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TL;DR version at the end.

I am the unofficial head of a 10 person research team staffed mostly by medical professionals and I seem to have found myself in a bit of a pickle.

After a grueling 6 month interview process, I was able to hire 2 brilliant physicians to join a research project I single-handedly launched. These two people complement each other perfectly and have produced excellent results over the past year but the last month has been a mess and I am not sure if I want to fire both, one of them or mediate.

A month ago I was able to overhear their conversation during breakfast (most of the team eats breakfast in a nearby coffee house every morning). Their topic sadly drifted to one of the most touchy subjects in today's society: vaccinations.

They're both new parents and both with pretty strong opinions on the matter. They had a pretty heated argument and left. I assumed that was that till I noticed a dip in their stats and an increase in mistakes. Mistakes that most of the time means thousand of Euros worth of funding goes down the drain. Which puts me on the spot.

I was told by colleagues that are closer to them that they also clashed on Facebook and other social media and they barely talk to each other at work. The team is pro-vaccination from some inquires I made so this person who is against them is slowly losing respect from her colleagues.

I would like to mediate and try to find a solution. I pride myself to be a good mediator but never dealt with this specific minefield in the past and especially in a work setting.

So the question is how do I deal with this?

  • Try to tread the minefield?
  • Fire the "anti-vaccer"?
  • Pass the ball to HR or administrator?

I'm also open to other options besides those three.

TL;DR: two colleagues clashing over their views on vaccination causing decline in their work and animosity between the team. As their lead, I want to try to deal with this because it's affecting me directly but how?

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice.

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    Since this got 2 close votes, could the people voting to close offer some feedback? Thanks! – Xander Apr 4 at 13:02
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    @Clay07g I believe the touchiness comes from the type of conversation it is. It's not touchy because of the lack of general consensus, it's touchy because the people who don't believe in it are very adamant; and most people who support vaccinations are usually quite adamant about the need for them. When you look at the beliefs of both sides, it's the type of issue that it's hard to sit on the fence and say "I don't care either way about vaccination". It probably doesn't help that anti-vax is conspiratorial, so having the masses try to convince you otherwise isn't productive. – JMac Apr 4 at 15:23
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    There is an important distinction to be made here: is the vaccine argument about whether or not vaccines work, or about whether they should be mandatory? The first question has a clear answer that no responsible physician should disagree with. The second does not. – DreamConspiracy Apr 4 at 18:00
  • @DreamConspiracy Even the first question may not have a clear answer, depending upon which vaccines and whether you mean "work" from an individual perspective (i.e. will giving Person X this vaccine boost Person X's immunity) or from a public health perspective (i.e. will rolling out this vaccine to as many of the population Y improve population Y's health), which are distinct questions. The efficacy of the chickenpox vaccine, when viewed from the second perspective, is the subject of continuing scientific debate and research. – Mark Amery Apr 4 at 18:43
  • @MarkAmery yes, but based on the OPs description of the situation I would think that the conversations level was one at which there is a clear answer – DreamConspiracy Apr 4 at 19:13
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You are the head (superior), to it's your duty to manage. Don't feel you're interrupting or overstepping, go ahead and mediate, manage them.

[...] dip in their stats and an increase in mistakes. Mistakes that most of the time means thousand of Euros worth of funding goes down the drain. Which puts me on the spot.

Right, so talk to them about it.

First, try inviting one of them at a time to a meeting, and mention about the problems you spotted in their work. Ask how you can help them to overcome any problems they might be facing, note down the points.

Then, repeat the same with the other colleague.

  • If they mention something that is not related to the discussion and/or opinion you are assuming, then that's good. You need to find a way for remediation those issues.

  • However, if they mention about the disagreement (which is their personal view) making an impact on their official work, well, they may be up for a session about keeping personal and professional life separate. You can then, tell them gently, but in a strong voice

    Hey, Yes, we're all allowed to have different and diverse opinions, and I respect that. However, unless those opinions are directly related to the assigned work (example: estimation of a work assignment), carrying them in the workplace is not acceptable. You know, one needs to wear their professional suit while at work. I need you to work on keeping your opinions getting into the way of your work. We really miss the quality of the work accomplished by you and we want you to be back on track, as soon as possible.

Then, allow some time for those inputs to take effect.

However, with time, if the situation does not improve, you may want to escalate that to HR and let them handle the situation. You need professionals, at the end of the day.

To re-iterate, one at a time is the key here. You certainly don't want both of them in a same meeting, to start the discussion process and then turn it into another argument.

  • one at a time is a good way to meet them open minded. Both in one room can cause in a blocked and maybe denying attitude, which corrupts your afford to deescalate. – Allerleirauh Apr 4 at 11:49
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    I would also inform HR immediately about the situation and OP's efforts to solve it, or at least document everything well. So that if the one at a time talks didn't improve the situation HR won't blame the OP for not acting fast enough. – GittingGud Apr 4 at 12:33
  • @GittingGud Sure, but based on "overheard" conversations, I would not recommend that. In case there is a concrete proof that the personal opinions are creating problem, sure, reach to HR, but talk to the first. – Sourav Ghosh Apr 4 at 12:49
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    @SouravGhosh I would inform HR about a significant decrease of work quality by two employees/colleagues and that OP is looking into it. – GittingGud Apr 4 at 13:00
  • This isn’t simply about “opinions” or “beliefs”. They both think that the other one is seriously endangering their children and the human population as a whole. – Michael Apr 4 at 17:40
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Fire the "anti-vaccer"?

