• Managing people

The Sunny Uplands of Brexit for HR

Impact of Brexit on HR and Talent leaders - insights from PwC, Google and the BBC at the recent FT | IE CLA Foresight event


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At a panel event last week entitled Act now or wait and see? - hosted by the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance – a group of top Talent-focused minds chewed over the thorny matter of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union and its multitude of implications for the HR and Talent sector.

To an audience of CLOs, HRDs and other C-Suite ‘People’ people – a panel including current and former gurus from PwC, Google and the BBC, shared and sympathised with the over-whelming sentiment in the room (and one seemingly prevalent elsewhere in the world of business) of worry over the uncertainty that ‘Brexit’ undoubtedly brings. As Tom Gosling of PricewaterhouseCoopers noted, “Brexit thinking was pushed back into the Autumn. Firstly by the realisation that nothing changed over-night, and secondly by everyone’s summer holidays!”

This deferral of intellectual and emotional processing, he suggested, has led to a concern that HR and Talent functions have been sitting on their hands, have been too passive in the debate – and that it was time for them to roll their sleeves up and get involved – for fear of being left behind on the starting line.

Another panellist, Stephan Thoma, former Global Learning & Development Director at Google, shared this concern, stating that the talent market itself certainly wasn’t sitting on its hands and ‘waiting and seeing.’ In fact, talent executives in Frankfurt, Barcelona, Dublin and elsewhere, were seeing this as an opportunity to steal a march on London, and crucially – to steal talent. The feeling across the panel was that London and the UK’s talent and HR functions needed to get on the front foot, and quickly. In practice that meant acting fast in three time-sensitive areas:

Scenario-planning – Strategize for all variations of Brexit, from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ and prepare options around; Brexit-related currency changes, impact on bonus pools, Visa and work-permit regimes, talent pipeline/sourcing/recruitment permutations. 

Communications – “Rumour abhors a vacuum.” Communicate even if the message is one of “we don’t yet know.” Just that the issue is on the agenda of senior stakeholders is a positive message to employees. Reassure EU national employees by reiterating how much your organisation welcomes and values them, and by finding out how you can support them.

Secure/Reassure top talent - “Who are the 15 people in your organisation that you can’t afford to lose?” – asked Prof Gareth Jones, formerly of the BBC. Consider the anecdotal case of a Lithuanian Chief of Tech at a London start-up deciding to move on because of a perceived negative atmosphere in the country. How could HR have got out in front of this issue? “Be the nagging partner reminding senior execs that they have to look after critical talent, and reassure them in all this uncertainty.”

Those urgent matters attended to it perhaps came as a surprise to some in the room that the panellists saw genuine cause for optimism amidst the uncertainty of Brexit. The ‘sunny uplands’ spoken of by leading ‘Leave’ campaigners in the lead up to the referendum were there to strive toward for those willing to see them.

“The doom-laden view is completely wrong for HR to be perpetuating – even if you harbour that view personally. Brexit creates a wonderful opportunity for HR to re-focus and drive an agenda of genuinely positive change. HR should be looking for the ways to do that,” said Stephan Thoma. “HR has a tendency to luxuriate in their own misery,” added Prof Jones, “It’s time to cast that aside.”

“The mindset that this is a pain in the backside that we didn’t want to happen, is not productive. We need to view this as a positive opportunity so that senior leaders put out the right messages,” said Tom Gosling. “Our business decision-making has inherent biases from our existing relationships with the EU and with the removal of those biases will come opportunities.”

Stephan Thoma echoed that point of view, saying; “This is a moment of unfreezing which will naturally free-up opportunities and ideas. The boundary conditions of organisational design are shifting and when that happens we have the chance to try things out. When there is change in the system, that’s when opportunities for innovation can come.”

“Don’t forget also,” added Prof Jones, in his closing remarks, “that there is a positive story to tell about the UK’s changing relationship with Africa, Latin America, and Asia. A genuinely global relationship with the world is one potential outcome here. A truly world-class labour market must be global, by necessity.”

The Foresight Series of events is hosted by FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance and brings senior executives and learning & development professionals together to generate discussion, new ideas and business-focused learning. You can find out more about the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance here – as well as sign up to their newsletter for invitations to future events like this one.

Headspring was launched April 2019 as a continuation and development of the successful collaboration between the Financial Times and IE Business School, formerly known as FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance, an initiative created in 2015 to transform the way executive education and professional development meet the changing needs of business.

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