Managing Brexit – 10 Tips for HR Leaders

We’re all following the Brexit story: making sense of each new aspect as it unfolds and weighing the impact on the country and on our lives. But how are we faring at work? Particularly when our jobs happen to revolve around people. If Brexit is set in motion next Spring, no changes to workforce regulations will come into force until 2019 at the earliest. But in the intervening period, uncertainty about outcomes will inevitably lead to reappraising our priorities. More challenge, more change. In a CIPD survey this autumn, nearly 3/4 of HR leaders reported encountering major change on a frequent basis [1]. But the survey pointed to an endemic unpreparedness in the face of change, with 75% of organisations yet to create a post-Brexit plan.

In the light of this, we’ve compiled 10 practical tips to help you navigate Brexit:

1. Improve Communication 

Staff want to be kept in the loop and feel confident that the business is still in control of its own future. This includes clarifying things that are likely to change, and those likely to stay the same. People have seen examples in the media of companies where the leave vote has had a major impact already. Smiffy’s, the costume and fancy dress supplier, say they cannot afford to wait for the full impact of Brexit and have already made plans to move their UK head office to the Netherlands [2].

Immediately following the vote, research revealed that UK businesses felt powerless to reassure their employees over Brexit because they had been left in the dark over the government’s plans. KPMG’s Punam Birly has warned that companies are “not making announcements to employees – not because they don’t want to – simply because they don’t have the information.” [3] But even when you don’t have all the answers, the reassurance conveyed from a message which says you’ll commit to communicating what you can on a regular basis is massive. Employees can feel confident that you are doing everything in your power to stay on top of (and impart) the latest information.

A key thing non-UK nationals want to know is obviously how Brexit affects their right to live and work in the UK, so HR needs to particularly stay on top of the latest advice affecting employment, and communicate this outwards in easy to digest, frequent and bite-sized chunks.

Facts and figures, wherever you have them, are key too. Communicate these to staff quickly and concisely. David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, and president-elect of the Royal Statistical Society comments “People are much happier with known risks, when they know what the options are and what the chances are.” He states that numbers, in particular, are a great way to allay confusion and uncertainty, allowing people to convert uncertainty into measurable risks. [4]

2. Create Dialogue 

Outward communication is good, but are you listening too? HR has a key responsibility to make sure that communication is two-way. HR leaders and their teams can role-model great communication and listening, and encourage other business leaders to role-model the same behaviours of openness and receptiveness.

Particularly at times of immense change, it’s vital to understand where communication is flowing in your organisation, and where the areas of risk are – where key messages are not being conveyed effectively. If you don’t have a grasp of this, then now could be a good time to conduct an Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) exercise which quickly provides you with this information in a way that can immediately inform your Internal Comms strategy and activities, and make sure that “at risk” areas of the business are addressed.

3. Be Prepared 

How many businesses were unsurprised by the outcome of the vote? If you were expecting it, you were clearly in a minority, and the general sense of unpreparedness was epitomised by the Irish Passport Office running out of application forms in the wake of the decision. Was your business one of those who took time out beforehand to do some scenario planning, just in case? You’re amongst friends if you didn’t. 

Our third practical tip, therefore, is to advocate for the creation of a balance between working “on the business” as well as working “in the business”. In a nutshell, this means ensuring that, in collaboration with other functional areas, you make time to think about and plan for the future in a structured way. Scenario planning would have put more businesses on the front foot in terms of being able to respond adequately in the aftermath of the vote.

Some companies acquitted themselves well. Far from having had enough of experts, international law firm Gowling WLG organised a series of webinars to run immediately after the decision including legal experts in all relevant fields. The activities planned had massive attendance, and the learnings were subsequently shared widely on social media.

4. Scan for Impact 

Brexit is affecting, and will continue to affect, company’s bottom lines. Since June, executives have found themselves dealing with the fallout from the referendum result and its impact on markets and currencies. But more than anything, Brexit affects people – where they and their families live, work and study and how many opportunities are available to people, whether they are UK nationals or not. HR has a major role to play therefore, in scanning internal and external data which may have a bearing on this.

With a large amount of data and advice coming from many sources, whether the government, the media, trade bodies or experts – HR must allocate some resource to pick through this, on an ongoing basis. It needs to be considered systematically for what’s relevant and important for your business, as well as for what needs to be communicated and what needs to be acted upon as a matter of urgency. If you’re feeling stretched already, then you won’t be alone, but all businesses need to be on top of new information and guidance, and ready to communicate this out. HR Magazine and People Management, for example, have already written several helpful articles on Brexit, looking at the likely changes in areas such as Employment Law, Migration, and Pensions and citing expert opinion on each of these key areas.

Monitor the trends internally too and communicate these in the C-suite. Examine the tools you currently use to do this and consider whether they’re fit for purpose in an increasingly VUCA world. If you don’t already, think about using pulse surveys, internal social media sites such as Yammer, and crowd-sourcing software such as Crowdoscope, which offers great agility in collating opinion on the ground.

