How to disagree about Covid vaccination and manage other difficult university staff discussions

Jonathan Lord outlines the role of empathy and listening skills in navigating potential conflict when colleagues disagree about sensitive issues such as vaccination

Jonathan Lord's avatar
University of Salford
15 Mar 2022
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Group of protesters illustrating article about vaccine hesitancy, difficult conversations, empathy, listening

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Mandatory vaccines in the UK are not a new concept, with proof of immunisation dating back to the 1700s. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the profile of mandatory vaccinations and the resistance to them by a small but vocal minority who consider them unacceptable intrusions on rights.

Surveys such as those in the British Medical Journal have demonstrated a greater “vaccine hesitancy”, with the notion a legitimate viewpoint within the higher education sector. Characterised by uncertainty and ambivalence about vaccination, this can be aligned to the lack of effective health messaging as well as employers’ reluctance to adopt a “no jab, no job” policy for staff.

To inform its policies throughout the pandemic, the sector has relied heavily on guidance from government health experts, who have also been anxious about mandatory vaccinations given the concern that such policies might diminish trust in medical authorities over the longer term. The tension between obligation, which can increase hostility, and voluntary vaccination, which can increase transmission, has contributed towards the sector’s disparate approach to managing risk and has resulted in the creation of a two-tier workforce of those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

Handling the vaccine conundrum

Employers, by law, have a “duty of care” for staff, customers and anyone else who visits the workplace, which requires them to do all that they reasonably can to protect the health, safety and well-being of people at work by consulting with staff on any decisions that involve health and safety, completing risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to prevent harm.

UK government policy forcing staff to have the Covid-19 vaccination has switched from being mandatory to a voluntary approach. However, the employment tribunal case Alette v Scarsdale Grange Nursing Home found that contractual vaccination requirements were a reasonable request and that a staff member could be dismissed fairly if they did not comply with the request.

Therefore, it can be considered a reasonable management instruction for all employees to be fully vaccinated, with a failure to follow this instruction deemed an act of gross misconduct. This seems harsh when some employees have genuine concerns about or deep distrust in the vaccine and its safety.

This is where the difficult conversations will have to be held and those responsible for staff will have to provide clear guidance and expectations, as well as highlighting the ramifications of not following the institution’s policies.

Managing the difficult discussions and a two-tier workforce

This leads to the challenges that managers are facing and will have to face in the near future. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) surveyed managers to ask their views around vaccination, and the pressures on management to handle the vaccination conundrum were their biggest concern. Most managers in the survey agreed that it was their role to encourage staff to receive the Covid-19 vaccine even though they were concerned about managing the potential conflict between staff who refuse the vaccine and those who feel unsafe working with those who have refused, confirming the manifestation of two-tier workforces.

Covid-19 vaccine conversations can often be frustrating as well as hurtful. It is possible to discuss the topic without things devolving into an unproductive stand-off or a shouting match. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has provided guidance on how to manage the vaccination issue in the workplace by stating that employers should encourage staff to have the vaccine through adopting a vaccination policy as well as undertaking individual risk assessments. Ways of encouragement involve running awareness campaigns, drawing on updated NHS information, using initiatives such as the NHS Covid Behaviour Change Unit, and helping to present a more powerful and persuasive case for vaccination and boosters. Employers can also offer incentives to vaccination as well as regular lateral flow testing.

Basing their approach on legal obligations, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which obliges employers to take reasonable steps to reduce any workplace risks, can therefore provide a clear rationale for universities’ handling of the vaccination conundrum while enabling them to offer their own staff and students risk assessments to establish what is in the best interest of all stakeholders.

How to begin a difficult conversation

Before starting the difficult conversations, think about the following:

1. Be prepared

Before starting the difficult conversation, prepare yourself. Think about why you are having the conversation and what the end goal is. Trying to modify someone’s behaviour may put them on the defensive, therefore make sure that the conversation is not about being the one who is in the right but rather focus more on understanding and how everyone can achieve the overall goal.

2. Listen more, talk less

To have a solid argument, you have to listen so that an appropriate response is provided, ensuring that those involved have a clear understanding of why you are having the conversation and why they are being asked to undertake something they do not necessarily agree with.

From the start of the conversation, listen carefully to how they feel about the vaccine and the worries they have about the short- as well as the long-term affects. Ask appropriate questions to find out what they have heard about the vaccine or if they have had any experiences with vaccines or medicine that might contribute to the way they are feeling about it. This demonstrates empathy and acknowledges how the other person feels. It also allows you to understand their concerns, moving the conversation on to how they can overcome them.

3. Be open and vulnerable

If you are willing to share how you came to your own decision, as well as to outline your reservations or worries, this can influence someone else’s behaviour dramatically. It demonstrates empathy, which is a key skill in cooperation.

4. Agree to disagree

Accept that people have different opinions based on their own ideals; this can allow you to move the conversation on to discussing boundaries if one person has the vaccine and another does not. It is important to remember that disagreement does not always mean failure and that simply having those conversations is a step in the right direction towards having more respectful conversations with each other.

5. Try to find a bridge

Where there is an opportunity for two polarised points of view to emerge, seek common ground. There is always a grey area in a black-and-white point of view; establishing where and what this is can help establish a closer working relationship.

6. Choose the right time

Do not stumble into an important conversation inadvertently. It might seem peculiar to book an appointment to talk to someone you know well, but it can provide an opportunity to prepare for the conversation so both perspectives are clearly outlined.

The UK government has realised that having a one-size-fits-all policy cannot work and is advising institutions to follow sector and regulatory guidelines, ensuring that everyone is safe, particularly on campus. To manage this issue, managers need to ensure that everyone is aware of organisational policy and approach, and that staff are offered consistent, accessible and factual safety data so that they can make an informed decision as well as understand the ramifications of their choices.

Jonathan Lord is a senior lecturer in human resource management at Salford Business School at the University of Salford.

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