This. They have no business pretending to be a medical professional.

Being an anti-vaxxer is essentially being anti-science based medicine. Which is what a medical professional who has been hired to do research is by definition employed to do. Their anti-vaccination "beliefs" directly speak to their unsuitability to carry out the position.

More than that though they are allowing their beliefs to interfere with the project - expensively.

If it was "just" the latter, and the subject were something non-medical (say they were having a heated argument about the correct sauce to put on a bacon butty) then I'd say give both a strong warning to keep it out of the office but the topic in this case makes their position untenable. You mention that the rest of the team has already started to lose their respect for the anti-vax colleague - even if they shut up about it tomorrow do you think they are going to recover that respect knowing the stance of their colleague? It's not impossible but unlikely to say the least.

As for the main other member of staff with whom the conflict has occurred - you talk about them (previously) complementing each other well, I don't see that relationship being recoverable in a month of Sundays. So realistically someone's going to have to go - and the most logical person to go is the one who brought their own professional credibility into dispute, the anti-vaxxer.

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice.

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I assumed that was that till I noticed a dip in their stats and an increase in mistakes. Mistakes that most of the time means thousand of Euros worth of funding goes down the drain. Which puts me on the spot.

Opinions about vaccinations aren't the problem here; performance is the problem.

It's not clear what authority you have as "unofficial head". Assuming you have the authority, you need to speak with each of them individually.

You need to make it clear that they need to do whatever is required to get their heads back in the game, get their stats back up to acceptable levels, and stop making these expensive mistakes.

You need to make it clear that their performance dip has consequences. And you need to be explicit about what those consequences entail (perhaps getting fired).

It's not your job to change anyone's vaccination beliefs. It's their job to either leave such beliefs at home, or at least stop them from negatively impacting their work.

Don't try to pass off your responsibility to HR. Holding team members accountable for their performance is part of your job. Do your job and focus on the real problem.

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    @Joe Strazzere best answer, only one that didn't fall for the vaccination trap. maybe add the point that fresh parents will probably suffer from sleep deprivation and this will also drop performance, "aggressive" behaviour and logical thinking. also stuff like the vaccination discussion, what to feed, which diapers to use, ... will occupy their mind and lead to worse performance. it's normal and should pass after a while. my engish is not so good, so feel free to rephrase the weird parts! :-) – Marten Apr 4 at 15:23
  • I would agree with this in theory, but not in the medical field, not when the conflict is about vaccination. That blows the anti-vaxxer's scientific credibility to bits, and they need to have that made clear to them – George M Apr 4 at 16:46
  • So yes, speak with them individually about the mistakes and performance problems. Make it clear to the anti-vaxxer that their stance is anti-scientific and jeopardizing their standing in the department, and that they need to tone it down at the very least. And make it clear to the other that no matter how well-founded their anger, they still need to focus on the work. Individual conversations, but not exactly the same. And if that doesn't work, do fire the anti-vaxxer – George M Apr 4 at 16:52
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    @GeorgeM I mean, the "medical field" is huge. I bet you'd find thousands of nurses, even doctors who have anti-science beliefs. Technically speaking, the beliefs that dietary cholesterol or artificial sweeteners are dangerous or harmful are anti-science beliefs. But why should I care if my doctor believes in that if I'm in the hospital because I have a head laceration that needs stitches? – Clay07g Apr 4 at 17:34
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I think this is something that you should ask for your HR department for advice if you feel it is necessary.

I would recommend inviting them both for a meeting.

You need to discuss with both of them how this difference of opinion in something not work-related is drifting the team and decreasing performance.

Without taking sides, you need to reiterate that even though both have an opinion and they are free to express such opinion and ideologies, that they need to make sure that this doesn't affect the workplace and they need to remain professional.

Advice them that this is an informal meeting and that you will continue to look at their results to make sure there is an improvement and if such doesn't happen then HR would need to be involved.

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    I don't think there's any way to make a meeting between the two and the leader feel "informal". Maybe two 1-on-1's could though? – Captain Man Apr 4 at 15:17
  • @CaptainMan it is likely you would still need to meet with both at the same time afterwards to be honest and the fact HR isn't there and you haven't received a written invitation makes it informal. I understand that it might not feel "informal" though It is always a touchy case – fireshark519 Apr 5 at 8:04
  • @fireshark519 medicine? Are you aware medicine has a large scientific component, especially in research? – George M Apr 5 at 17:35
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Mediate seems to be the best option. You need to allow them to improve and let hr know of the circumstance so they can intervene if it gets any worse.

You need to let them know that they can have their own personal options as long as it does not get in the way of their work. Let them know that if their mistakes continue then it could be the end of their jobs.

If their argument continues to affect their work then let hr know that this is a serious issue and let them deal with it. In the end if they don't improve then it would be likely the anti-vacciner will be let go if she doesn't get along with the rest of the team.

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