The A-Z guide to communicating vaccine information in the workplace

getting vaccinated

Vaccine policy has been the elephant in the boardroom but, with the situation in Australia unfolding rapidly, soon every organisation will need to communicate their vaccine stance to staff.

The Victorian government’s recent announcement to mandate vaccinations for construction workers saw a prime example of potential backlash incited by such policies. Last week, more than 2,000 protestors took to the streets of Melbourne in defiance of the mandate, resulting in property damage and several police officers being injured.

But not all mandates end in opposition. A Melbourne school principal that recently introduced a staff vaccine mandate, ahead of any other educational institute, claims to have experienced “no pushback by staff”. The principal says he issued a letter to staff, offering an “open conversation” to discuss the policy. While this was on a relatively small scale, open communication and relationship-building can impact the responses and attitudes of stakeholders.

While medical peak bodies such as the Australian Medical Association back mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers, the Australian Council of Trade Unions are repelling “no jab, no work” policies citing individuals’ rights. The union encourages workers getting vaccinated, but believes this should ultimately remain the employees’ decision.

To navigate this unprecedented challenge currently faced by employers, CEOs and HR professionals, this guide unpacks the do’s, don’ts and definitely don’ts (!) when it comes to vaccine communications.

A, B, C: Always Be Considerate

First and foremost, it’s essential that employers understand that not everyone is necessarily on the same page when it comes to views on vaccination. Health history, cultural background, religion or the perspectives of friends and families all play a role here.

Assuming otherwise, and pushing a certain stance (whichever side of the fence that may be), could result in tarnished relationships, poor staff morale and even resignation. The topic should be handled delicately, with duty of care in mind and abiding by government health advice.

A recent US study shows 44% of employees would quit if a mandatory vaccination policy were introduced. This speculation recently came true in New York with significant repercussions, when a hospital was forced to pause delivering babies after too many workers quit in response to a vaccine mandate.

✓ Do: ensure any information provided to staff is consistent with messaging from government and health authorities
✖ Don’t: assume all staff are comfortable with getting vaccinated
✖ Definitely don’t: share misinformation, or encourage employees not to get vaccinated.

D, E, F: Do Emphasise Facts

It’s highly important to keep staff informed of updates regarding how the COVID-19 situation and subsequent lockdowns or restrictions affect the workplace or wider industry.

If a mandatory vaccine policy is introduced, showing employees that you listen can make a world of difference. Qantas recently achieved this through a mandatory vaccine announcement to staff which:

- Clearly states the newly introduced requirement and overarching rationale up-front (“commitment to safety”)
- States a clear deadline (one for frontline workers and one for the remainder of employees)
- Informs staff that exemptions will be made on the grounds of documented medical reasons
- References the staff consultation which supported the policy’s introduction. In this case, an employee survey of 12,000 (of which just 4% said they were unwilling to get the vaccine).

✓ Do: communicate regularly and transparently with staff, and consult them about what they need to get on board with a vaccine stance
✖ Don’t: introduce a vaccine mandate without clear and detailed communications to all staff affected
✖ Definitely don’t: share news of the vaccine mandate publicly, or with the media, before first announcing it internally.

G, H: Get Help

Depending on the nature of your industry, a mandatory vaccine policy may be introduced by the government as lockdown restrictions ease across Australia.

If so, the decisions and policies shouldn’t be done in a silo, so to speak. The entire organisation including HR, executive leadership, legal, operations and - importantly - communications should be involved in the process with opportunity to provide insight.

Where appropriate, it may also be a good idea to consult an expert on handling internal communications. Having outside perspective and guidance ensures that all messaging is aligned, both internally and externally, to reduce the risk of repercussions relating to the policy introduction.

✓ Do: become familiar with the Equal Opportunity Act and Fair Work Australia policy in relation to mandatory vaccination employee policies
✖ Don’t: attempt to handle the situation alone
✖ Definitely don’t: ignore or “‘brush under the carpet” opposing perspectives of colleagues and employees. Open communication and discussion is vital.

As for the rest of the alphabet…

Actions often speak louder than words (or alphabet letters).

If you are considering a vaccine mandate, employers need to facilitate this through tangible policies and operations. Examples that have been successful by other organisations include offering paid vaccination leave to staff and informing staff of updates regarding vaccination eligibility, clinic locations and how to book (ensuring this is well communicated to culturally and linguistically diverse employees or those with communicative disabilities).

Key areas to consider

Any communication or policy around vaccination should begin with employers first considering:

1. The effect the decision might have on the organisation in terms of potential staff resignation or criticism/backlash. Consider potential risk or fallout that might come with doing the right thing and how it can be mitigated through communications.

2. Does the nature of your organisation require a mandatory vaccine policy or are there alternative solutions for staff who don’t get vaccinated, such as remote working options? Any decision made of this nature should be informed with current government health advice.

3. What is the current overall attitude of staff toward vaccines? If unknown, conducting an anonymous staff survey could be useful.

4. Stay up to date - increasing pressure from business may prompt the government to introduce mandatory vaccine regulations or new Fair Work policies, taking some measures out of organisations’ hands.

Finally, and most importantly, any changes to workplace policy should include staff consultation; considering what barriers may exist to people getting vaccinated and how employers can best facilitate this. Potential changes should be communicated well in advance, providing the opportunity for open discussion.

Employers should prioritise keeping staff connected, informed and safe through the process as Australian workplaces conquer this undoubtedly confusing period of time… together.

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