Strategies to remain compliant as Brexit becomes a reality.
By Simon Kent
To say European businesses having been operating in a time of uncertainty could qualify as the understatement of the year. From the moment the U.K. voted to leave the EU to just before Brexit is meant to take place, there have been huge questions raised concerning the right of employees to work across countries within the EU and beyond. Frustratingly for everyone, answers have been few and far between, leaving organisations to speculate on what they might need to do to secure and manage their international workforces. Some are even faced with the prospect of having to prepare for every eventuality.
“There’s a terrible lack of clarity at the moment on post-Brexit business planning,” says David Enser, managing partner with the RES Forum. “Just one of those problems is the question of Citizen’s Rights.”
Created in 2006, the RES Forum is an independent community for international HR and mobility professionals, specialising in global mobility survey data, modelling, and analytics. Part of Enser’s job has been to lobby the European Commission to provide solid advice available for RES members if they want to continue employing people across borders in Europe. Unfortunately, this kind of advice can only come from each individual country, and at point of interview, some 23 states had yet to make any announcement on how they intend to act post-Brexit.
Enser is clear that employers need to take responsibility to ensure their employees have the proper rights to remain and reside within the countries where they are placed. The organisation moved them there and therefore has a duty of care. But the implications of uncertainty around the workforce are far-reaching. “The state of Brexit preparedness planning is woeful from a U.K. business point of view,” says Enser. “There’s personal employee issues but there’s also business risk and continuity issues to consider.”
In short, if organisations cannot move fast enough to secure the status of their employees—and currently, in most cases they haven’t been informed about how to do so—their entire business and ability to operate is put at risk. More worrying still is RES Forum research that indicates that a large number of international employers are not even aware of their own knowledge gaps when it comes to engaging cross-continent talent.
This lack of information presents a huge challenge for HR professionals who must still help the workforce operate smoothly, wherever it is placed. “The biggest challenge HR has to face with an international workforce around Brexit is the general uncertainty,” agrees Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway. “The key to combating this internal nervousness—which can be perpetuated by all the external nervousness—is to communicate and to keep on communicating.
“Be open with your employees on your plans, such as how you intend to help and support any European employees,” says Hicks.
Hicks advises against any “we have no update” updates, focussing instead on positive actions and even sharing links to articles by experts who echo the organisations’ sentiment.
“There is no doubt that companies thrive and win when their workers feel informed, valued, and engaged,” says Cyrus Gilbert-Rolfe, managing director of EMEA at SocialChorus. Gilbert-Rolfe notes that whilst engaging and motivating staff can be complicated for a workforce spread across multiple territories, organisations now have access to technology and devices that can help both the business and people no matter where they are based.
“Internal communications matter a lot and are one key way that HR can engage workers, even more so in today’s decentralised business landscape,” says Cyrus. That said, it is clear that one size does not fit all when it comes to communications. What works for employees in the U.K. won’t work for those based in the Middle East or even Central Europe.
“The greater challenge apart from language differences is the generational difference,” adds Cyrus. “Millennials are not going to engage with information that appeals to the 50-plus members of the workforce. It’s therefore imperative to personalise internal communications to drive a deeper connection with employees.”
Murielle Antille, senior vice president of government and industry affairs and member of the global leadership team at Lee Hecht Harrison, crystallises HR’s challenge to one of creating the right culture. Companies need to “create a common culture which is recognisable across frontiers but is inclusive and provides opportunities for career development,” she says.
Getting the culture right not only offers reassurance to employees, but can anchor their work towards a meaningful goal. Antille lists three ingredients to develop this kind of culture:
- accountable leadership;
- communication; and
- development opportunities.
“This might not be particular to international workforce, but the challenges are exacerbated,” she says.
There is no question but that HR has a huge technical task on its hands when it comes to ensuring that employees are correctly employed and have the right to reside and work where the business needs them. But alongside this, the function needs to provide comfort and reassurance to its employees, regardless of whether positioning them in a new country is an easy or problematic process.
In the face of confusion, effective and clear two-way communication can support employees who may otherwise feel on a limb or expected to work in an uncomfortable or unknown environment. In today’s reality of changing and complex international relationships, the ability of a company to offer a stable and clear culture has never been more important.