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One profound difficulty for inclusive leaders is making and communicating policy decisions around vaccinations, masking and return-to-office practices.
I heartily recommend that you bring a mindset filled with kindness and generosity to work. Recognize that sorting out pandemic issues with your employees and customers is an opportunity to live out your company’s values and help people feel as if they belong.
For more than a year, we’ve been told stories from the skirmish lines, where folks disagree, based on their views of fundamental issues such as personal and public health, the influence of science and an individual’s right to make a living and to not be coerced by institutions.
This decision-making season for leaders is heavy with stress, risk and the temptation to tell people what to do because we have the power to do so. Again, consider kindness and generosity as touchstones. People from all sides will be more likely to follow your lead.
Here’s how kindness and generosity could manifest, as you decide and communicate about vaccination, masking and returning to the workplace.
Show you care and take the time to listen to your people.
HQ employees in a highly vaccinated urban area will likely express different concerns than your people in a rural distribution or call center. Listening to build trust is a core skill for inclusive leaders. Accountability is due here: Make sure you keep listening to how your decisions are impacting your people and stay responsive. Pay close attention to the science of Covid-19, and what our public health officials at every level are saying. Prioritize critical thinking.
Make these decisions well.
The leadership team should make decisions together and ground these decisions in the firm’s values. Don’t decide just to get it over with, and don’t ignore what you are hearing from your employees and customers. If the spirit in the decision-making process is, “Well, our people resisting vaccination just have to get with the program here,” then it’s time to ask about the relationship between kindness and compulsion.
Calculate the financial trade-offs.
Mandatory vaccination and/or testing will carry costs for your business. It might be less expensive and better for productivity and retention to pay for weekly employee testing. For example: $25 a week for testing 100 employees for 13 weeks (=$32.5K) is likely to cost much less than replacing even a handful of staff members who might leave rather than comply.
If you decide to require vaccination (with a medical exemption), explain why.
Out of your concern for the health of your employees and customers, acknowledge the difficult position some of your employees may be put in and be clear about their options. Equip managers to work with these staff members.
Employees, unvaccinated for whatever reason, should wear masks.
Have free masks readily available. Once again, ground mask use in the values of the firm and your commitment to people’s health. Explore the challenges that masking can bring, like seeing less of a person’s facial expression and receiving fewer visual cues. Be practical about what it’s like to work in a masked environment. Listen for how the mask mandate is working and stay responsive.
Return-to-office decisions require more rounds of listening, deciding and communicating.
Human beings are meant to be together. We have evolved as social beings, and we gravitate to our tribes. I guarantee you: As we come out of the pandemic, the core human reality to be together will come roaring to the forefront. Some workplaces have stayed open and struggled along with pandemic pressures. Some offices have folks returning in fits and starts. And some work settings are still months away from a newly constituted approach to in-person work: Perhaps the unvaccinated are tested weekly, the vaccinated monthly and indoor gatherings are limited to 10, socially distanced. Whatever the context you are deciding about, to lead inclusively means that you are asking: What do kindness, generosity and equity look like for people right now?
Think carefully about how you communicate your decisions and the decisions themselves.
Ensure that all employees hear the message: Everyone is expected to behave with the company’s values in mind. Since some people will be masked — at a minimum, those unable to receive the vaccine due to medical reasons — this means that no one wearing a mask will be excluded or mistreated in any way. Craft this language with your legal counsel and refine the words you use in the communication plan, so it resonates the first time out.
Center your vax, mask and return-to-office decisions as matters of inclusion and belonging in your culture. People will choose to follow you, stay with you and buy from you, when they see the kind and generous ethos you bring to your leadership work.
We can earn new levels of employee and customer loyalty even as we struggle to make inclusive decisions during the pandemic. To help that happen, deploy kindness and generosity. The payback will be substantial and surprising. It won’t be easy, but it will be good.