For those returning to in-person work, whether or not you got vaccinated for COVID-19 is an inevitable water cooler conversation.
In the United States, about half of the population is fully vaccinated. Major companies from Facebook to Goldman Sachs have mandated that employees get vaccinated before returning to work. Other businesses are encouraging people to get vaccinated, but not enforcing it — leaving room for grey area and misunderstandings.
Vaccination remains a hot-button and politicized issue for many Americans, which can make inquiring about someone’s inoculation awkward, particularly in the workplace. “It’s a hard conversation,” says Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But we have to normalize it.”
Knowing who is and isn’t vaccinated for COVID-19 isn’t nosey — it’s necessary for your safety. “We have to remember that this is not an individual problem, this is something that we face as a population, as a community as a workplace, as a school and as a family,” Althoff says.
Entering a space where there is a mix of vaccinated and potentially unvaccinated people comes with risks, even for those who are vaccinated. Here are five conversation-starters that may help you open the door to talking about vaccination in the workplace:
‘I’m vaccinated. I’m going to continue masking because I’m not sure about other people.’
Bluntly asking a coworker for their vaccination status can create tension. Althoff suggests leading with your own vaccination status, and explaining what other measures you’re going to take to stay safe, like wearing a mask or maintaining social distance.
“If you’ve chosen vaccination, you have probably done a lot of thinking and considering for yourself why that was the right choice,” she says. “Sharing that information and your experience with others, and helping others to make that choice, is something that is important to do as well.”
That said, if someone declines disclosing their vaccination status or expresses that they’re uncomfortable doing so, it’s best to back off, says Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health, who studies why people get vaccines. His advice: Consider your long-term relationship to the person and your workplace culture before potentially wading into debate territory.
“It’s unfortunate that when other people are not vaccinated, they do put your health at risk and others,” Brewer says. “Yelling at them is not going to help you, and it’s not going to help them.”
‘We’re sitting close here in our shared office. Do you mind if I ask if you’re vaccinated or not?’
It’s particularly natural to inquire about your work environment’s safety if you share an office with another person. Brewer recommends expressing that you’re concerned about your proximity to other people, since the risk of COVID-19 transmission is significantly higher in indoor settings.
If someone doesn’t want to share their vaccination record, you should behave as though that person is unvaccinated, Althoff advises. That could mean wearing a mask anywhere in the office or physically moving elsewhere to maintain social distance, since vaccinated people can still get infected with — and transmit — COVID-19's delta variant.
“People who go into work should carefully evaluate their own personal safety,” Brewer says.
‘I know vaccination is really personal. It’s something I want other people know about me, which is why I’m asking.’
If someone balks or gets angry that you’ve asked about their vaccination status, try to stay positive and warm, Brewer says. “If things are getting heated, most important thing to do is to find a point of agreement with the person,” he says. “The angrier they are, the more you have to agree.”
That doesn’t mean you have to compromise your morals or lie to diffuse the situation. Rather, find some common ground so you can have a healthy and productive discussion. For example, most people probably agree that COVID-19 vaccinations are important and personal decisions — regardless of which side of the fence they’re on.
Indeed, acknowledging the decision’s personal nature can help show that you understand how strongly the other person feels about it. It’s a better conversation starter than a more aggressive approach, Brewer says: “If you’re coming in really pissed off and starting to ask people questions with a chip on your shoulder, they’re going to feel it and they’re not going to like it.”
You can then thank the other person for being candid and expressing how they feel, even if you don’t agree with their decision, so they feel heard instead of dismissed. Althoff notes that people’s attitudes are often more easily swayed by one-on-one conversations than broad advice from public health professionals. And since your first conversation with someone might not be your last, you could open the door to helping change their mind down the road.
‘I have young kids at home who can’t be vaccinated, and I’m really worried about them.’
Some people may have very specific reasons for getting vaccinated, Brewer says. For example, you may want to help protect the people in your life who are ineligible to be vaccinated — like children under age 12 — or have medical conditions that make them immunocompromised.
While you may not be comfortable sharing your family’s personal health history with your whole company, try sharing one or two of your own reasons when asking about a coworker’s vaccination status, Brewer says. For example, you could say: “My father had a kidney transplant and is immunocompromised, so the vaccines are less effective for him. Because I spend so much time with him, I feel extra responsible — especially given all these recent breakthrough cases.”
‘Is the company considering a vaccine mandate?’
Ultimately, companies can avoid these uncomfortable conversations by setting rules and mandates and clearly communicating them to employees.
“Consider talking to your employer to establish what the norms are in your company,” Brewer says. “It would be particularly helpful if this information is collected by the employer rather than by individuals trying to guess.”
Before bringing employees back to the office, companies should send out surveys to determine how many people are vaccinated, and make their stance on vaccine mandates clear. Organizations then need to actually heed that input from employees at every level of experience, tenure, gender, race, ethnicity and age when making these decisions, Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, told CNBC Make It in July.
From a legal standpoint, employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, so long as they provide reasonable accommodations for people with medical conditions or religious convictions that prevent them from getting vaccinated. Not following your company’s protocol can have consequences beyond endangering coworkers; three staffers at CNN were fired on Thursday for coming to work unvaccinated.
This story first appeared on CNBC.com.