During the height of the pandemic, businesses looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance when formulating and communicating employee policies to protect them from COVID-19.
But now, as the government agency makes its first move to ease rules amid declining new virus case counts and rising vaccination rates, how much should employers look to follow its lead?
That is a question being asked by corporate comms functions, after the CDC relaxed rules for outdoor mask-wearing this week.
It says those fully vaccinated, which assumes the two-week process for the vaccine to sink in after the second shot, or first shot in Johnson & Johnson's case, can partake in outdoor activities such as walking, running or biking without having to wear a mask. They can also meet outdoors with small groups of other people, sans face covering, so long as everyone is fully vaccinated.
President Joe Biden hailed this as a sign that the pandemic's end is in sight for Americans.
"Get the shot," he told reporters on the grounds of the White House on April 27. "And once you're fully vaccinated, you can go without a mask when you're outside and away from big crowds."
Will businesses follow his and the federal government's lead? Gary Ross, president of consulting firm Inside Comms, says it has become best practice for companies to pass along CDC guidelines, where applicable to their workforce. In this case of easing a restriction, it could be to invite vaccinated employees to walk or meet with others on the corporate campus without masks.
Companies should take cues from the CDC as other restrictions are eased, he adds.
"In practice, businesses can explain any new policy based on CDC guidance and then link to CDC resources online," says Ross. "It seems like the CDC welcomes this approach, because they've been producing PDFs and one-pagers that are easily printable and easy to post online."
"Businesses should continue to cast the CDC as the experts," he adds. "It's more credible if businesses make policy based on CDC guidelines, because they're seen as following the experts instead of making rash or uneducated decisions."
Vickie Fite, SVP of corporate reputation at MSL, agrees that staffers want to hear from their employers about public health guidance.
"Employers should recognize that their workforce looks to them for timely and easily accessible updates on CDC guidelines and particularly, how they impact the work environment," she says. "As guidance changes, a best practice is to quickly review the information through strategic filters so the communication is comprehensive and thoughtful."
Ultimately, businesses have to own the decision, and make sure it speaks to, and is communicated in such a way of, putting the best interests of their entire staff at heart.
Padilla, for instance, has been advising clients to make CDC guidelines "the minimum standard [of protection]," says agency president Matt Kucharski.
He explains the guidelines "are important because they provide companies with a common frame of reference." In other words, when employees at Company A are talking to employees at Company B and employees at Company C, there is consistency in the message to the public.
However, he stresses they should be the "minimum standard." This is because anxious workforces are looking for their employers to take a leadership role in protecting both their physical and emotional well-being, not the government.
"You have to keep in mind that a lot of this comms and workplace policy is not just about logic but also emotion. In the U.S., trust in government has been in decline and trust in the healthcare sector is extremely low among underrepresented populations," explains Kucharski. "So for an employer to just point to the CDC guidelines and say, 'We're following CDC guidelines, therefore you're OK,' is simply not going to fly with some audiences."
"As companies establish protocols based on CDC guidelines, the likelihood is that they will need to go above and beyond the minimum standard," adds Kucharski.
As a hypothetical example, he says a company could decide to maintain a requirement that all workers wear a mask or face covering indoors, even if the CDC were to relax this restriction in small-group indoor settings among people who have been vaccinated.
When considering a new CDC recommendation, Chowning Aguilera, healthcare practice lead at Jackson Spalding, says companies sometimes forget to take the mindset of their employees into account. So as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic, she says companies have to understand not everyone is going to have the same appetite for the loosening of restrictions, no matter what the CDC advises is safe.
Aguilera contends employers should take the pulse of their staff, through polls, surveys and other outreach, when developing both policies that might be born out of CDC guidelines, and in the language used to communicate those policies.
"Depending on the questions you ask, you could find out how important employees feel it is to have mask-wearing even in private spaces at work, or if they believe not only if they will follow guidelines but their colleagues," says Aguilera. "It is about understanding where the perception gaps and concerns are."
She also stresses that policies should be inclusive and do not inadvertently create divisiveness between those who appear to have been vaccinated and those who haven't.
"Everyone is really at a different stage when it comes to getting to 'Yes' for a vaccine, if at all, and there are so many different layers of complexity about how someone perceives it, from an underlying health condition to religious reasons or decades upon decades of systematic racism within healthcare," says Aguilera. "But then you have people who are adamant that everyone be fully vaccinated."
While some workplaces, like health systems, are mandating employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, she says companies have to be careful and sensitive about following that kind of path.
"You have to think about the cultural implications of mandating something like that," she says.