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Brexit: actions for HR leaders

The post-Brexit vote period is one of ambiguity rather than change but that is no excuse for HR inaction. Instead, talent managers need a strong and positive voice at the company’s top table. These were some of the conclusions of members of an expert panel* in discussion with an invited audience of senior HR and talent managers, hosted at the Financial Times in London on 4 November 2016 by FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance.

Here are some practical actions that HR managers can take:

1. Communicate, early and often

First and foremost, reassure affected staff that the company values their presence and is not ignoring the issues. Don’t assume your staff know this. Communicate about the specific actions you are taking. Communicate even if you have nothing much to say. It’s vital that you are seen to be taking Brexit seriously. In short over-communicate.

2. Demonstrate an understanding of your EU staff’s sensitivities

Show explicitly that you understand your EU staff’s fears and concerns. These vary widely. Some long-time UK residents may have families in the UK, own property and have children enrolled in school. The possibility that they might have to uproot is troubling and can undermine performance. Meanwhile, young skilled EU-nationals with few roots in the country can all-too-easily pack up and leave if they feel the atmosphere is unwelcoming. According to some, this is already happening.  They need re-assurance that the company both understands their concerns and, most importantly, will support them wherever possible.

3. Don’t ignore the feelings of pro-Brexit employees either

If 52% of UK voters supported “leave”, there’s a good chance that many Brexiters will be working in your firm. There were many reasons for their vote, and EU immigration was not necessarily one of them. So it’s important that the company message does not stigmatise those who take different view. Craft a positive message that doesn’t alienate anyone.

4. Demand a strategic voice in the company

HR often complains that its voice is not heard at board level. Here’s an opportunity to change that. Make HR issues central to the company’s Brexit strategy. That means getting involved in everything from corporate communications to scenario planning to overseas investment decisions. Develop a clear view about how the talent pipeline might be affected in soft or hard Brexit scenarios, in the short term and long term.

5. Consider opinions beyond UK and EU

Much of the Brexit discussion is UK focused. But the investor mood beyond the UK is also shifting. Anecdotal evidence suggests that companies as far away as Silicon Valley are quietly questioning whether to revisit their decision to locate in the UK. Dublin, Berlin or Barcelona may in time become increasingly attractive. Consider how your company might counter these views.

6. Identify your essential staff

It’s a useful activity at any time, but think about who are the 15-20 employees who you cannot do without. Brexit might have changed that list. Then make sure you understand their needs and ambitions.

7. Anticipate technical issues

It’s likely that Brexit will affect visa rules and processes. It’s complicated at the best of times, but by keeping abreast of technical changes and being ready to dispense advice, you will be ready to act when change does come.

8. Beware new regulatory demands

In this febrile atmosphere, some regulatory change may not be well received, even if well intentioned. For example, recent demands from a government minister for companies to declare the numbers of EU staff risks serious offence. Make sure that any such measures are implemented carefully, if at all.

9. Re-affirm company values

Don’t be entirely absorbed in the regulatory changes of Brexit. It has been suggested that the Brexit vote reflected a wider malaise rooted in popular distrust of institutions. Now may be a good time to re-affirm your commitment to some of the fundamentals of talent management: diversity, transparency, authenticity, independence and the meaningfulness of work.

10. Take a public stand

Brexit priorities will be debated in government. Think about how these affect your company and perhaps make a public statement about your position, or even lobby government for change. Doing so could boost staff morale. Place your HR concerns into the company’s wider vision: e.g. about how a global company needs global staff, or that multiculturalism is the cornerstone of business success.

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* The panel consisted of:

Adam Jones, former Financial Times Work and Careers Editor

Professor Gareth Jones, Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at IE Business School in Madrid

Stephan Thoma, an executive-level leader in the global talent and leadership development world and former Global Learning & Development Director at Google

Tom Gosling leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ UK Pay Performance and Risk practice, and author of a number of PwC´s Brexit global insights

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