To vaccinate or not? Navigating a divided workplaceby
Blaire Palmer takes a stab at the hotly contested ‘no jab, no job’ debate and advises practitioners leading fractured offices.
A question in Any Answers this month recently sparked a debate about the extent to which you can force employees to have the Covid vaccine and whether you would want to.
“A few of my clients are hoping for a full staff return to their workplaces in the coming weeks,” wrote AccountingWEB reader JW Grogan.
But some employees who at the time were not eligible for a jab have demanded to know if any returning colleagues have been vaccinated “in order to make an informed assessment of their own health and safety risk”. However, other members of staff have no intentions of getting vaccinated at all.
The AccountingWEB community was split on the topic; some argued the case for the employer having a responsibility to provide a safe working environment, while others countered with “medical freedom”.
The law on this is emerging and there is a debate about whether asking people to have the vaccine counts as reasonable management instruction and whether refusal could be enough to start disciplinary procedures against staff.
However, even if you were allowed to fire someone for refusing to have the jab, would you want to?
A divided world
We live at a time where many topics are considered too explosive to discuss at work. Research from the USA suggests that there is less ‘middle ground’ between people of different political persuasions than 30 years ago. Brexit is still a very divisive topic in the UK with many people feeling they can’t bring up the subject even amongst family members let alone at work.
And now Covid – the handling of the pandemic by governments, the rights and wrongs of lockdown restrictions, the true source of the virus and related conspiracy theories and, of course, whether the vaccine is safe or effective as a strategy to deal with the disease – presents more highly controversial topics.
As partners, practice owners and practice managers are leaders in the profession, how do we create an environment where it is safe to express different opinions while also making it a safe place to work from a health perspective?
What is your leadership style?
The first question is not so much whether to enforce vaccination or not but HOW to decide what your approach to vaccinations is going to be.
And that comes down to your style of leadership and, by extension, the culture you’re trying to create.
In a dictatorial or directive culture such decisions are made at the top and then enforced. As a leader you decide on behalf of your people what’s best for them, what’s going to work for the business and how you want people to behave. If people don’t like it they don’t have to be there.
In a collaborative culture decisions are discussed and debated. In some such cultures decision making is about getting buy-in which can mean decisions are slow and bland. However collaborative cultures don’t have to mean decisions are made by committee. An individual usually has responsibility for making the final call and that individual might be the most senior person in the room but not necessarily.
Some companies go even further culturally, creating an environment focused on outputs only. They are often very flat and self-managing. Individuals have roles with specific decision making responsibilities. They don’t need buy-in for decisions although they may seek input, opinions and expertise to understand the full picture and the implications of their decisions. In the end they decide and sit with the consequences.
So, when it comes to questions like “Should we insist our people are vaccinated?” it might help to think about what kind of culture you’re trying to create. Why would vaccination be an exception to that?
Learning to have a healthy fight
In the seminal HBR article “How to pick a good fight” authors Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer explain how Lehman Brothers had become a culture where loyalty and harmony were prized, which is why staff were reluctant to speak up when they noticed the company was heading towards a crisis.
We’ve become very sensitive to conflict at work. In trying to create a great place to work and not offend people we often shy away from tough conversations. I’d go so far as to say we’ve lost the skill. As we enter a new era of work we may have to build our skill around having healthy debates otherwise there may come a point where it’s impossible to talk about anything openly for fear of causing uproar.
Seek first to understand
Most of the time we listen in order to persuade. But when we listen to understand we commit to seeing the other person’s point of view. We assume their position makes perfect sense to them just as ours makes perfect sense to us.
Most discussions at work are about opposing views – one person thinks A and the other person thinks B. To make it safe to discuss controversial topics we need to let go of the adversarial approach and instead adopt a curious one.
Wear different hats
We also tend to take a position and stick with it. This means the opinions in the room get a good airing, but what about other perspectives not represented by the people in the room?
Adopting different hats or presenting an argument that is not your own, just as in a debating competition, can make discussion less personal. If you are an advocate of vaccinations for all try arguing persuasively that we shouldn’t be vaccinated. If you can see a lot of flaws in an idea try seeing only the positives. If you tend to see things as a member of the senior team, try seeing them as if you were a new recruit straight from college.
I’m not going to tell you whether to insist your employees, visitors to your office or clients are vaccinated or not. This is actually more fundamental. It’s about the kind of firm you are and the kind of leader you want to become.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...