Guided Insights

Laura hasn’t gotten much sleep ever since she announced that all employees returning to the office next month must show proof of vaccination.

A CEO of a mid-sized environmental engineering services firm, Laura had spent days vetting this decision with her corporate counsel, ensuring that such a mandate was legal. (It is, according to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.) Many other local companies had issued the same policy, but none had received the kind of blowback Laura was getting from a small but vocal minority of employees, who are insisting that this is “tyranny, pure and simple.” The vast majority of employees, however, are fully vaccinated and have expressed relief that they won’t have to wear masks in the office to stay safe. A few of them say that if their unvaccinated co-workers are allowed to “free-roam” inside the building, they must insist on working from home.

Good talent is getting increasingly hard to find, so Laura is not eager to lose a single employee over a vaccine mandate. She wants to resolve this conflict in a way that feels like a win-win to everyone, but since the conversations must take place remotely, the challenge feels especially overwhelming.

Laura turns to Glen, a colleague from another company who specializes in dispute resolution. Here are some steps he suggests that Laura take, with the help of an external facilitator. These steps can be used for almost any kind of disagreement, whether the conversations take place in person, remotely, or a combination of ways.

Joining me in writing this edition is Steve Gardiner, President of Gardiner Associates, a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations get to “yes.”

Use the “Win-Win Principles” from the Federal Mediation and Reconciliation Service

  • Focus on issues, not personalities. Attack the problem, not the people. In this case, the main issue is how best to keep everyone safe while working together in one location.
  • Focus on interests, not positions. Positions are the opening demands someone makes. Interests are the “why” behind the demands, which reflects their desires, concerns and fears. In this case, those who are against showing proof of vaccination may have concerns about its safety or may feel that their freedom is being threatened. Those who support it may feel that this is the only way all workers can have some assurance of staying safe, without having the burden of everyone having to wear masks inside the building.
  • Create options that satisfy both mutual and separate interests. Mutual interests are shared goals that both sides have. In this case, both sides want to be able to return to the office safely with the ability to move freely.
  • Evaluate options with standards, not power. For example, Laura might use guidelines from the CDC, EEOC and/or the National Institutes of Health, and may also research what other local organizations are doing, rather than simply issuing a dictum.

Use face-to-face discussions whenever possible. Avoid using email, phone or any kind of remote communications to resolve differences. However, given the topic, a remote conversation was the only viable option. The use of video is important to keep people engaged and focused.

Engage a neutral facilitator to guide the groups in this conversation, which should include members of the leadership team and representative employees who resist such a mandate. (For a suggested meeting structure and agenda, download this PDF file.)

  • Start the conversation by getting buy-in for the “Win-Win Principles”
  • Ask both groups to identify mutual interests, which may include a healthy workplace, desire not to get or spread COVID, a wish for colleagues to work together in one place, a a yearning to return to some semblance of “normal”
  • Set up two breakout groups, where each will identify what they believe to be the interests of the other group
  • Bring everyone back together to share their perspectives. Here, each group has a chance to clarify, correct or add other interests of theirs that may have been missed.

In this case, the lists of interests from the two groups might look like this:

Unvaccinated Group’s Perception of Management Interests

  • Protect all employees
  • Prevent division between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees
  • Want everyone to return to the office
  • Maintain high productivity
  • Resume the successful teamwork that existed pre-pandemic
  • Don’t want to humiliate or anger the unvaccinated
  • Desire to retain current workforce, with no resignations over this policy

Management’s Perceptions of the Unvaccinated Group’s Interests

  • Fear the vaccine will put them at risk
  • Want freedom to choose whether or not to be vaccinated
  • Want to return to office and work alongside their colleagues
  • Don’t want to lose pay if they get sick from the vaccine
  • Don’t want to be ostracized or looked down upon by others
  • Don’t want to be treated differently

Ask the large group to jointly create shared options that might satisfy both sets of interests, using available standards from a variety of sources, such as the CDC, state government guidelines, state healthy agency guidelines, local business association guidelines and the EEOC.

These shared options might include:

  1. Those who have no proof of vaccination will wear masks inside and remain socially distanced, as per current CDC guidelines
  2. Unvaccinated employees must have negative COVID test results within 72 hours of returning to the office each week.
  3. Those who have no proof of vaccination may go without masks as long as they use a separate entrance and work in a separate area

Determine in advance whether these representative groups will vote in the moment, strive for consensus or otherwise weigh in regarding what most see as most palatable option, and state what criteria will be used. Make sure to set expectations appropriately prior to and throughout this meeting.

Clearly communicate who will make the final decision and when it will be announced. Set expectations early and often; leave no room for ambiguity.

Summary

Collaborating to create a win-win solution takes a lot of planning, including setting clear expectations up front. Collaborating to address a disagreement almost always results in better outcomes and healthier relationships than some of the other most popular tactics for handling disagreements, like avoidance (agreeing to disagree), accommodation (simply letting the other side win), compromise (which can give neither party what it wants), or competition (seen as a zero/sum game). To get started, bring both parties to the table, gain agreement to go by the four “Win-Win” principles, and identify shared interests. You’re on your way.

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