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Employees, Change Management and Brexit

Britain joined the European Union (EU) in 1973, and to put into context; that was before I started my first real job.  More importantly, significant segments of the current and future workforce, such as millennials, have never known a Britain that was not in the EU.  The result of the Brexit referendum has triggered the most significant change management event in recent times.  There are so many articles and predictions of what will happen that it is almost impossible to keep up with the massive number of things that will need to change.

As a leader in HR, Brexit will have major consequences on both the current and future talent within an organisation and will ultimately affect significant portions of HR administration.  While no one can be sure exactly what will happen, and it is worth studying the models that exist today for European countries that are not in the EU, specifically Norway and Switzerland, both of whom have a different set of policies and rules regarding the free movement of goods and labour.  The UK might not necessarily end up exactly like one of those countries but for now, they provide some insight.

The most immediate question that has been asked, by those that hold UK passports and are working in other EU countries, and those holding EU, non-UK passports and are working in the UK is “what is going to happen to me?”  First for those that might not be so familiar with EU rules regarding the free movement of labour, EU citizens, in all EU countries, have the right to work anywhere in the EU without getting a work permit.

One of the four freedoms enjoyed by EU citizens is the free movement of workers. This includes the rights of movement and residence for workers, the rights of entry and residence for family members, and the right to work in another Member State and be treated on an equal footing with nationals of that Member State. Restrictions apply in some countries for citizens of Member States that have recently acceded to the EU. 

European Union Fact Sheet

The company leadership, with support from HR, needs to have clear and supportive messages to this group of employees. Both to ensure that they know that the organisation is conscious of their situation and to help ensure that the company maintains the talent that it needs.  And as we all know, during times of change you need your very best talent to help lead and facilitate the change.

In addition to the above, business leaders need to make sure that “Whitehall” and the “European Commission” know what their point of view is regarding the preferred model for the future in respect to the free movement of labour.  Now is the time of leaders to speak out on what they need, to maintain and sustain their business for the future.

As time moves on and the impact of the new policies and legislation is known, some of the areas that HR may need to pay particular attention to, could include: -

Expat and mobility – today if you send someone from the UK to work in your offices in Spain for a couple of months, the list of activities that HR needs to do to support that re-assignment is relatively short.  HR does not have to worry about areas such as tax equalisation, health insurance or some of the other things that they might need to do if the employee was temporarily working somewhere like USA or China. Depending on the new rules there could be a resurgence of the mobility function.

Recruiting and Talent – there are already requirements to have documentation that proves that an individual has the right to work in the UK.  The work associated with establishing the right to work could potentially increase and become more complicated, depending on how the transition period is managed (e.g. what do you do about people already in the UK, do they have a different set of rules versus new people coming into the country).  Also, work streams to support preferred candidates with obtaining work permits and visas will most likely increase over time.

Training and Communication – Over the multiple years that will be required to affect the UK’s movement out of the EU there will be an increased need for training and communication with your employees and other stakeholders.  The Learning and Development team need to be prepared for an increased workload to make sure everyone understands the change and knows what they need to do to make the transition successful within the organisation.

HR Systems – As only the UK will be going through this change, it might not be a priority for HR system providers to make the relevant “nice to have” changes.   The HRIS team will need to think about what system related changes will be required to support the processes of the future.

The above is the starter for ten, and as the full impact of the change becomes known the HR team will need to be agile to support the changing requirements of the business.

And a few personal observations, as the decision to leave the EU I find very sad.  The Financial Times has done significant analysis on which parts of the UK demographics voted Leave or Remain.  You might find these useful when thinking about how your staff might be assessing the vote and what work needs planning in the very near future especially around change management and communication.

  1. In times of significant change the people who do well are those that can lead and manage through change. 
  2. If you don’t have the skills or capacity – hire a professional to help. In times of change, professional services business will see a major uptick in work.  The PwC’s and similar will have tools and services to support organisations through the transition. 
  3. Keep a particular eye on the millennials of your workforce, as they have never known the world where they can’t just “go work somewhere else” in the EU, this change will be especially hard on that portion of the workforce.
  4. You can never over-communicate, and that statement is particularly the case now, even if you don’t know exactly what is going to happen as a leader of business, say that, and talk about when you might know.  Better to communicate something, even if it is a holding statement, then to say nothing at all.
  5. And finally, I would like to keep my maroon, EU labelled passport.  So I hope that is the last thing that gets changed.

In times of significant change the organisations that do well have leaders that can lead and manage through change.

Mary Sue Rogers



Posted On : 27-06-16

Commented by:  MSR

Gene - thanks for taking the time to comment and I fear the leave vote was for lots lof negative things - some that had to do with the EU and some that did not. Whatever happens - it will create a lot of work for HR.

Posted On : 05-07-16

Commented by:  MSR

Craig - thanks for taking the time to comment - and you and I both know many people where the "leave" decision will personally impact them and their families. A very sad day for the UK

Posted On : 05-07-16

Commented by:  gene

Great article MSR, I learned a few things.. but mostly agree with all your points.. worse yet the leaders that sponsored "The Leave" have all "Left"... the true irony...

Posted On : 05-07-16

Commented by:  Craig Yetter

I, too, find it all very sad mostly because of the restrictive position into which this potentially puts a talent pool. I'm currently working in Switzerland and the impact doesn't just affect my colleagues who want to work in Europe, but since the visa they work on is an EU visa, it calls into question what terms and conditions can a UK resident work in Switzerland. As a country, Switzerland is already looking at reasons to limit EU citizens working there. Will this be an excuse to refuse visas to UK citizens? I fear for my colleagues.

Posted On : 04-07-16

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