How to Talk with Employees about Vaccine Hesitancy

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Tips to help employers have a productive conversation about a sensitive topic.

As the vaccine rollout continues, every forward-thinking employer is concerned about one thing: What do I do about employees who are hesitant about getting vaccinated?”

This is a powder keg of a subject because you have business concerns and safety conflicting with people’s right to privacy and their right to make their own health decisions. I didn’t write this piece to get into that debate.  Emotions run high but there are basic business truths that employers will be faced with. For example, you may need full compliance to get into a safe working office or you may have clients who require that your employees are vaccinated or it may even be a point of difference in the marketplace at some point.  Getting people vaccinated will, for many be vital to moving their business forward.

30% Say They Will Wait or Not Get Vaccinated

In recent surveys, 3o% of those surveyed said they will wait or refuse a vaccine altogether while 7% say they will get vaccinated if it is required. This is actually better than earlier this year, but still can be problematic. One employer we work with told me the management committee met to determine their vaccine policies. A member of management said she would not be vaccinated.  This debate is going on across the country.  If you’re having these conversations, here are tips that will help:

“Should” “Have to” and “Must” Shut Down the Conversation

Whenever people promote healthy behavior, the first approach they try is to tell their audience they “should” do something. It’s tempting (and usually factually correct) but it never, never, NEVER works with an audience that is resistant to a behavior. In fact, several studies show that using resistant persuasion often makes people dig deeper into their existing beliefs.

They will do the opposite of what you tell them they “should” do. And giving them more information without first winning their trust won’t work. It’s a loop that we can all fall into that looks like this:

The reason people don’t want a vaccine – lack of trust

The reason they lack trust – lack of knowledge

The reason they aren’t open to knowledge –  lack of trust

Any new behavior often brings high perceived barriers and low perceived value. We also live in an era where many don’t trust our institutions (government, companies who developed vaccines, or even the federal health officials). Information alone does not penetrate that barrier.

How Do You Appeal To People Who Don’t Want to Hear What You Have to Say?

1 – Listen

People are scared and uncertain even though they might not admit it. The worst thing we can do is be dismissive of this fear. When people feel heard and understood, they trust more. And lack of trust is the primary barrier. If you haven’t already, it’s a good time to start the conversation with your employees and hear what they say. Don’t dismiss people who are hesitant or immediately bombard them with information that counters their concerns. First understand where they are coming from, their deeper concerns. We interviewed one woman who said she would not get vaccinated because she was only 30 and a mother, and she feared the long-term effects. She linked her vaccine hesitancy to her role as a mother.

These are the types of insights that will help define your narrative later on.

2 – Appeal to Their Internal Stories

Our internal stories make up our identity. These are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the example above, the woman we interviewed thought “I’m not getting the vaccine because I am a good mother.” That’s a competency identity. We’ve heard people use the same identity and make the opposite argument “I got vaccinated because I want to stay healthy for my family.”

Another common example of a competency identity is when someone engages in a behavior that makes them feel “smarter.” Your message will need to attach to something that might supplant the influence of that part of people’s identity such as a value-based message or an even stronger competency-based message.

There are several tactics that have worked for us over the years. Finding the right one involves always doing #1 on this list.

3 – Give Them Control

Do you know why people (especially men) don’t wear masks? Because wearing one (to them) means they are vulnerable or even weak. The pandemic has taken control away from our own lives and refusing to wear a mask is the last bit of control they feel. Many will not get a vaccine for the same reasons. So, change the narrative. Make getting vaccinated a way to gain more control of their lives and their own mental health, for example.

4 – Earn Trust

Keep communicating with your employees, and be sure your information comes from reliable, objective health sources. With so much misinformation flowing, you have the opportunity to fill the gap and be the de facto source.

This goes beyond mass emails. It requires training your managers to be ready for questions and concerns. These interpersonal encounters are often used by employees to measure the sincerity of the corporate message.

5 – Remove Barriers

Anything you can do to make getting the vaccine easier will help with compliance. Give employees paid time to get vaccinated and be sure to recognize those who do. If, in the future, employers are allowed, I would recommend scheduling vaccination events either at the workplace or even creating some sort of vaccination caravan to make it a community event.

6 – Show Them What They Gain

More than 90 studies have shown that telling people what they gain by changing their behavior is far more successful than imposing fear tactics (get it or else) type messaging. Getting vaccinated enables people to move more freely, it makes them part of a solution, it creates a sense of security that’s been missing, it means they run less of a risk of infecting someone they love; there are lots of ways to share the story that demonstrates how getting vaccinated would enhance their lives.

7 – Normalize It

As more and more people get vaccinated, it will become normal. That alone will help open the door to communications. Before any of us engages in any new behavior we ask ourselves, unconsciously,  three questions. Without three “yes” answers, we’re not changing. The questions:

  • Can I do this?
  • If I do this will it make a difference?
  • Do people like me do this?

Keep these in mind as you create your communications plan, and make sure you are always working toward the three yes answers from your employees’ internal stories. You can tackle the first two questions with the messaging and creative you develop. You can earn trust by providing accurate information and creating interpersonal outreach that employees can depend on. For the third, you can create programs that celebrate employees who engage in the behavior. Look for program ambassadors and provide communications tools that empower your employees to become spokespeople.

What Kinds of Tools Can You Provide Your Employees?

Companies and organizations have a wide array of tools they use. The most important step is (as noted) listening. The second is creating a message that connects.  That, of course, has to be consistent with your brand and culture. If you need help with messaging, we offer a free consultation with top-level recommendations, no charge. You can reach me at [email protected].

About the Writer:

Rudy Fernandez specializes in compelling creative that is based on the science of human behavior. He helps clients with brand launches and any communication that strives to change the way people think, feel and act.  Check us his work at