On September 9th, President Biden announced a new national plan to address the continued COVID-19 pandemic. This plan includes a requirement for private employers with 100 or more employees to have in place a vaccine mandate for employees or require weekly testing. While the details remain to be clarified in forthcoming rules from several federal agencies, and the rules are sure to be subject to court and other challenges, there are key questions companies should already be asking themselves to prepare for how they will communicate their implementation of this mandate to their stakeholders – both internal and external.
The primary focus must be on communicating to employees early and transparently before communicating any actions externally. There may be a natural inclination to “race” to announce requirement compliance before competitors, but doing so without proactively and transparently communicating how the requirement will impact internal employees will diminish trust and risk negative consequences, including possibly premature workforce departures. Currently there are more questions than answers, but employers should be establishing a cadence of communications with employees to let them know what to expect, where they can go for additional information and when they will most likely begin to see the impact of this new requirement.
During this current window of time before clarifying rules are provided companies should focus on a several areas of preparedness:
- Impact on Workforce: The last 18 months have created a challenging and competitive hiring market. Companies should take the next several weeks to conduct a rapid risk assessment to understand their current staffing situation and expected area(s) of concern as the mandate is implemented. If you are not already aware of your employee base’s perceptions around these topics a quick employee survey or representative focus group could help you determine if you may face the added challenge of employees deciding to leave instead of agreeing to get vaccinated or tested weekly.
- Closely Monitor Competitors/Peers:Know that you are not alone and take the opportunity to learn from others as every employer impacted by this figures out how to deal with the uncertainty and ultimately communicate their expectations to employees and other stakeholders. Additionally, look to any business or trade associations you are a member of to see what guidance and best practices they can provide.
- Establish an Employee Implementation Working Group: Engage your employees directly in being part of the discussions evaluating the evolving guidance and how best to implement those rules within your organizations structure and culture. Having employees be part of the process and bought in from the start will make the ongoing communications – that will likely evolve several times to match shifting guidance – better received.
Once the federal rules have been issued and you have determined how they will be implemented at your company your communications to employees should:
- Focus on Employee Health and Safety: Place your implementation decision in the context of your company’s ongoing commitment to placing employee health and safety first.
- Acknowledge Employees May Disagree: With fully a quarter of the adult population, not fully vaccinated, you need to acknowledge that that group likely has strongly held beliefs. The key is not embarrassing or humiliating them. Make it clear that you’re perfectly okay with weekly testing (once the rule goes into effect) if they choose not to be vaccinated. The key is keeping them safe, not humiliating them, and keeping them at the company.
- Include a Clear Point of Contact for Questions: What office (and ideally an individual or individuals) within your company can employees raise specific issues or questions with. This will be particularly important if there are any limited exemptions allowed in the rules that you will have to determine how to verify for those claiming them. Also, as appropriate, reference and provide answers to recurring and/or key questions received by employees to demonstrate your organization’s commitment to two-way communication with your team.
- Place Your Response in Context: Where necessary you can and should point back to the fact that this is not a decision that you take lightly, or necessarily took of your own choice. This is a mandate from the federal government and it is not optional. It will also be important to mention the intent/hope is that taking this action will allow all of us to get back to normal as soon as possible – and that it will take all of us working together to achieve this shared goal.
How a company communicates around this mandate has significant reputational and recruitment/retention implications. It also presents a real opportunity to meaningfully engage its employees by being timely in providing information and transparent in those communications where you may not have any or all the information needed at that moment to provide full clarity on an evolving topic.
Are these pending requirements causes for concern to your organization from a communications perspective? Do you feel unprepared to effectively communicate with your employees?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to either question, Reputation Partners is here to help. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic back in early 2020 we have been supporting our clients navigate their communication and reputation challenges. We remain ready and well-equipped to provide guidance, expertise and support to you now to help navigate this highly-sensitive and visible topic.