A Surprising Gap in Firms’ Vax Rates

Some companies boast 90% rates—but some competitors have half that. Does the carrot or stick work?

Companies have poured millions of dollars and ample C-suite brainpower throughout 2021 toward trying to win the day. And it turns out some are—and some aren’t.

In this case, the effort surrounds convincing employees to receive COVID-19 vaccination shots. Despite a federal government plan to require them in most workplaces, nearly four in 10 Americans still haven’t received at least one dose. Organizations know that employee safety and public health issues aside, the more employees who are vaccinated, the more workers can return to the workplace more safely. And yet, even among companies within the same or similar industry, the rates vary widely.

Tyson Foods, for instance, happily announced its vaccination rate is over 90%. Meanwhile, there are other firms with similar labor pools that are well under 50%. Best practices are beginning to emerge. “Cash is king,” says Radhika Papandreou, Korn Ferry’s sector leader for travel, hospitality, and leisure, who has seen success in her industry with small cash bonuses for shot recipients. “It’s a carrot, not a stick.”

Most businesses enjoyed a bittersweet vaccination boost from the coronavirus’s otherwise devastating delta variant. Employee vaccination rates rose, coinciding with rising community cases, allowing company health experts to present the vaccine as a here-and-now way to protect self, family, and community and to keep the business going, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice.

Not surprisingly, large bonuses also work well. At one firm, where the average salary is $50,000, vaccinated employees received bonuses of approximately $2,500. “They ended up with over 90% vaccinated, and the 10% that didn’t show up are no longer employed by the company,” says Kaplan.

Information campaigns have also proven successful, particularly in small groups or one-on-one. These efforts are often helmed by chief medical officers, a role that has emerged at non-healthcare organizations during the pandemic. “Some of the smarter companies have spent a lot of time educating,” Kaplan says. “It comes down to providing meaningful information as a resource to employees, and it does work.” Tyson, for example, ran numerous small group information sessions with opportunities for workers to speak one-on-one with experts—and the firm continues to allow employees one-on-one discussions with the chief medical officer to address concerns. Some companies have hired retired experts from the US Food and Drug Administration to have them talk to workers about the approval process, says Kaplan.

Duke University behavioral economist and psychologist Dan Ariely suggests that companies can boost shot numbers by subtly making vaccination the default. This is best done by scheduling vaccination appointments for all and then allowing people to opt out. “The same technique is used with 401(k)s, and it works,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion specialist. He says that this would not be a change in policy for companies that have already said vaccination will be required. “The decision to mandate has already been made.”

In the hotel and leisure business, a winning strategy has been making vaccination enjoyable. “Some are trying to make it fun,” says Papandreou. “They’re doing a jab and a tequila shot—though logistically speaking, it’s easier to just give money.” These efforts are carried out on site, often by hired nurses, to remove as much friction from the process as possible, she says. Though these strategies are not silver bullets, they’re much more successful than expecting resistant employees to go to a pharmacy on their own time. “We’re seeing an uptick from it for sure.”

A strategy that is not working is the “it’s your choice” approach. Executives at one company with a fieldworker vaccination rate below 25% is “scared to death of half their business closing down if they enforce a vaccine mandate,” says Tom Wrobleski, coleader of supply chain talent optimization at Korn Ferry. Rather than pushing vaccinations, this and other firms are preaching the gospel of choice, telling employees that though they do encourage vaccination, employees can do what they want to do—while executives purchase rapid COVID-19 tests by the tens of thousands to remain in adherence with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s soon-expected guidelines.