Three simple steps for managers to get vaccine mandates right

·5 min read

In the United States’ ongoing quest to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, President Joe Biden has turned his attention to a new arena: the workplace. While the White House has issued what appears to be a sweeping mandate, it is individual company leaders and managers who now must shoulder the burden of explaining and implementing those tough demands on its employees.

Businesses of 100 or more people have a new requirement: mandate vaccines or set up rigorous weekly testing of non-compliers. This is the minimum requirement as companies can still impose stricter mandates that require all employees to be vaccinated, which is exactly what United Airlines, Disney World, CVS, and Goldman Sachs did. Given managers are often advised to avoid speaking to employees about their medical history, this is new territory for many.

At its most basic level, leadership is about making and executing tough decisions. There’s little margin for error because a poorly decided or implemented policy can lead employees to head for the exits, which is a particularly compelling concern as companies face the Great Resignation. To get this right, chief executives, senior leaders, and managers need to set fair policies that they can comfortably explain and defend.

It turns out that even the most complicated issues—from aircraft emergencies to thorny policy issues— are amenable to systematic decision-making. I designed and teach a version of systematic decision-making involving three simple steps: values, perspectives, and execution (VPE).

The first step is to lead with values. When leaders and companies clearly identify and articulate their values, decision-making becomes straightforward and efficient. Values offer an effective way to prioritize potential options, which leads to creative solutions and ethical choices. For example, Zoom used its value “deliver happiness” to make fast-paced decisions as their business was transformed during the pandemic. For vaccine decision-making, companies can explain that their decision-making will be driven by employee safety, which will likely lead to strict vaccination requirements. Alternatively, they can articulate the desire to find the right balance between employee safety and personal choice, which would likely lead to a hybrid vaccination-testing model.

A simple, transparent, and consistent system

After bringing clarity to values, company leaders need to gather perspectives, getting the viewpoints of all relevant stakeholders. Listening to employee perspectives is critical for increased engagement and creative insights. People are much more likely to accept decisions, even ones that go against their interests, when they feel their voice has been heard and considered. When considering a vaccine mandate, leaders need to consider the concerns, desires, and values of their many stakeholders. For example, many employees will wonder how exemption requests will be handled and how a potential testing system will work.

The third step is execution: making and implementing the decision. The key is to create a simple, transparent system that is consistently applied. To do so, the implementation system needs to be built on those values and perspectives. Let’s go back to the exemption issue. How should this be implemented? Should HR managers make these decisions themselves or should they be outsourced? In a situation like this, outside benefit firms likely have the necessary experience to determine a clear, transparent, and well-managed exemption policy while also taking the burden off company employees.

The hidden key to execution is communication. Leaders need to articulate how both the decision and its implication are consistent with and driven by company values and stakeholder perspectives. Effective communication involves repetition, and lots of it. Leaders will need to explain any new system, not once, but many times and across several platforms. Employees will need to hear and get exposed to even simple systems over and over before they digest and internalize the path forward.

An effectively executed high-stakes decision does not end the process. Leaders still need to watch and listen. As the decision and its contingencies get implemented, it’s important to watch out for unforeseen circumstances and unintended/perverse consequences. Every system needs a protocol to adapt and refine it. One such future decision already on the horizon is whether booster shots should be mandated, and data could emerge that some groups need boosters more than others. Here, again, communication will be critical. If the system does get changed to accommodate unforeseen circumstances, leaders need to explain the circumstance, how the system could not fully incorporate it, and the subsequent changes that have been made. And just as they did with the initial system, they need to do so through the prism of values and perspectives.

By following this decision-making structure—values, perspectives, and execution (VPE)—even the thorniest of decisions will become more straightforward to resolve, easier to implement, and simpler to communicate.

Using systematic decision-making around the vaccine mandate will also pay long-term dividends. Instituting systematic decision-making today will be like an institutional vaccine: it will inoculate your firm against poor decisions down the road.

Adam Galinsky is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. He is the co-author of the best-selling book Friend & Foe.

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