Regardless of the Supreme Court’s vaccine mandate ruling, employers should implement communications best practices to build on employee trust.
Now that the Supreme Court has blocked the federal vaccine mandate for large companies and President Biden’s administration has withdrawn the OSHA rule in all but healthcare settings, what should organizations do? In many ways, whether you were in favor of it or not, if the rule had been allowed to stand, it would have provided much needed clarity and direction to businesses and their employees. Some organizations have already announced changes to their own COVID-related mandates that were communicated only weeks earlier, while others continue to implement their own plans regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision. Uncertainty and a patchwork approach – often city by city and company by company – remain to be navigated and create potential advantages and disadvantages for them from a recruiting and retention standpoint.
What hasn’t changed is the need to focus on, commit to, and utilize direct and transparent communications with your employees. Employers broadly continue to be among the most trusted sources of information. By leaning into this role and establishing open channels of communication, employers can further cement their relationship with employees. To build on that trust and effectively communicate with employees, an organization should concentrate on several key best practices:
- Position Your Organization as a Trusted Source of Information for Employees: While there remain more questions than answers, it is important to let employees know what’s ahead, where they can go for additional information and how your organization is approaching implementing any requirements. As Omicron continues to recede, and as vaccinations become authorized for the last ineligible group (young children), don’t just focus on mandates – be sure you are looking further ahead to what a potential return-to-office looks like and how you might alter your approach if/as COVID becomes endemic. This can help build trust with employees and diminish some negative consequences related to uncertainty and lack of information. And, if you haven’t done so already, establish a framework and predictable cadence for employee communication and future updates.
- Share Internally Before Externally: Don’t lose the trust you’ve built with employees by blindsiding them with a change in company policy(-ies) they learn about from an external source before hearing it directly. Instead, maintain a focus on communicating with employees early and transparently before you consider sharing an announcement externally. In a hyper competitive hiring market, showing your employees they are your top priority in both words and actions can help deepen their connection and minimize the risk of premature departures.
- Stick to the High Road: The tensions between employees who do not feel safe being around unvaccinated individuals, and those employees who do not want to be subject to any mandate that goes against their beliefs, remain. People are frustrated and feel like there is no “right” answer. Organizations must lead with empathy, focus on the health and safety of all employees, and acknowledge that there are legitimate disagreements. Work to lower the temperature by targeting those areas of agreement – recognize that the decisions are difficult, stress that there is a shared goal, and everyone is tired of masking and wants to move on to focus on the future.
- Continue to Listen/Engage: Demonstrate a genuine interest in listening to employee concerns and looking for ways to address those you can. With or without a vaccine rule in place at your organization, you will still have a significant segment of your employees who are uncomfortable and may be questioning the motives of their colleagues. Addressing this requires direct engagement by leaders in a consistent and coordinated effort to maintain open, trusted lines of communication. As part of that, organizations need to remain flexible, and should be clear with employees that policies are likely to change as new information and guidance is available. Pre-signaling this possibility can help make an ongoing lack of clarity a little less uncertain.
With Omicron hopefully retreating and the pandemic becoming more and more manageable, communicating around this topic may not be long-term. However, as this has been arguably the largest and most complex issue facing organizations across the country and the globe, how your organization handles communications now will be remembered by your employees, along with other important stakeholders. Building trust and reputation can help set the tone and expectations for communications surrounding future issues of importance to your organization.
Andrew Moyer is an EVP and General Manager of Reputation Partners, and serves as one of the firm’s top client PR and crisis counselors. Moyer joined RP after five years at Edelman where he was Senior Vice President, Crisis & Risk Management and Public Affairs Lead for the Chicago office. Moyer works with clients on strategic communications, thought leadership and executive positioning, proactive and reactive crisis and issues preparedness and reputation management programs. Moyer’s work spans a variety of local, national and global clients, across a wide range of sectors, with expertise ranging from employee and internal communications, front-end crisis preparedness, campaign development and management to corporate positioning, stakeholder communications and executive training. Andrew can be contacted at: email@example.com.