would want to ‘follow the science’ to protect themselves and the community so they opted NOT to mandate vaccines but rather to provide educational opportunities that would pave the way toward their goal of a high vaccination rate.

  • Step 1 | Do a culture check. You know your team. Decide whether you will mandate the vaccine or make it optional for your employees. Take into account your business model, market vulnerabilities and staffing situation. If you mandate the vaccine and some key employees refuse it, are you prepared to let them go? And don’t forget the ADA, EEOC and religious exemption implications of your decision.
  • Step 2 | Form a task force or committee that collaborates on this initiative. Big or small, bring together a thoughtful group of people that can discuss your strategy and be a good representation of your entire team. Include people that are trusted within the organization.
  • Step 3 | Take a pulse check of your employees to gauge where they are with this decision. Once the team at Shriners made the decision about voluntary vaccinations, they employed their next strategy: a pulse check or baseline survey of how their employees were feeling about the vaccine. They kept it simple, with four choices. How likely are you to get the COVID vaccine? Very likely, somewhat likely, probably not and definitely not. For those people that responded no or not likely to the vaccine, they asked them what their concerns were. This was key information in helping them identify facts they could share to dispel some of the many myths about vaccines in their communication plan.

Armed with the results from the pulse survey, the task force created a communication plan that included an educational campaign.  The PowerPoint presentation was shared with staff virtually by senior leaders and included the following: the origins of the virus and how it infects the system, a detailed analysis of how vaccines are developed and the validity of the approval process of the two options on the market today, Moderna and Pfzier. This information was designed to educate and inform their employees about the safety of the vaccines as well as the process on how they came to market. Again, they presented facts only. No opinions or political perspectives.

  • Step 4 | Educate with facts from reliable sources like the CDC, WHO and Johns Hopkins. You can also refer employees to speak with the own personal physicians about this decision as well.

Given their status in healthcare, Shriners had an advantage over many companies in the next part of the plan. They were able to acquire and administer the vaccine onsite at their facility with the required storage and regulatory requirements in place. Their Chief of Staff was first in line for the vaccine, in a very public setting, demonstrating his faith that the vaccines are safe and effective. The end result for Shriners is a high vaccination rate that will hopefully produce herd immunity in their ecosystem in the very near future.

Whatever decision you make as an organization, it’s incumbent upon you, the employer, to bring sound education and information to your employees about their options around COVID vaccines. Your EAP is a great resource for support and reliable data. The team here at EANE can support you as well. With 70% of employees surveyed responding that they trust their employers first for critical information regarding the pandemic, they are counting on you to help guide them through these next few months and into the recovery this year! YOU GOT THIS!

** Special THANKS to Kris Hamel from Shriners Hospitals for sharing their story with me!