5. Act on Insight 

Collating opinion and trends needs to be seen to translate into action too, otherwise the effect on engagement is detrimental. In a Willis Towers Watson survey conducted in September, less than half of businesses had created a specific HR Brexit team, suggesting that HR may be lagging behind in terms of business readiness [5]. Although this figure is likely to have increased now, is your company one of those which still does not have a strategy group? Also, where it’s obvious that people are seeking advice or clarification, provide access to an expert, perhaps in the form of a webinar. Finally, consider if a monthly forum offering the latest advice on employment changes is something that could usefully be implemented in your company, with ad hoc sessions as and when big decisions or changes happen?

6. Monitor Engagement 

The Towers Watson survey also found that engagement was cited by 49% of UK HR practitioners to be a concern. In an uncertain environment, it’s likely that employee motivation and engagement will drop, with a real knock-on effect for businesses in terms of productivity. In terms of non-UK nationals, and for areas of the business with a high proportion of these employees, this is even more critical. Whenever people feel uncertain about their position for whatever reason, particularly whether they will be able to stay in the UK and on what terms, then there’s going to be a real impact on their focus and engagement.

Now isn’t the time to bemoan falling staff engagement scores but to proactively revisit your engagement strategy and reemphasise your areas of priority to counteract uncertainty. See our Top 10 Challenges on Engagement for a useful anchor point for your discussions, or revisit Engage For Success’s 4 Enablers of Engagement summarised here.

7. Reinforce Culture & Values 

While a great workplace culture isn’t going to change the outcome of Brexit, it can still be a huge positive during this intervening period. It’s immensely powerful for business leaders to reiterate your values and role-model behaviours to staff. Immediate managers also need to reinforce this, particularly as leaders and managers together make the biggest impact on engagement. Reinforcing the values of your organisation also conveys the message that what the company valued before is still the case. This gives people more stability and focus in the face of change.

HR can also lead on making clear that the business values diversity, and that conversations between employees should be mutually supportive whatever our background or nationality. Everyone feeling able to make a valuable contribution is a key part of a great workplace culture.

8. Promote Diversity & Inclusion 

Diversity and inclusion has been under attack with an undercurrent of intolerance widely reported in the media. EU nationals generally feel less welcome in the UK than they did prior to the vote, and this undoubtedly affects their engagement and productivity at work. HR should lead the way in reinforcing the positive message about diversity and inclusion, drawing attention to the research that diverse and well led teams outperform all other sorts of teams (see our article on the subject here). While this doesn’t take away the uncertainty for migrant workers, it at least makes them know that they are a valued and integral part of your workforce.

9. Plan Resources 

The biggest HR concern highlighted in the Towers Watson survey was the impact on workforce and talent, cited by 76% of HR leaders in the UK and 77% in the rest of Europe. Additionally, in a poll just after the referendum by the Institute of Directors, 24% of members said they would be freezing recruitment. Along with training and development, and non-essential travel, recruitment budgets have certainly come under scrutiny.

Free movement of labour between the UK and the rest of the EU will continue until 2019 at a minimum. In terms of now, know who your employees are from the rest of the EU working in the UK, and who your UK nationals are working in the rest of the EU.

John Marshall, CEO of Adecco Group UK & I, gives this resourcing advice: “There is undoubtedly uncertainty but this is also a time of opportunity for organisations to get ahead. While there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for future-proofing against Brexit there are steps employers should consider. These include conducting a detailed audit of their workforce, mapping current and future skills gaps, and investing in training and development.” [6]

10. Identifying Influencers 

Last, but by no means least, identify who the most influential individuals in your organisations are. Why? Because they will prove invaluable in helping you through this change. Quickly grasping the networks of influence that exist within your organisation prepares you to successfully navigate change and challenge; and be on the front foot from a people and talent perspective.  The most influential individuals are found at all levels of the business, and the less-hierarchical structures of today sometimes hide those who have the greatest real influence. Influential employees reach on average around 70% of your total workforce through their informal networks, in comparison to the reach of senior leaders which averages around 5%.

Pinpoint who these people are, and use them to help allay concerns; disseminate key information; and be your listening ears. They are also undoubtedly the talent you will want to retain as you go through change. Make sure these key individuals are represented on your Brexit strategy group; they will have a lot to feed into it and will be proficient at communicating out your commitments. To read more about how to identify your influencers, click here.

We hope this article has resonated with you, and if you’d like to discuss any aspect further, we’d love to hear from you. Please call or email us on 01727 847398 or at [email protected].

[1] People Management, November 2016, How are organisations preparing for Brexit?

[2] Independent, October, 2016, Brexit: British Company moves HQ to Europe

[3] International Business Times, October 2016, UK workforces left in the dark

 [4] How to deal with uncertainty, BBC News, October 2016 

[5] Willis Towers Watson Survey, September 2016, 

[6] HR Magazine, Brexit dampens hiring intentions

© Tim Pointer, Starboard, 2016.