This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Research Communication Center.

With the accelerated rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, many employers now face the question: What and how should I communicate with my employees about COVID-19 vaccines?

This is not only an issue that is relevant and important for employees’ health and safety, but also an opportunity for businesses to live up to their commitment to employee wellness and a higher social purpose. Research on increasing vaccination has listed employers as one of the five key agents that drive vaccine updates along with providers, regional immunization program managers, legislators, and parents.

Further, as businesses rise as the most trusted entity for Americans, (even more trusted than government leaders, NGOs, and the media nowadays, according to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, ) it’s essentially the organization’s social responsibility to educate the workforce about COVID-19 vaccines and help to battle against vaccine hesitancy.

As someone who specializes in employee communication research and consulting, I’ve compiled four recommendations for employers regarding how to talk to employees about COVID-19 vaccination.

Educate employees about COVID-19 vaccines via transparent communication.

Transparent communication has been consistently linked to employee trust in previous research. Employees need to understand the benefits, safety, effectiveness, and importance of taking COVID-19 vaccines to make decisions.

What should organizations communicate about COVID-19 vaccine?

Think about what information employees might need. Examples include:
– Facts and myths related to COVID-19 vaccines
– Information on vaccine safety and effectiveness, including science-based benefits and potential side effects
– Information on the timeline of vaccine rollout and when/where to get vaccinated
– Organizational policies related to the COVID-19 vaccine
– Workplace safety protocols and precautions after vaccination, such as mask-wearing and social distancing within the organization

Such information needs to be made easily accessible (via websites, corporate TV, podcasts, brochures, posters, fliers, newsletters, social media, etc.) to employees in a timely manner and communicated clearly, frequently, and sufficiently. Organizations could also consider inviting local health experts to address employees’ questions and concerns related to COVID-19 vaccines and battle against mis/dis-information and conspiracy theories. 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.

Note that traditional computer-based communication may not be feasible for field or frontline workers who are walking the floor. In those cases, consider physical signage, brochures, mobile apps, texts, and managers’ interpersonal communication to get the messages across.

Engage employees via two-way symmetrical communication.

Employees should be treated as partners in the internal vaccination program.

Listening is a big part of dialogue-based and employee-centered symmetrical communication. While disseminating COVID-19 vaccine-related information is crucial to educating employees and increasing their awareness of vaccine effectiveness and importance, listening and feedback can help organizations better understand employees’ information needs regarding COVID-19 vaccines, address concerns and inquiries, and monitor changes in their vaccine attitudes or confidence, which can provide further insights for better-targeted communication and messaging.

In addition, research has associated two-way symmetrical communication that emphasizes listening, feedback, reciprocity, openness, and trust with higher employee acceptance of change initiatives. When employees feel their voices are being heard and taken seriously by their organization, they feel empowered, more involved, and are more likely to buy-in to the organization’s decisions.

Organizations and leaders could host listening sessions such as virtual town halls, or use anonymous polls or social media platforms to gather. These sessions can help leaders understand and address the unique concerns and issues of different groups, especially those who surveys show have more hesitancy about taking a vaccine.

Empathy works.

Businesses leading with humanity that emphasizes empathy, compassion, genuine care for employees’ wellbeing and sensitivity have won applause from employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. My recent study – which is currently under review – examined leaders’ use of motivating language during the pandemic. It showed that language that emphasizes care, compassion, support, and appreciation was most effective in fostering employee trust. Likewise, my other study on CEO communication during change also supported that CEOs’ communication of genuine care and the notion of “we’re in this together” engenders more support for company-wide initiatives.

When communicating about COVID-19 vaccines, organizations need to be sensitive to employees’ feelings, express genuine care for employees’ health and wellness, make “YOU” at the center, and provide information, financial, and policy support whenever possible. For instance, some companies (e.g., Dollar General, Instacart, Publix) have offered paid leave time or cash incentive bonuses to promote employee COVID-19 vaccination. When it comes to communicating care, actions speak lower than words.

Involve organizational leaders, opinion leaders, and employee advocates.

The recent Edelman Trust Barometer showed heightened expectation from the public for businesses and CEOs to lead on social issues. For example, 86% of the survey respondents expect CEOs to speak out on societal challenges, such as pandemic impact or racial inequity.

While employee COVID-19 vaccination can be deemed an internal issue, its effect on the societal level as a public health intervention cannot be discounted.

CEOs should communicate about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and related organizational policies, open up the conversation, and act as role models. Leaders at different levels, especially line managers who are messengers and trustworthy sources of information for frontline workers should be fully engaged in employee vaccine communication. The communication team can provide relevant toolkits and training to line managers to not only help disseminate key messages to frontline employees but also act as listening agents to collect feedback and address inquiries and concerns.

In addition, socialization theory suggests that employees’ attitudes and behavior could be influenced by those of their peers, such as coworkers and friends in the work setting, especially opinion leaders. Opinion leaders among employees could have a strong informal influence on the group’s norms.

To capitalize on peer influence in communicating about COVID-19 vaccinations, organizations should identify and engage opinion leaders and vaccine advocates among employees, invite and involve them as partners in the open dialogue about COVID-19 vaccines, encourage them to share first-person stories and testimony, (which were found to be more persuasive than using statistics in influencing individuals’ health decisions) and encourage them to act as ambassadors for employee vaccination efforts.  For example, organizations can invite employees to wear stickers or post vaccination selfies on social media.

Facing one of the greatest health crises in American history is ultimately a collective responsibility of individuals, groups, entities, and every sector in society to help turn the tide against the pandemic and bring our lives back to normal.  With Americans placing more trust and expectations in businesses to address societal issues including the pandemic, organizations should step up to promote COVID-19 vaccination in the workplace.

Rita Men, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at the University of Florida and former chief research editor of the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Connect with her on LinkedIn:

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my colleagues at the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, Ann Christiano and Matt Sheehan, for their input on the article.  A different version of the article was published in The Conversation.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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