Foresight Series: How will Brexit uncertainties affect talent management?

Debating the potential impact of Brexit on the talent management sector: a thought-leadership panel discussion with an invited audience, hosted by Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance. Held at the Financial Times, London, 4 November 2016.

  • Panel Chair: Adam Jones, former Work & Careers Editor at the Financial Times
  • Tom Gosling, People and Organisation Practice Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers
  • Stephan Thoma, Strategic Talent and Organisation Development Consultant; former global Learning & Development Director, Google
  • Professor Gareth Jones, visiting IE Business School Professor and a leading expert in organisational design, culture, leadership and change

How will Brexit impact Europe’s businesses? There’s still a great degree of uncertainty, but one thing is widely accepted: when the UK eventually leaves the EU there will be a significant complication of employment laws and regulations. This then raises the question – what will be required from any EU staff working in Britain, and from British staff currently working in the EU? One thing is almost certain – we will see significant change across HR and talent management as organisations recognise the need to adapt their approaches to managing their talent pool, along with changes to existing UK workplace diversity and reward structures.

Our expert panel, chaired and moderated by former Financial Times journalist Adam Jones, debated the issues and offered their expert opinions at our latest Foresight Series Breakfast Briefing.

Adam Jones introduced the session by raising the potential and timely issues around uncertainty between a ‘soft’ and ‘hard Brexit’.

So what are HR doing at the moment about Brexit? – Tom Gosling

Tom Gosling of PwC led the opening debate with this open-ended question, suggesting that many organisations’ HR teams are taking the ‘wait and see’ approach in terms of their corporate strategy around Brexit. Recent PwC research suggests that, while three quarters of organisations have conducted some form of communication with employees on Brexit, it has been very high-level messaging rather than attempting to offer any genuine assurances about the future.

One key role of HR now, Tom suggested, is in helping leaders understand what kind of leader they need to be to guide their organisation through the potential issues. But most importantly, HR needs to start getting involved in the longer-term thinking around the implications of Brexit.

In times of change, you need to communicate, then over-communicate . . . but we’re not in change, we’re in ambiguity – Stephan Thoma

Stephan Thoma raised his concerns about the passivity of HR departments that he’s currently witnessing, suggesting that many teams are ‘sitting on their fingers’ rather than being on the front foot in the midst of Brexit uncertainty. He argued that the current ambiguity surrounding the UK’s exit from the EU is a tremendous opportunity for HR to step up and reinforce its position as an essential partner to the C-Suite, prompting senior executives on the importance of good talent management.

Stephan recognised that it’s a tough time for HR departments, having to make decisions and reassure staff in such uncertainty, but reiterated that teams must be proactive in their actions or risk ending up lagging behind more proactive competition.

Professor Gareth Jones of IE Business School took a step back from the direct Brexit debate to first stress the underlying factors that have contributed to a recent shifts in talent management, and that have had an impact on employee and public engagement (or lack of) with organisations. Macro-trends such as a generational shift in attitudes to work, as well as the rise of the ‘clever economy’ (those that want to be left alone in the workplace to pursue their niche obsessions), are huge factors shaping the way employees interact with a company. These shifts create new agendas for HR departments that need to be considered when looking at the potential impacts of Brexit.

Audience Q&A

This broader background opened up the debate to questions from the floor. The first was about moving the HR discussion around Brexit from the emotive to an analysis of the facts, and how HR can become more involved in the lobbying process.

Tom Gosling from PwC believed HR needed to get much more involved in overall corporate decision-making – leading the discussions around what a corporation needs from Brexit, and what the people-related aspects of this were. Many key negotiating items on the UK’s exit from the EU will come down to the people impacts – immigration, visas and so on. HR teams must first be aware themselves what the potential impacts are in order to then inform corporate affairs teams who can lobby on behalf of the organisation.

If we want our organisations to be world class, then we have to look at a world class talent pool – Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones agreed, suggesting that this was an opportunity for organisations to push back on the negative impacts of Brexit, and take a more active role in shaping the final outcome. Those interested in the talent agenda recognised that the labour market is global, but the next step would be to make sure politicians are also aware of this, to ensure the UK remains competitive in terms of talent.

The talent game is happening now, he suggested, and many European cities view Brexit as an opportunity to poach top talent. Organisations needs to be proactive in countering this, to ensure the best talent remains in the UK. HR again must lead the way here, argued Gosling, and adapt to make the most of any changes that emerge and proactively seek opportunities to change the organisation for the better.

Which is the most successful City in the UK? London. Which is the most diverse City in the UK? London – Gareth Jones

The next question from the audience broached the topic of diversity across talent, and Brexit’s impact on this. Gareth Jones took strong views here, suggesting that creativity increases with diversity and declines with ‘sameness’, and that it is the creative diversity of London which drives its success as a world capital. This is an issue not only for HR but for society as a whole.

The final point for discussion from the audience took a different angle and touched on the potential positives of Brexit. One such benefit could revolve around the ability for the UK to shape its own regulation and policies on talent to suit its specific talent needs and strengths, suggested Tom Gosling. Stephan Thoma took a similar view, putting forward the point that this offers the UK an opportunity to ‘unfreeze’ its talent processes, and try out new ways of operating in a totally new environment.

Adam Jones rounded off the panel debate, with great input from the audience, by summarising the general attitude of HR departments in this period of uncertainty:

I sense a willingness to try and embrace the opportunities, as well as the challenges [around Brexit]. Although it’s a challenging time. – Adam Jones