Why Business Leaders Need to Mandate the Covid-19 Vaccine – Harvard Business Review

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To bring the pandemic under control, almost everyone needs to come to see getting vaccinated as the unquestioned, right thing to do for themselves and for others. What business leaders decide about Covid-19 vaccine mandates will go a long way toward fostering the social norms that can either mitigate or exacerbate this pandemic. When a company mandates Covid-19 vaccinations, the normative information they provide is that these vaccinations are safe and effective and that getting vaccinated is widely accepted and done. As more companies mandate vaccines, over time this becomes the shared understanding, and getting vaccinated becomes the default choice for employees and customers. Conversely, when companies don’t mandate vaccination, it delegitimizes the Covid-19 vaccines by suggesting that the science is unsettled and that waiting to get vaccinated is prudent. By establishing and diffusing social norms that uphold science, company vaccine mandates can help get the pandemic under control.

Now that the FDA has fully approved Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine and President Biden has urged companies to require vaccination, many leaders will grapple with what to do. In making their decisions, there’s a larger societal calculation they should consider: the role their organization can play in either normalizing or delegitimizing getting vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy is a growing social problem. In 2019, the WHO declared it a top-10 threat to global health, with clear economic implications. In response to this rising threat, what business leaders decide about Covid-19 vaccine mandates will go a long way toward fostering the social norms that can either mitigate or exacerbate this pandemic.

This power that leaders have is missing from the debate about vaccine mandates. Both proponents and opponents seem stuck on the legalistic view that mandates compel people to get vaccinated. But this ignores the potent symbolic value that mandates provide, especially in times of intense societal flux.

We face a novel disease, and we’re armed with a new vaccine created using a novel approach. With Covid-19 surging around the world and new variants emerging, we also face unprecedented uncertainty. This combination of novelty and uncertainty means that societal understandings of what we are or should be doing are up for grabs. Therefore, the faster we firmly establish social norms that uphold public health (e.g., getting vaccinated), the faster they become taken-for-granted ways to behave, and the faster we bring the pandemic under control.

Here’s how company vaccine mandates can play a forceful norm-setting role in this social process.

The social problem we face is what social scientists call social mobilization. Social mobilization involves getting large numbers of people to perform a behavior that is only beneficial when done by the vast majority of people. Recycling is a quintessential example. If just one person recycles, their efforts are negligible. But if millions of people recycle, there are tremendous environmental benefits. The same logic holds for vaccination — the real benefit occurs only when the overwhelming majority of the population is vaccinated. To address a range of social problems, the task is to get a significant number of people to engage in certain behaviors.

Research shows that social norms play a critical role in social mobilization. This is because social norms contain “normative information” about what people are or ought to be doing. When people see certain behaviors (e.g., getting vaccinated) as commonplace, they then believe there is widespread agreement that the behavior is the good or right thing to do and are more likely to act in accordance with the social norm.

And here’s where mandates come in.

Mandates and laws not only have a legal function (“you are required to do X”) but also a symbolic function (signaling that “doing X is a natural thing to do”). What keeps most of us from committing crimes is not constantly thinking about the rules and the punishments we may suffer for breaking them. Rather, we automatically do things that feel normal. Take seatbelts as an example. Most of us wear them not because we’re afraid of being punished for violating the law, but because doing so has become “natural.” As sociological research has documented, laws and regulations help create social norms and shared understanding because it’s societal institutions — governments, schools, and businesses — that collectively construct the world we take for granted. In essence, through their policies, approaches, and procedures, social institutions help create a world where certain things become unquestioned.

When a company mandates Covid-19 vaccinations, the normative information they provide is that these vaccinations are safe and effective and that getting vaccinated is widely accepted and done. As more companies mandate vaccines, over time this becomes the shared understanding, and getting vaccinated becomes the default choice for employees and customers.

Conversely, when companies don’t mandate vaccination, it delegitimizes the Covid-19 vaccines by suggesting that the science is unsettled and that waiting to get vaccinated is prudent. When companies like Southwest and American Airlines do not mandate vaccination, it signals an institutional lack of confidence in the vaccines. In turn, this stance fuels vaccine hesitancy among the 30% of unvaccinated adults in the U.S., thereby preventing the social mobilization needed to bring the pandemic under control. With their stance on vaccination, these companies become part of the problem.

Some leaders may be hesitant to enter the fray on vaccination, viewing it as a political issue. Yet companies have long led on important social issues, collectively constructing social norms through their policies and actions. For example, the early adoption of domestic partner benefits by corporations helped to normalize gay marriage. More recently, companies have taken stances on climate change and opposing voter suppression efforts in Georgia. In doing so, these company stances reinforce and uphold important norms like protecting the environment and supporting human rights. Indeed, the notion of “apolitical” management is a myth that has been widely discredited. The truth is that the politicization of our time requires leaders to take stances because failing to do so will allow anti-science and anti-democratic efforts to spread.

To bring the pandemic under control, almost everyone needs to come to see getting vaccinated as the unquestioned, right thing to do for themselves and for others. By establishing and diffusing social norms that uphold science, company vaccine mandates can help do just that.