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How to deal with employees who are anti-vaxxers

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
Most ethical leaders are guided by the utilitarian mantra of the greatest good for the greatest number. We’ve seen this especially in the current COVID-19 crisis, where this principle has been used to drive a range of liberty-limiting policies from lockdowns to the wearing of masks in public to curb the spread of the infection – and now, increasingly, to implement vaccine passports for those who have been vaccinated.

Good business leaders are no different. They also work off the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number: for their staff when it comes to workplace safety; for their shareholders and stakeholders by ensuring the greatest return, and for their clients and customers by producing the greatest value.

No one in South Africa can be forced to have a vaccine. They have the right to refuse based on religious, constitutional or medical reasons. But businesses also have the right to only allow vaccinated people in the workplace. Almost every business has had to either shutter or dramatically change how they operate over the last 18 months. Now they have to evolve again. As the government looks to boost vaccination rates, businesses and universities are faced with another conundrum: should it be compulsory for their staff or students to be vaccinated? Some have already taken the plunge and announced that as of the beginning of next year all who come to work or to study will have to be vaccinated.

Those who can are looking to adopt a hybrid approach, allowing people whose jobs allow them to work from home to do so - and remain unvaccinated - but then forego the right to ever come into the office. But there are some whose jobs are predicated on being physically at work; in factories working with machines, in retail working with the public. An increasing number of companies are saying their staff don’t have the right to be at work and remain unvaccinated. In that case, they will try to accommodate the unvaccinated to work from home but if this is not manageable then there is only one logical outcome: separation on the grounds of incapacity.

For business leaders, particularly those who pride themselves on being progressive and compassionate, this is a difficult nettle to grasp. They are literally excluding staff on the basis of personal choice, when the Bill of Human Rights forbids discrimination, especially in this case against belief, expression and movement. But all rights are weighed against other rights: No person may harm another through the expression of their individual rights. Which is why, for example, there are legal constraints on smoking at work and public places. And we accept mandatory yellow fever vaccinations if we wish to enter certain countries.

Coming into a situation, which the World Health Organisation has now declared a pandemic, being deliberately unvaccinated when there are vaccines that are freely available is an act that may harm everyone else in the workplace. Many people don’t like the discomfort, or even a sense of indignity, of wearing a mask, but we wear them (a) because it’s illegal to be in public without one and (b) to protect others from ourselves. And the irony has become that the vaccinated now wear masks mostly to protect the unvaccinated.

For business leaders, it is about managing risk – and protecting the interests of everyone involved in the business. It’s like swimming off the Durban beach. There’s always a risk of shark attacks, but that risk is lessened dramatically because of the presence of shark nets. The risk of attack is further lessened during the day and when the sea is clear. Conversely, the risk is higher at river mouths and in poor visibility. What this means is that it’s important that you choose where and when you swim – if you want to meaningfully lessen your chances of being attacked.

Do shark nets give you 100% protection from shark attacks, no. It’s the same with vaccines. You’re not immune, just very much less likely to get infected by the virus. If you’re one of the few who do, your chances of having to be hospitalised, put into a medical coma and intubated are much reduced, and your chances of dying are reduced by 90%. Unvaccinated people are dying from COVID-19. The excess deaths in South Africa that have been recorded since the start of lockdown are close to 250 000 indicating a toll far above the official figures. The question we should be asking is how many people died after receiving the vaccine? The answer will be statistically insignificant compared to those dying without it.

The virus is mutating, it is what viruses do. We’re dealing with the Delta variant, but it won’t be too long before we are racing through the Greek alphabet onto Mu, Pi and then up to Sigma and Tau. Even if we ever achieve community immunity for one variant, we won’t necessarily be wholly protected against the next which means that vaccination is our own chance of providing the greatest protection to the greatest number, even if we have to start having booster shots every year.

There is no scientific doubt whatsoever that vaccines work: the successful eradication of polio and smallpox prove this. What makes the beliefs of the anti-vaxxers in particular, and the vaccine-hesitant in general, difficult to engage with is their reliance on false science and muddled arguments. While some concerns about new vaccinations may be legitimate, the strident anti-vax movement is not premised on science at all, but rather existential or identity angst. Their arguments and abhorrence of the COVID-19 vaccine are predicated on fear fed by traumas and prejudices. It’s a sociological antipathy not medical.

The anti-vax lobby is particularly vocal, amplified in the echo chambers of social media. How do you as a manager or the CEO engage with staff who are vaccine-hesitant? The easiest approach, but the worst, is to meet them head on with moralising, anger and bombast. Instead, it’s vital to understand the source of their fear because that will inform the best way of addressing it.

Just like revenge is a dish best served cold, so too is successful change management something that is best done by keeping emotion out of the equation. Managers need to encourage the vaccine hesitant to become vaccine evangelists, not inadvertently convert them into fervent anti-vaxxers. Their fear needs to be treated with empathy, but not equivocation. On the contrary, this is a time for resolute and unequivocal action.

We have to get back to the work, to stay employed and to create new jobs for those who have none. And we need to do it safely. Vaccination is the very best way to do that. Making it compulsory to be vaccinated for people to come to work is not about being cold and uncaring. it is the greatest act of compassion and care for your staff, because it ensures the greatest good for the greatest number.

If we are at the beach and we see someone getting into trouble in the sea we have a moral obligation to act. If we can swim, we should jump in and save them, if not, at the very least we can call for help and be part of a human chain to pull that person back to safety. Why should COVID-19 be any different?

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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