HR can provide cultures of stability in face of Brexit

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A Brexit Human Resources Forum panel agreed HR should strike a balance between admitting unknowns and allaying fears

HR should provide a sense of certainty in the face of Brexit, according to a Brexit Human Resources Forum panel.

Speakers on the panel included Petra Wilton, director of strategy and external affairs at the CMI; Jan Hills, partner at Head Heart + Brain; and Dimitris Tsouroplis, group head of HR at Libra Group.

“We as HR need to lead with certainty,” asserted Tsouroplis. “People are looking to us to see our reaction; our reaction will definitely lead their reaction.”

Hills suggested HR professionals do this by focusing employees on what is still certain. “One of the practical things you can do as an HR leader is to help people focus on the things that aren’t changing and that we are certain about,” she said.

Creating such a supportive climate is vital if staff aren’t to become immobilised by anxiety, said Hills, reporting that the human brain is “three to five times” more attuned to noticing threat than reward. “The brain likes certainty,” she said. “It’s been described as a pattern-recognising machine. If that doesn’t happen it creates a threat response.”

Senior leadership teams are vital to neutralising Brexit anxieties among staff, said Wilton. “A lot does come down to management and leadership culture; a lot is about setting the tone from the top,” she said. “It’s having very strong statements from the leadership team setting out the views of the organisation.

“Those leaders won’t be able to have a full plan until the outcomes of the Brexit negotiations are known. But it’s about what can be done now so there’s real optimism about staff’s own capacity to react to that change. It’s how you communicate throughout the workforce on a regular basis.”

Wilton added the importance of training line managers to manage change and employees’ anxieties around this. “They will often bear the brunt of employees’ concerns,” she said. “But most line managers struggle with managing change.”

The panel agreed that providing a sense of stability amid wider political upheaval shouldn’t be about ignoring the issue or pretending to have all the answers. Also speaking on the panel was Beverly Vince, HR and operations director at the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME). She said: “I think it’s fine to say you don’t know… I think it’s fine to say you don’t even know the exam questions, never mind the answers at the moment.”

“You can’t just brush it under the carpet,” added Wilton. “You need to acknowledge it and say what can’t be sorted at the moment, but also have a clear action plan on what can.”

Wilton urged HR and business to lobby government on the issue of migration and skills post-Brexit. “The government is now finally opening its doors to business,” she said. “The first year we saw a very closed door approach to policymaking.”

Opening the event, head of member engagement at the REC Kate Shoesmith agreed that the recent leaked Home Office document “demonstrates we [businesses] need to be involved in these discussions.

“[The reaction to that document] showed how united the business community can be,” she said.

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