Wharton’s Iwan Barankay talks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about how companies can encourage employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

As the effort to immunize Americans against COVID-19 begins, companies are debating whether to make the new vaccine mandatory for employees. But Wharton management professor Iwan Barankay thinks there’s a better way to achieve compliance.

He said easing access and applying a bit of social pressure will encourage more employees to get their shots.

“Companies have to worry about two things. One is about the health and the productivity of their employees. The other dimension is about their image in the broader population and on social media,” he said. “What should companies really do? I think what is quite clear is that companies should remove all the barriers that could be there for employees to get access to vaccinations.”

Barankay, who is also a professor of business economics and public policy, joined the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM to talk about the dilemma faced by companies. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) Firms understand their important role helping quell the deadly pandemic that has already killed 300,000 Americans, and they have an obvious interest in keeping their workers healthy.

Employers are permitted by law to impose a flu vaccine on their workforce, although employees have the right to request a medical or religious exemption, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And most legal experts agree that private businesses have extensive rights allowing them to require vaccinations as a condition of employment.

“I think what is quite clear is that companies should remove all the barriers that could be there for employees to get access to vaccinations.” –Iwan Barankay

Businesses can embark on a public health campaign to raise awareness about the COVID-19 vaccine. But past research has shown that those kinds of messages don’t penetrate, especially when the anti-science, anti-vaccine sentiment is running high.

“We have very little evidence that information really makes a big difference,” Barankay said. “When you look at the people who are really opposed to vaccinations, they come up with some crazy arguments about why this is not a good idea…. The idea that, if we would give them some evidence from randomized controlled trials, then they would see the light— that’s just not happening.”

Applying Pressure

What does work is social influence and peer pressure, Barankay said. Companies should choose employees from diverse demographic backgrounds who are willing to get the vaccine and serve as role models to co-workers through testimonials, conversations, photos and other kinds of communications. Companies ought to layer that with gentle reminders for employees to schedule their shots. An email with messaging such as, “Hey, I see it’s time for your vaccine. Seventy percent of your colleagues have taken it. Why don’t you?” works much better than a threat or a mandate.

“The beauty about the social aspect of this intervention is that you get around the whole information problem,” Barankay said.

He added that it’s imperative for businesses to help their employees find the necessary time to be vaccinated. Larger companies may have the ability to offer on-site vaccines as the distribution process becomes more efficient; however, companies regardless of size should make getting vaccinated part of the work day. Taking time off, using sick time or creating additional barriers will disincentivize workers.

Barankay also emphasized that offering financial incentives, such as paying workers a bonus to get vaccinated, doesn’t work. He recalled conducting a decade of government-funded clinical trials in which participants were offered a payment for medication adherence. It turned out that money wasn’t key to encouraging healthy behaviors.

“Throwing money at the problem by paying people bonuses if they get the vaccine — that’s a waste of money because it will not really change their behavior,” he said. “What will change their behavior is social influence and role models.”

He noted that current federal guidelines are different for frontline health care workers, who are among the first in line to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, the directives for other professions are evolving. Some industries that have shifted to remote work during the pandemic may decide to continue that policy, rather than mandate vaccines, until the pandemic subsides. Barankay said research so far hasn’t found that working from home is detrimental to performance or productivity, although more data is needed.

“Whether it will help or hurt them in their career, that’s still up for debate,” he said.