Workplace vaccine hesitancy: 3 techniques to navigate it

The boss says: “Vaccination is now mandatory, you must get vaccinated.”

The employee says: “I refuse to get vaccinated.”

Where do we go from here?


In my work I’m starting to see conflict around Covid-19 vaccination in workplaces, particularly in the healthcare sector. Now that the government has announced mandatory vaccination for aged care workers, it will become more and more important for managers and employers to know how to navigate vaccine hesitancy among their staff.

While the legislation makes the outcome non-negotiable, the path and the context are all-important. Some employees may come to the decision that their belief is more important than their role and move on (although the evidence from overseas so far suggests this will be a small number). For those who make the pragmatic decision to get vaccinated despite their beliefs, how do we help them be comfortable with that, and avoid lingering resentment and the feeling of having been wronged or bullied?

The skills we need are the skills we always need to foster a workplace environment of psychological safety: respect for diversity, empathy and true listening.


1. Be curious, empathetic and respectful

This is a highly divisive time and an emotive issue. It can be a challenge for all of us to understand the alternative view. If there was ever a time for leaders to step up and create an environment of empathy and respect, it’s now. There will be employees struggling to accept that their self-determination has been taken away from them – it’s important that we recognise that and help them find comfort.

For me, the best affirmation to use as a guide is: “Be curious”. Put judgement aside and lean into the conversation to better understand.

I think of this as a diversity issue. It’s a time when peoples’ diverse lived experience comes to the fore. People’s attitudes and beliefs are based on what they have lived – their health history and that of those close to them for example, or how they have experienced Covid-19 so far. In a workplace, we don’t always have this background, and listening curiously and with empathy can help us understand and respect a stance which initially strikes us as unreasonable.  

Leaders must model this behaviour for the good of workplace health during this time – and beyond. We need to build people’s resilience to be comfortable with difference, no matter the situation. This is an opportunity to articulate what desirable, productive tension looks like – something to be embraced as it fosters the diversity of thought that contributes to innovation, creativity and solutions.


2. Open a dialogue and really listen

Often leaders are concerned that hot-topic conversations may create disharmony and distraction, undermining productivity. But to get through this tricky period, we need workplace leaders to open a dialogue and allow constructive conversations of difference to emerge.

Especially with such an emotive issue, it’s imperative to make space for an intentional, authentic and decluttered exchange. Showing respect for a diversity of thought means allowing those views to be aired. Be prepared to be challenged, be prepared to be uncomfortable, to sit with that and reach out from that space.  

For anti-vaccination employees being required to vaccinate to keep their jobs – they’re right, their self-determination has been taken away from them. We must name it – and then we must help them negotiate that dilemma. Allowing people to speak openly about it is the first step.


3. Be aware of unconscious bias and find gentle ways to persuade

One of the opportunities leaders have is to provide employees who may be ambivalent and uncertain with the facts, gently and respectfully.

This interesting article reminds us of the role that unconscious bias plays in forming our opinions. In this case, ‘safety bias’ means that bad is stronger than good. So, 5 deaths linked to a vaccine is stronger than 6 million problem-free vaccinations. The author suggests that leaders come up with ‘sticky’, meme-like prompts to help shift that bias. For example, “In the last 6 months, 70 times more people have died falling out of bed than getting vaccinated.” That’s a US example, but there are plenty of others. Using gentle and non-confrontational persuasion may help reluctant employees who need to find comfort with their decision.

There’s no one easy solution, and many more work communities will find themselves in this place as mandatory vaccination comes into force, and maybe spreads to other types of workplaces. It needs a holistic approach that connects to both the rational and the emotional.

But these are workplace skills that we need for all the time, not just during a pandemic. Whether it be mandatory vaccinations or personal conflict, curiosity, empathy and listening are the magic formula for all challenges of difference. Now is the best possible time to put them into practice.

If you’d like to have an initial discussion about conflict resolution or other workplace behavioural issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I can be contacted by email at, on LinkedIn at or by phone on 0413 145 925.

