There is a lot of conversation surrounding how and when to return people to the workplace as the numbers related to COVID continue to decline across the nation. Employers have been left to look for answers to many open questions. Masks or no masks? Do we require vaccinations? Do we treat the vaccinated to a different standard than those who are not? Some of the recommendations and suggestions have seemed quite reasonable. Some, but not all.

press release on our site from the National Safety Council (NSC) a few days ago suggested that one of the things employers could support are “peer-to-peer vaccination promotion efforts.” An article yesterday by Nancy Grover covering a “Town Hall on Navigating Safer Workplace Returns” tells us that the NSC expanded on that concept, encouraging employers to “foster peer-to-peer communication, or peer-led conversations at worksites.” NSC CEO Lorraine Martin offered, “Remove trust barriers by supporting peer-led sharing and conversations, engaging in an authentic conversation with those who have not yet received vaccinations with a focus on listening, acknowledging viewpoints and concerns, and leveraging positive stories. It’s a proven method for encouraging vaccination rates.”

I’m not sure, but I think we used to call this “workplace bullying.”

Is this really a topic we want to encourage the workforce to have? Authentic conversations with those who have not yet received vaccinations? Aside from obvious HIPAA issues, are we certain that the workforce on the factory floor will maintain the nuanced composure required when discussing people’s personal health concerns? 

This concern was addressed during the town hall. Courtney Jones, SVP Client Experience, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Weber Shandwick, said, “If we think about separating our workforce for those who are vaccinated and those who are not to me that is the opposite of creating an inclusive environment of belonging because, quite honestly, we do not know an individual’s decision as to why they choose to not get vaccinated … we don’t want people to feel shamed if they return and are not vaccinated. We want to think about everyone and not just those who are vaccinated and excited because we don’t know what leads people to the decisions they make. So be conscious of encouraging people to do what is right but also considering that we don’t know what drives those decisions.”

The key word in Ms. Jones’s comment was “shamed.” We don’t want people to feel “shamed.” And unfortunately, that is a destination where some of these suggested peer-to-peer conversations could end up. Many of those not vaccinated have already felt the tension – even though statistics say they are still in the majority (CDC reports that 45% of Americans are now fully vaccinated). They have been greeted by shock and disdain, accompanied with demanded explanations as to why they have not pursued a vaccination. It can be an awkward conversation that at times may involve sensitive health-related reasons. And the answer “none of your damn business” is not accepted with general aplomb.  

Emotions surrounding the topic of Covid have been running high. These conversations are going to occur. As an employer, do you want to be seen sanctioning that discussion? If you do foster and encourage that discussion, does that expose you to potential liability under workers’ compensation if an employee “feels forced” to be vaccinated as a result and ends up with a negative reaction? Would you want to own that situation?

Other NSC suggestions were more helpful and include providing paid time off for workers to receive and recover from any side effects of the vaccine and offering to help with scheduling a vaccine appointment and transportation to and from the location. But using your workforce for “engaging in an authentic conversation with those who have not yet received vaccinations” has potential harassment allegations written all over it. Even the best of intentions could end up being construed as intimidation and harassment.

Non-vaccinated workers are not second-class citizens. Using peer pressure in the workplace has the absolute potential to treat them as if they are, and bullying the weak has never been a successful method for positive outcomes.  

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