One of the most basic tenets of crisis communications is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. With that in mind, through my work, I’ve been looking at the potential downsides of employer mandates of vaccination for the COVID virus.
If you read the news coverage, reports on vaccine effectiveness are generally positive, yet we are starting to see anecdotal stories of people who have had negative reactions which were more than temporary and that still remain. Are they one-offs? We don’t know.
Compounding this are stories we may hear in our own lives from friends or family members who have had similar experiences.
On social media and the Internet, our 21st century town square, it can be difficult to assess just how widespread these incidents may be, because the big digital platforms have adopted policies to suppress or dismiss on face value any posts that report negative experiences, labeling them “misinformation” or “disinformation.”
All of this combines to put the crisis communicator in a position of “flying blind” without reliable and current information. Since the COVID vaccine is still in its experimental phase, and no medical treatment is without some side effect, no one really knows for certain what to expect in the short-term or long-term.
That’s why you hear advocates of vaccination hedge when they describe vaccination as “90 percent effective” instead of “90 percent safe.”
Talking to Lawyers
So, in the course of my work, I talked to a trial lawyer I’ve known for many years. Trial lawyers make their reputations successfully suing people, usually large organizations, oftentimes over controversial issues. I asked him what the chances are that an employer could get sued if it mandates that employees be vaccinated for COVID.
In short, he said it’s unlikely that the employer could face much liability in litigation, but he does expect (and is preparing for) an uptick in worker’s compensation claims due to negative and possibly lasting effects of vaccination among some people.
Look for an Uptick in Worker’s Compensation Claims
That told me what I needed to know for my purposes. The most likely scenario for crisis communications is not likely to be a lawsuit, but rather, lost time and productivity, and increased expense tied to a rise in worker’s compensation claims.
This can have a ripple effect if enough people are off the job in critical departments or functions within an organization.
Another lawyer I talked to said that this is why most employers she advises decide to make vaccination a voluntary measure. While the employers tend to encourage their people to get vaccinated, they do not require it as a condition of employment.
From a crisis management perspective, that is probably the best approach as well. If we’ve learned anything from the past year it is that there is a myriad of ways to keep organizations operational and functioning through effective mitigation efforts, such as masking, social distancing and remote work, which do not involve forcing or coercing employees to assume a perceived or real risk tied to vaccination.
It’s at this point, I can hear someone saying about those who are hesitant to be vaccinated, “Just get the jab. Save lives. Your resistance to vaccination is selfish.”
From a workplace communication perspective, that is overly simplistic and tone-deaf messaging. No medical treatment is cookie-cutter, one-size fits all. The truth is, a small percentage of people very well may have negative and lasting effects of an invasive vaccine, so the possible negative consequences of forcing that upon them is something to take seriously. We know these same individuals can reduce risk to themselves and to others simply by following non-invasive and proven mitigation measures.
If you say you respect employees, you have to respect their perspectives and their rights, particularly when it comes to assuming any level of health risk. While no one has a right to put others at risk of COVID infection, there are many policies and non-invasive mitigation processes that have been put into place over the past year. Keeping this in mind could prevent a communications crisis, one that could stem from negative social media buzz about your organization, among other things.
No one likes to be forced to do anything, and if they have personal, health or even religious concerns over an invasive medical treatment, forcing them to take it or face a penalty can cause a level of resentment and distrust that will last long after the current pandemic has passed.
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Also published on Medium.