May's Brexit deal defeat: What now for HRDs?

After Theresa May's extraordinary defeat in the House of Commons we asked the HR community what HR professionals should be doing next

In what has been described as one of the biggest political defeats of our era, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was voted down by 432 to 202 in the House of Commons yesterday.

In response Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that he would be tabling a vote of no confidence, backed by other opposition leaders, which will take place today. May is expected to survive the vote, as she has the support of the Brexit-backing European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), meaning it is unlikely that Corbyn will be able to trigger a general election.

European leaders have reacted to the vote with dismay but gave no indication they were willing to make concessions.

Several have warned of increased chances of a no-deal Brexit, which many MPs fear will cause chaos at ports and damage industry. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister and deputy chair of the European Research Group which represents Conservatives pushing for a harder Brexit, has drafted a plan that would see the UK committing to leaving the EU on 29 March and step up planning for a no-deal Brexit.

Neil Carberry, Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) chief executive, warned that a no-deal Brexit would be damaging for businesses, adding that there must be strong immigration policy. “Crashing out of the EU without a deal would do real damage to British businesses and the millions of families they support. A no-deal Brexit is not a tolerable way forward. Businesses critically need certainty on Brexit plans. Political paralysis is already affecting firms – slowing down investment decisions and damaging our reputation globally," he said.

So with just 72 days to go until Britain’s planned departure from the EU on 29 March, employers are facing increasing pressure and uncertainty over how Brexit will affect the workforce. We asked the HR community how they should approach employee relations in such a time of unprecedented political uncertainty.

Gary Cookson, director at EPIC HR and former associate HR director at the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), said that HRDs should avoid engaging in political debates. They should instead focus on offering support to employees who need it, he said: First off, I’d avoid any political commentary that might be seen to be the official company line on things, however tempting that might be. It backfired on Neil Warnock and Cardiff City FC at the weekend [when Cardiff City released a statement distancing themselves from Warnock's comments that he “couldn’t wait to get out” of the EU] so learn from that.

"Secondly I’m not sure any of us outside of government really know what’s going to happen and anything we could say would be pure speculation at this point. I’d be telling staff that as it’s the truth and a show of honesty. So I'd be saying: 'we are as much in the dark as you on this'.

"I’d acknowledge the frustration that this undoubtedly causes everyone and the degree of uncertainty that arises from the current situation. It’s outside of organisational control but we can control our reaction to it. I’d offer routes to support for anyone who wants them. If the organisation has an EAP it’s an opportunity to promote it for anyone with worries, but also encourage staff and managers to talk to each other if helpful and share concerns and ideas.

“Depending on the culture of the organisation you could share this with staff and get their input too. It may help them to know the organisation is doing something proactive and trying to cover as many bases as possible. But the culture of the organisation needs to be able to cope with that and some may not.”

Lucy Dodd, group HR director at Clece Care Services, said that while employers face uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit they must work to protect EU workers and stress that they are still open to talent. “In terms of communication, it can be very difficult to know what to say to the workforce," she said.

"As soon as we respond to one issue on Brexit the next day it could all completely change. For care workers, who may be on flexible zero-hours contracts and from the EU, things may seem particularly challenging. We have successfully completed a pilot scheme giving settled status to EU workers and will continue to look into this.

“But while we can’t say what will happen next, we can say then when it comes to Brexit we’re waiting, we’re here, and we’re listening to workers. And we certainly won’t stop recruiting talented people to our sector.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, criticised the government’s approach, and said that HR must continue with its responsibilities as usual.

"While the politicians wrangle over Brexit over the next few months we need to get on with the great work we are doing for our organisations. We have control over our work, and can make a difference to the success of our organisations and feel good about our achievements, unlike our political leaders,” he said.

"There is no point in worrying about what politicians are doing because they will need to do something relatively soon, but our work goes on and so do our clients. Customers and suppliers depend on us and we can help and support them."

Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, said that HR must take “immediate action” by looking into gaps in the workforce and sponsor licences for EU workers.

“Despite the outcome this unprecedented uncertainty, anxiety and concern is continuing over the future of EU national workers and their dependents as well as employers trying to safeguard the skills they need to grow their business in times of uncertainty,” he said.

“Employers struggling against a depleting workforce should take immediate action to safeguard their skills. Where employers haven’t already done so identify gaps in your current and future workforce and highlight whether they’ve got the means of remaining in the UK in the future; be this via a residence permit/card or settlement/permanent residency.

“Companies with genuine skilled vacancies should consider applying for a sponsor licence so they have access to a wider pool of talent. In addition, every business must have the correct permitted documentation to employ EU workers no matter what the outcome will be between now and March.”