HR Indaba Conversation tackles the vaccination debate

Panellists discussed how to approach vaccination in the workplace, with patience, understanding, and some prodding.

A highly engaging and informative Conversation was hosted by chairperson of the audit and risk committee at Libstar Holdings, Anneke Andrews, and featured panellists Dieter Veldsman, HR thought leader at Academy to Innovate HR, Dr Penny Mkalipe, chief medical officer at Eskom, and Zenobia Mothilal, corporate HR manager at JD Group.

The interactive Conversation was enabled in partnership with Mercer. Senior associate Kyle Black introduced the session with a short presentation on the vaccination debate, and how employers can engage employees without polarising the workforce.

Kyle highlighted that organisations in developing countries like South Africa have an opportunity to partner with government to play an active role in accelerating vaccination efforts. The key is to maintain ethical approaches that don’t infringe on human rights.

To address this issue, organisations need to show they truly care through a human-led approach.

To put employee wellbeing first in the context of Covid-19, employers must consider factors such as the support employees will receive (do they use existing sick days for vaccine side-effects, for example), prioritising health education by having reliable and up-to-date information about Covid-19, defining the critical workforce (companies can organise the workforce in groups of priority when it comes to receiving vaccinations), making sure that everyone has equal access to vaccinations (does everyone have transport to get to a vaccination site?), and privacy (whether an employee is vaccinated or not should be personal information).

The value of vaccines
Vaccination has become a highly divisive topic, but the panellists provided spot-on insights, practical suggestions, and experience-led advice.

For Penny, to talk about anti-vaxxers versus those who are pro-vaccination is too simplistic. Rather, people are on a spectrum instead of in two opposing groups. “There are those who are unvaccinated, but some of them are truly unsure and they need more information,” said Penny.

“Within this group, there are those who are continuing to research, mostly through Google, but they’re not yet convinced. Then you have people who do want to vaccinate, but they’re really fearful of side-effects, or needles.”

Penny added that social media has played a big part in causing divisions, particularly by driving distrust and conspiracy theories. And, we must remember that the virus is still relatively new to us, as viruses go.

“In South Africa, we also had stop-start issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine that lowered confidence, breakthrough infections among the vaccinated do happen, and there have been poor communication strategies,” said Penny.

“We have to acknowledge that there’s still a lot we don’t know. But it’s crucial that our messages make people see the value of vaccines; we need to remind everyone that we enjoy our longevity because many childhood illnesses were prevented by vaccines.”

“Ultimately, we all want the same things: we want to achieve population immunity and protect vulnerable people. We want to prevent hospitalisation and death; we want to protect livelihoods,” she said.

Dieter highlighted important considerations for HR leaders to take into account, such as the governance and regulatory environment, and the practical implications of having a vaccination policy.

“It’s been a rollercoaster, and we didn’t enter on the same footing. We have come to this with different worldviews, and we need to understand where the fear comes from, because the fear is real. As HR leaders we must engage in that conversation; it’s difficult and uncomfortable, but if we don’t, we’ll cause more harm.”

Dieter added that with the rise of employee wellbeing and human-centricity in organisations, in the next two to three years, everything will come down to trust – is your organisation building it, or breaking it down? And how organisations handle vaccinations will play a big part in this.


For Zenobia, we are all united as we want the deaths to stop, and we all want to move forward. “There are opposing views and as HR leaders we’ll give input, but not everyone will agree,” said Zenobia. “But education and respect are essential. We need to create awareness, not pressure, and we must celebrate those who have been vaccinated, but not vilify those who haven’t.”

Empathy is costly, and context is key
While patience and understanding has its place, Penny made a crucial point. When organisations are considering mandatory vaccinations, they must ensure that everyone understands the risk that Covid-19 has had on business operations.

“At Eskom, we are essential services, and if all of us are not at work, there would be a big problem,” said Penny. “We needed buy-in to vaccinate from employees, so that we could move together to protect lives and livelihoods.”

“Patience is needed, as we’re not all at the same point with how we view vaccinations. But organisations must find ways to move people towards public good,” added Penny.

“We can continue to be empathetic, but the choice is costly. Eskom has lost 169 people to Covid-19: half of those were critical staff with skills and it’s had a major impact. At some point, employees will have to understand that an employer must take a stance.”

Dieter shared that, because he’s based in the Netherlands, the conversation about Covid-19 is quite different, which makes context important. “We make blanket statements about how well some countries have coped – some of these countries only have four million people, and more resources. How do we find a solution and narrative that works for South Africa? That’s a key question to ask.”

“In The Netherlands, you must show your digital vaccination card on an app to enter a restaurant, or you must show rapid test results on the spot. In my company, I wear a white band: this means I’m comfortable for you to approach me; an orange band means I’m not that comfortable and you should keep your distance, or put on mask if you engage with me. We can’t use a uniform template; we have to consider our context and realities.”

We have rights, and responsibilities
Penny pointed out that mandatory doesn’t mean forced, and if someone can’t vaccinate, then they will have to provide evidence for their reasons. There are processes in place, and reasonable accommodation is one of them, but it must be understood that choices have an impact on employee contracts.

“It’s very important to remember that, as much as we all have rights, we also have a responsibility to others, and the value of vaccination towards public good is the main thing to focus on,” added Penny. “We yearn for normality, but it depends on how we encourage others to vaccinate. We know that vaccinations save lives.”

In the chat


Val Littlewood, independent business development consultant: “In keeping with a timely article written by Holly Ellyatt for CNBC, office politics raises its questioning head once again. Tensions appear to be emerging along new lines: those who are vaccinated against Covid-19, and those who are not. Again – those who wear masks and use hand sanitiser and those who just refuse. This article refers to an engineering company where a group of unvaccinated staff have formed an ad-hoc group called ‘Vexcluded’.”

Joyce Osborne, Tsogo Sun: “It’s such a grey area; we need to get back to work properly, especially in the hospitality sector, and I hope more people get vaccinated. I’m holding on for that!”

Gizelle McIntyre, Nemtek Group: “We built the vaccination-encouragement process into a subtle competition with a ‘COVID CHAMPS’ of the week photoshoot and a badge (provided after proof of vaccination). We are now nationally at a 75 percent vaccination level! We have a lot of millennials who were hesitant, but everyone wants a badge now. There are some people who will never do it and we respect that, but it’s worked exceptionally well. We also started with the directors and exco, so the top structure helped with this, too.”

Zarina Moorad, independent executive leadership coach: “I currently have Covid-19. I was booked to get vaxxed, but I got Covid-19 the day before. It’s not pleasant, and I only have mild symptoms. One should vaccinate and take care of oneself, and the people around you.”