HR reacts to referendum vote

Practitioners emphasise need to support EU employees; most fear impact on morale and lack information to make decisions, says poll

As the political and economic fallout from the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union continues, HR professionals have been sharing their reactions to the news – and beginning to assess their own priorities as the questions come in thick and fast from business leaders as well as employees.

Neil Morrison, group HR director of Penguin Random House and winner of the PM Power List of HR social media users, said relying on information was vital: “The first thing HR professionals should do is rise above the rhetoric. At the moment, everyone is just guessing what is going to happen, so the first thing we need to do is be really clear about what has changed and what hasn’t.

“For many, the immediate response will be to understand what is happening to their businesses, because of the financial markets. A second step will be to reassure colleagues that they always were and always will be an inclusive business, and will welcome talented people from every corner of the earth.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said supporting EU nationals in the UK workforce was a priority. “We are very dependent on our staff members from the EU,” he said. “About 5 per cent of our colleagues in the NHS and another 5 per cent in the wider care sector, if not more, are EU members. As a group of employers, we are desperately trying to make sure they know they are loved and wanted here. We have started a Twitter campaign called #LoveOurEUStaff, which has been picked up across the NHS, and we have also seen some really positive statements from Jeremy Hunt about the value of European staff to the NHS.

“This is not just a national issue – it’s also about local organisations and hospitals. We have always relied on people inside and outside the EU to supplement our workforce. Over the next two years, we must work out what the exit settlement will be, and find a way to retain these valuable workers.”

In common with the rest of the country, the referendum result appears to have taken HR professionals by surprise. In a snap poll conducted on Monday via the People Management daily newsletter, only 5 per cent of respondents said their organisation had a post-Brexit plan in place. Almost four-fifths (78 per cent) felt they lacked the information to make long-term organisational decisions, though around a fifth were actively working on a strategic plan and 16 per cent were specifically focusing on securing their non-EU workforce.

There was widespread gloom, however, about the likely impact of Brexit: 54 per cent of HR professionals thought it would either weaken or significantly weaken their ability to acquire and retain skilled individuals (40 per cent felt it would have no effect), 13 per cent planned to initiate a recruitment freeze and just under 70 per cent expected a negative effect on staff morale.

Some commentators emphasised the opportunities to positively impact on the process. “As a supportive function, the main role of L&D has always been about making sure that staff are skilled and developed enough to do their jobs well,” said Sukhvinder Pabial, learning and organisational development consultant and head of OD at One Housing Group. “With such uncertainty over the next few years, this will demand a really adaptive approach for what L&D will be expected to deliver, which will be a challenge.

“As time moves on, the implications for how operation and strategy must change will become more clear, and from an organisational perspective this will translate to upskilling staff in certain ways.”

And in a blog post, Charles Cotton, CIPD performance and reward adviser, emphasised the importance of bringing people together. “The vote is another opportunity for the profession to re-examine the design of organisations, work and jobs to ensure that employers continue to operate as effectively and economically as possible,” he said. “We need to recognise that workers within our organisations will have voted for both sides and it is important to respect their decisions. We need to bring people together by emphasising the importance of teamwork and innovation in dealing with the rapidly evolving economic context.”

The important thing, added Morrison, was to ensure HR was at the forefront of any conversation: “One thing we must do as an industry is galvanise ourselves. If we are going to leave the EU – which is still an if at this stage – then we need to think about how we can influence policymakers and steer an agenda that will get the employment market to a place that is right for the British economy, rather than sitting on the back foot and allowing it to be taken by political points of view and persuasion.”

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