HR should be leading on Brexit talent planning

HR should be leading on talent planning post-EU referendum, but is failing to act in most businesses

At an FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance event on the talent implications of Brexit all panellists agreed that HR directors need to be taking more of a lead in this area, despite the uncertainty – uncertainty that has increased perhaps further since the high court ruling that MPs will need to vote on triggering article 50.

Tom Gosling, a partner in PwC’s HR practice, said HR is being “too passive” in the debate. “HR is waiting for instructions from on high rather than rolling up its sleeves and getting on with it,” he said, adding that the opportunity exists for significant investment in HR given the talent challenges Brexit presents.

Stephan Thoma, former global L&D director at Google, agreed that HR in most organisations is “sitting on its fingers”, rather than “being on the front foot”.

He said the talent implications of Brexit are already happening, and that not doing anything means organisations risk falling even further behind. He shared an anecdote of a technology company that recently lost a key person: a Lithuanian software engineer who decided to leave the UK.

“HR needs to remind senior executives that they need to take things seriously and they must focus on critical talent,” he warned. “Doing nothing, ‘wait and see’, is having talent implications already.”

Gosling said HR should be focusing on three key areas: helping leaders deal with the uncertainty of Brexit; dealing with the “here and now”, such as cost reduction and communications; and thinking strategically about the longer-term issues of labour mobility, should freedom of movement be restricted.

He added that in PwC research 15% of organisations said they had seen people withdraw from accepted job offers since Brexit, and that this suggests talent market problems could accelerate faster than anticipated.

This is backed up by new research from recruiter Badenoch & Clark, which found 54% of EU and EEA nationals said they would consider leaving the UK to find work.

Visiting professor at IE business school Gareth Jones added that organisations have an opportunity to shape the debate, given home secretary Amber Rudd's controversial comments on making businesses list their international workers. “The labour market is global and we need to help politicians understand that that’s how you build great organisations,” he said. He also warned Britain risks losing talented people to other countries within the EU, such as Ireland.

The panellists agreed HR should seize this opportunity to put people issues high on the business agenda and make sure company values of inclusion are clearly articulated.

“HR needs to help leaders get into a positive headspace,” Gosling said. “Otherwise leaders will be sending out negative messages. We’ve got to make the most of the hand we have.”

Thoma added: “This is a wonderful opportunity for HR to address some bigger picture stuff and add value to their businesses.”