I will be forever indebted to the person who recommended DK Sonin & Associates to me… Debbie just did not write a report and leave. She worked with the organisation at all levels to bring the recommendations alive.
Andrea O'Neill, General Manager, Berrigan & District Aged Care Association
Debbie displays a wonderful balance between achieving positive and timely solutions and encouraging a supportive and inviting process built on mutual responsibility, accountability, and open transference for change.
Nick Koletsis, Principal Consultant - Workplace Relations, Fire Rescue Victoria
Deb’s insightful coaching increased my confidence, enhanced my performance and provided a fresh perspective to support my growth.
Michael Schoen, Parks Victoria
Debbie is approachable, professional and practical. She provides consistent quality support and is a great sounding board. Dealing with Debbie is like an extension of our own organisation. She understands the business and moulds her style around us.
Brant Doyle, Manager Organisational Development, Moira Shire Council
Deb Sonin is an acknowledged expert in workplace conflict resolution and has extensive experience advising on discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying. Deb’s professional background makes her an obvious choice to assist with difficult cultural and interpersonal issues in the workplace.
Michael Gorton AM, Principal, Russell Kennedy Lawyers
With her clinical and human resources background, Debbie offers a unique value proposition for businesses that want to implement change… Debbie always goes above and beyond for her clients and thinks deeply about providing solutions that will work for all parties.
Catherine Brooks, Practice Leader, Moores
Debbie is an astute observer, facilitator and communicator. She is a highly skilled mediator and excels in coaching team leaders to effectively manage and improve team dynamics, behaviours and interactions.
Leigh Rhode, Chief Executive Officer, Gateway Health
I highly recommend Debbie as an expert in conducting strength-based workplace cultural reviews.
Jenny Salkeld, Executive Director of Nursing, Colac Area Health
Debbie is warm, friendly and helpful and always makes challenges manageable.
Kurt Porflit, Managing Director, Busch Australia
Debbie is sensitive, engaging, warm… She is able to see the challenges and opportunities and find solutions in quick and practical way.
Greg Embleton, CEO, Byte
Deb's professional, warm and sincere approach is evident in her engagement with individuals and management alike through difficult and sensitive matters, with her ability to gain respect from all parties that facilitates successful outcomes.
Linda South, General Manager, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital
I recommend Debbie Sonin to any employer who wants to provide their staff with opportunities to turn workplace behaviours around, improve their teamwork or learn new ways of interacting with others.
Robyn Shilton, Executive Officer, Community West Inc
Debbie has always demonstrated an appreciation of the industrial and personal impacts of her work, and has achieved results beyond what might have been expected given the complexity of the matter.
Estelle Fyffe, CEO, annecto
Deb Sonin's breadth of experience across change management, industrial relations and conflict resolution is evident in her unique ability to address complex and intractable issues to synthesise the complexity into workable, tangible, successful results.
Linda South, General Manager, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital
Debbie is highly skilled and engaging, making interactions professional and fun. Personally, Debbie is great to work with and is always able to have a chat about a situation that might arise outside of the regular engagements.
Sue Rolland, General Manager, Deakin University Student Association
Debbie provides a sense of calmness and direction during difficult situations to help me remain in control. The experience and knowledge that Debbie brings is incredibly useful and helps me to get the most out of the team I work with.
Liz Moore CPA, Practice Manager, Bluebird Accounting
Debbie is an extremely talented and resourceful practitioner, demonstrating a deep and extensive understanding, knowledge and expertise in mediation, coaching and facilitation. Whenever I need support from an external provider in facilitating a conversation, I engage Debbie.
Brant Doyle, Manager Organisational Development, Moira Shire Council
Debbie operated with integrity, sensitivity and empathy for all within our team and encouraged staff to find their voice in sharing their experiences of the dynamics of the workplace.
Peter Nancarrow, Chairperson of the Board, Jacaranda Village
I have a high level of trust in Debbie’s ability to read the dynamics of a work environment and to co-design and implement respectful and thoughtful approaches to solving problems and improving team functioning.
Leigh Rhode, Chief Executive Officer, Gateway Health
Copyright © 2020 DK Sonin & Associates Pty Ltd | Privacy | Terms