Ending the pandemic depends on achieving herd immunity, estimated at 70% or even 80% to 90% of a population. With some 30% of Americans telling pollsters they have no interest in getting vaccinated, that’s cutting it a bit close. The numbers are even worse in many other countries.
In the fight against vaccine skepticism, employers can play a key role. This is not only because it’s an important precaution for the health and safety of their employees, but also because a recent survey shows people around the world, including in the United States, tend to trust their employers more than governments or the media. Moreover, Republicans, who are more likely to say they won’t get the vaccine, are also generally much more trusting of business, suggesting employers may be able to have more influence on them than journalists or health experts.
As someone who studies how companies communicate with their employees, I have three research-based tips that can make their efforts more effective.
1. Building trust with transparency
Although many workers say they trust their employers more than some other institutions, trust erosion has been a prominent global issue. Just 61% of participants in the survey referenced above, conducted by public relations consultancy Edelman, said they trust businesses to do the right thing.
That’s why it’s essential for companies to communicate with employees in a way that builds more trust. And research has shown that transparency has been consistently linked to employees’ relationship with their employer.
By that I mean focus on giving employees the facts—while dispelling some of the myths—and being clear about where it all comes from. There are many ways to disseminate the information, such as through email, flyers, corporate newsletters, and social media, but inviting in local health experts is another good way to transparently lay out the facts while also helping skeptical employees get their questions and concerns addressed.
The 2021 Trust Barometer survey showed that people trust scientists and people in their local community more than national leaders. Scientists scored even higher than employees’ own CEOs.
2. It’s a two-way street
That brings me to another important point: Employers will be more effective if they treat employees as partners in the internal vaccination program. And that means listening as much as talking.
Research has found that companies that are pursuing a major change—such as a merger, layoff, or rebranding—are more likely to win high employee acceptance if they engage in two-way communication that emphasizes listening, feedback, reciprocity, openness, and trust. When employees feel their voices are being heard and taken seriously by their organization, they feel empowered and more involved, making them more likely to buy in to the organization’s decisions.
Besides inviting health experts for Q&A’s, employers could also host staff listening sessions such as virtual town halls to gather feedback and address even basic questions, like when people are eligible to get the vaccine, whether it will cost anything, and what that means for a return to the office. It also can help address unique concerns and issues of different groups, especially those who surveys show have more hesitancy about taking a vaccine.
3. Empathy works
Businesses that emphasize empathy, compassion, and genuine care for employees’ well-being have won applause from employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My own recent study—which is currently under review—examined leaders’ use of motivating language during the pandemic. I found that supervisors who gave clear directions, showed empathy for how the pandemic affected workers’ personal lives, and communicated support were most effective in fostering employee trust in leadership and the organization. While understandably trust that isn’t there can’t be built overnight, it’s never too late to do more.
I found similar results in past research: CEOs perceived as exhibiting genuine care for their employees engender more support for company-wide initiatives.
Beyond the language being used, companies can show they care in other ways—actions speak louder than words, after all. For example, some companies, such as Dollar General, Instacart, and Publix, have offered paid leave time or cash incentive bonuses to encourage their employees to get vaccinated.
The U.S. and the world face one of the greatest health crises in history. Ultimately, I believe, it’s a collective responsibility of everyone—governments, individuals, companies—to help turn the tide against the pandemic.
And if companies needed one more reason, surveys and reporting show younger generations increasingly expect companies to be socially responsible. And recent research found that companies who engage in social advocacy tend to enjoy stronger brand loyalty.
In other words, it’s good not only for society but for companies’ bottom lines, too.