By Chip Cutter 

Corporate executives are playing a new role in the pandemic: vaccine cheerleader.

Across industries, business leaders are turning to all-hands staff meetings, video memos and other workplace forums to address skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccine and encourage employees to get it when they can.

Food-services and facilities-management company Sodexo is asking managers to listen for signs of vaccine hesitancy among staff and launching a social-media campaign to encourage employees to get the shots. Benchmark Senior Living LLC, an operator of assisted-living facilities, is blasting "myth-buster" emails to its workforce and turning on-site vaccination clinics into mini parties, complete with cake and games, to lend a celebratory air. Technology company VMware Inc., meanwhile, is discussing bringing in doctors to answer staff questions about the vaccine in virtual company meetings.

Many companies have taken on a stepped-up role in disseminating public-health information to employees during the pandemic. It is unusual terrain for bosses, but surveys have found that people often view their employers as more credible sources of information than government, social media or media outlets.

Getting a critical mass of employees vaccinated is crucial to reopening offices and returning workplaces to a semblance of normal, executives say. Yet overcoming vaccine skepticism could prove tough. A recent Siena College Research Institute survey of New York state residents found more than a quarter said they don't plan to get the shot.

"How do you cancel all of that horrible, negative messaging that seems to infect social media these days?" says Simon Scrivens, a senior vice president at Sodexo who chairs the company's medical advisory council. "We've got a responsibility as a large employer."

Sodexo, whose roughly 420,000 employees include staff who operate cafeterias and shops in hospitals, senior-living centers, universities and other institutions, says it has asked managers to relay concerns about the vaccine so the company can get a better understanding of what worries its front-line staff. Mr. Scrivens says Sodexo's global vaccine-promotion campaign will target its own workers on platforms they frequent, which could include YouTube and WhatsApp.

The goal isn't just to issue directives to employees, Mr. Scrivens says, but to answer questions and provide guidance from the company's medical advisory panel.

"It's not big Sodexo telling you to do this. It's, 'Here's a physician who's got personal experience with this, who is suggesting this might be a really sensible thing for you to do,' " he says.

Many employers have said they won't require the vaccine, though some exceptions are emerging. United Airlines Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Scott Kirby told employees last week that the airline was considering making Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for its workers and that other companies should do the same.

Some executives say they plan to use regular company meetings to discuss issues and concerns that arise in the public vaccination rollout.

One topic that Michael Colacino, president of the New York real-estate firm SquareFoot, wants to address in coming town halls: adverse reactions. While a small number of people might have an allergic response after being vaccinated, Mr. Colacino says he wants to stress such anecdotes can be amplified on social media, distorting the risks.

"There are going to be horror stories," Mr. Colacino says. "If you tell people in advance of something that's going to happen, it just makes it so much easier than if you try to repair the damage after it's been done."

VMware CEO Patrick Gelsinger, who is leaving the company in a few weeks to become chief executive of Intel Corp., says VMware is considering bringing in medical professionals to answer employee questions about the vaccine during virtual all-hands meetings. "Taking those who are maybe concerned and helping to remove doubt: I think that's an important piece of what businesses can do," he says.

Benchmark Senior Living, based in Waltham, Mass., sends residents and employees at its nursing homes, assisted-living communities and other facilities a daily "Because..." video spotlighting staff members and residents who have gotten vaccinated and their reasons for doing so. One of its recent "myth-buster" emails to staff and residents began with the all-caps question, "Are there side effects?" and noted that most people have minimal symptoms after receiving the vaccine.

Tom Grape, Benchmark's chairman and CEO, says he was initially surprised by the hesitancy among staff members to get the shot, which the company hasn't mandated. Nursing homes world-wide have been devastated by the pandemic, presenting risks for both workers and residents. As employees see that peers got vaccinated, more are choosing to get the shot, Mr. Grape says, adding that he believes the company's education campaigns are also helping.

"There's so much misinformation floating around," he says. "People are thirsting for facts, and they're trying to sort out truth from fiction."

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 25, 2021 08:21 ET (13:21 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.