Posted by Rebecca Ashmore on Monday, March 05, 2018

Reflections on the human impact of Brexit


Whether one voted to ‘leave’ or to ‘remain’, the implications of Brexit are multiple, conflicting, and fast-evolving. ‘Uncertainty’ – itself a strong contender for most-used word of the 21st century so far – is a continuing factor; whether ‘Brexit’ in its purest sense will take place at all seems to be in question, at this point. Nevertheless, there is a party line to be towed – ‘get it done, whatever it ends up looking like’ – with the forward-driving example being set by the British Prime Minister herself.

As a people-focused consultancy supporting the financial services industry, we join organisations and individuals across the UK in evaluating what must be done at this stage to protect people and strengthen businesses. Whilst organisations must be set up to succeed, we believe that the personal concerns and wellbeing of directly and indirectly affected employees should not be overlooked. Failing to do so could leave businesses with disillusioned leaders and disengaged staff.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”

This is the practical position of one fund management company chairperson we spoke with. A senior contact within a major trade association also refers to having to “be in two psychological places at once”. Ideological misgivings around the Brexit decision have had to be put to one side: establishing entities, processes and controls, to allow for the seamless continuation of ‘business as usual’ after Brexit, whatever form it may take, has necessarily been the priority since Q3 2016. Some firms are getting good press thanks to the speed with which they initiated their contingency plans, and how prepared they now are. We are in the same boat as our clients, getting on with things, and eyeing the likely trading conditions for our business in Europe with a mixture of hopeful optimism and pragmatic apprehension. Nevertheless, as the implications of Brexit present themselves, it is clear that this is a highly unusual, emotive situation, implying epochal changes, beyond policy and legislation, that affect both businesses and individuals. Lives and careers will dramatically change course as a consequence.

Business as unusual

As a business advising firms on preparing for the talent and leadership implications of Brexit, we aim to remain neutral, in order to impartially inform our clients of all possible options. If a stakeholder needs to adjust a search so as to hire a compliance leader in Luxembourg as opposed to London, we will map that territory for them and get it done. In turn, we have witnessed a high level of professionalism and focus from people involved in Brexit preparations, despite the challenges involved in effectively managing all parties’ interests. However, not all positions are reconcilable.

Surveys have shown that meaningful work is among the most important factors for people in choosing jobs. Many professional people in the UK who voted to remain – just over 48%, if you take the referendum result as an average, and nearly 60% in London – would prefer Brexit wasn’t happening at all. Additionally, the growing political movement to reverse the Brexit process – basically, to not leave the EU – is gathering momentum, and may be successful to some extent, rendering contingency planning obsolete. In either case, for the many people in this country who voted against it, the work involved in preparing for Brexit may feel somewhat short on ‘meaning’.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”

Some people will prosper if Brexit goes ahead. A significant number of executives at banks, asset managers and similar, will be well-rewarded for relocating from London into important new roles based in Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Dublin and elsewhere. Additionally, to many people (nearly 52% of the electorate, at the time of the referendum), “the worst” is a misleading term. The pro-Leave camp believe that the country is destined for new and improved trade deals with all comers, and a number of other benefits associated with a redefining of our nation’s “rightful sovereignty”. However, whilst professional relocation may sound exciting, it is not always desirable, or practical. Well-established Europeans going back to Europe, because they now feel unwelcome in Britain, is saddening. And being able to secure such complex, self-serving arrangements on the trade front seems far from certain.

Leadership from the major political parties on Brexit, especially the current government, has been markedly incoherent. The rise of a superficially empowering but blinkered nationalist movement, arguably reflected in the rise of fringe political groups and the success of the ‘Leave’ campaign (at least in part), is nothing short of depressing. Additionally, economists and traders grimace at the amateurish market-timing of our nation’s decision, by a painfully thin majority, to leave Europe, just as the continent’s economy gets back on the front foot, after nearly a decade in the doldrums. In the meantime, the UK property market has all but frozen solid, and not just because of the ‘Beast from the East’. Dinner party conversations in London are nowadays characterised by discussions of how much people haven’t been able to sell their houses for. All of this is written up gleefully in the nation’s press, in adversarial and inflammatory terms.

Meanwhile, Theresa May is in a curious position. Eurosceptic MPs in the Tory party partially catalysed the referendum; today, a growing anti-Brexit movement amongst pro-European Tories gathers increasing support. She supposedly leads both camps, but every move she makes is quickly undermined or heavily criticised. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has recently declared itself in support of a customs union with the EU, aiming to win an anti-Brexit vote in Parliament later this year, and theoretically, a subsequent snap election. These would be dramatic shifts in the country’s political direction, but the odds are shortening. And then what?

“Two meanings packed up into one word”

Admittedly, these are some of the ‘glass half-empty’ aspects of the Brexit situation. However, it is hard to brush the nation’s general sense of trepidation and disorder under the carpet. How much of this is suitable for open discussion in the workplace? Avoiding talking about such a major issue seems short-sighted, although the sensitivity of the issue at hand is exceptional. However, at a time when mental health issues are rightly high on the business agenda, we shouldn’t underestimate what all of this is doing to our collective state of mind.

‘Brexit’ itself is a ‘portmanteau’: an example of the combining of individual words to make a new one. It’s a word that is on everyone’s lips, but it has become synonymous with confusion and discord, whilst its true implications are unclear. Indeed, loosely translated, ‘portmanteau’ means ‘wearing a cloak’. Adding to the feeling of unease, people are consciously avoiding the issue as a result; many social or business gatherings begin with pledges not to discuss the ‘B-word’. We can all only hope to stay on top of the newsflow and adapt accordingly.

How can Halsey Keetch help?

Whether “hoping for the best” or “preparing for the worst”, our clear opinion, on behalf of our clients, is that the personnel aspect of Brexit merits careful attention and active discussion. Managing ‘people risk’ in these conditions means optimising performance and strengthening controls, so consideration should extend beyond resourcing, into active engagement and development of existing teams. This is especially true within busy and highly visible governance and controls functions, where demand for talent remains high in the UK, and increasingly so in EU financial centres like Dublin and Luxembourg. Our relevant services include:

- Supporting the appointment of the best senior people across all relevant locations through our search practice, across compliance, risk, audit and board-level independent directors

- Providing market intelligence on organisation structure, established and emerging talent, key initiatives and other trends, to guide decision-making based on evolving best practice

- Assessment, development and coaching of established and emerging governance and controls leaders, both on an individual and team basis, to maintain high levels of engagement, focus and motivation

If you would like to discuss any aspect of your Brexit preparations with us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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