Judicious Brexit-related comms key, experts advise

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With a no-deal Brexit still possible, speakers at a recent event​ offered advice for HR on navigating workforce communications and a potential no-deal scenario

HR teams should be judicious with Brexit-related communications in this time of ongoing uncertainty, according to experts from law firm Bird & Bird speaking at a recent London HR Connection event.

The talk on Brexit and contingency planning took place on the eve of EU leaders agreeing to delay Brexit until 22 May if British MPs approve PM Theresa May's deal this week. If they do not approve it, however, the delay will only be until 12 April, at which point the UK must set out its next steps or leave without a deal.

Speaking at the London HR Connection event, head of business immigration, UK at Bird & Bird Yuichi Sekine explained that the firm’s clients sat broadly in two camps in terms of workforce comms about Brexit: “Some clients have opted not to send out messages or updates because it creates fatigue and confusion. Whereas others have been proactive and said ‘this is what we know at the moment...’”

Neither is right or wrong, he said. Rather “the important thing is to set the expectation with the business and the people”.

This is particularly important for EU nationals coming to work in the UK if we leave the EU with no deal, he said. He set out what we currently know regarding the EU Temporary Leave to Remain scheme, which is relevant for those who haven’t lived in the UK for five years or less and so aren't eligible for settled or pre-settled status.

Though ideal for short- to medium-term assignments of two to three years, the main downside of this scheme is it gives no flexibility for those who might want to extend their secondment to the UK, Sekine explained, so managing expectations is key.

“It’s a huge problem… because when you try to recruit EU nationals… it’s a very strong message to say ‘they may not be able to stay in the UK’,” he said. “That’s an uncomfortable conversation.”

He added that what you don’t want is staff “three years down the road thinking ‘why did I bother?’ and becoming angry”.

Another area for employers to consider in preparation for a potential no-deal scenario is the status of those arriving just prior to the UK leaving without a deal. Those arriving directly before the 12 April deadline would “technically speaking” qualify for pre-settled status, “but they might have difficulty evidencing their residency”, said Sekine. “Unfortunately the Home Office hasn’t really given a definition of residency yet,” he said.

Sekine warned that the online system for applying for settled or pre-settled status in the event of a no-deal scenario is likely to experience technical “growing pains” as more people apply. He caveated this, however, by saying he’d been pleasantly surprised with figures showing that 75% of applicants so far had received a decision in three days, with no applicants yet refused. “I was astonished!” he remarked.

Employers must also now give careful thought, if they haven’t already, to what will happen to their British nationals currently working in the EU in a no-deal scenario. He explained that currently only two of the other 27 EU member states have “come up with detailed registration schemes”. He pointed out that even where there is a scheme in place that will still only be for that country, with cross-border workers particularly affected.

Also speaking at the event was Bird & Bird’s head of HR, UK Andrea Pankhurst. She shared her team’s approach to reassuring and supporting employees over the past few years. This started with the firm’s CEO sending an email on 24 June 2016 saying “don’t panic we have a plan”, she reported.

In the immediate aftermath of the result the HR team had to deal with some “inappropriate” comments – or “banter” – from employees, she said. There were also “people coming to work saying someone had said something on the Tube because of their accent…” she added.

After this initial reaction “calmed down”, the team set about a “full audit of the workforce” to establish exactly who was working in London and in EU countries. It has been critical to stay “on top” of this necessarily ever-changing picture, Pankhurst said.

The team has decided to steer away from too many blanket communications, she said, opting for town hall sessions instead where all were welcome. “We took the decision not to send out any briefings at the end of last year,” Pankhurst commented, explaining that a bespoke approach with each individual has been most helpful.

“Everyone had individual questions and slightly different scenarios to go through,” she said. “There’ll always be different permutations,” agreed Sekine.

Pankhurst cited the £65 settled status application fee, which the government withdrew soon after announcing, as a good example of where waiting to send out a communication proved helpful. “That just highlights the difficulty of knowing exactly what to do,” she said. “We’ve tried to keep communications factual rather than saying ‘this might happen'.

“Looking forward we obviously need to keep an eye on what’s happening” and let people know when any certainty emerges, she said.

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