How will Brexit affect the way we manage people? Well, the answer to any question beginning “How will Brexit affect... ” will almost certainly be “We do not know”. In many cases, we will follow that response with “We shall have to wait and see”, but in the case of managing people, we can and indeed must do more than just sit back and react to unfolding events. Here, Bob Patchett outlines a four-step process.

Managers constantly have to look to the future and take prompt action to prepare for dealing with whatever seems likely to happen. Marketing executives predict changes in markets, purchasing staff research the reliability and changing costs of supplies, development engineers assess the impact of changes in technology. So similarly, we need to consider how Brexit may affect the way we deal with our employees and make plans to respond appropriately.

On the surface, the main problems with Brexit are legal issues since it will involve changes to UK law, to treaties and to trade agreements. However, our withdrawal from the EU will not result in all UK laws, brought into effect by EU requirements, being rejected such that our law books revert back to the time we joined the Union. Most EU regulations were brought into effect by our parliamentary processes and as such will remain in place. Also, Government sources have let it be known that workers’ rights will not be diminished apart from possible legislation restricting strike action in public services.

This point should be made clear to employees and their representatives. However, although there will be no need to contemplate significant changes in employment law, nevertheless you may usefully take the opportunity to have a good look at your policies and procedures to determine whether they are fully fit for purpose or whether events since they were first introduced, suggest some changes should be made.

Of far greater significance is the mood of intolerance that is pervading the country, indeed the world. There are valid concerns about the ease with which terrorists can enter the country, and how we can effectively and humanely deal with an influx of immigrants fleeing persecution, but regrettably this is turning itself into antagonism towards foreigners generally.

This must not be allowed to take hold in the workplace, first because it is immoral, second because we need to employ the best people for jobs regardless of their nationality or religion, and third because there are laws against harassment and improper discrimination that can result in huge fines for organisations who are unable to prove in court that they took all reasonable steps to obviate the problem or reacted effectively. Managers must therefore become more vigilant in stamping out any manifestation of intolerance in any form and against any individual or group.

This requires a four-step process that you should embark upon right away before intolerance takes hold. First, make a close examination of your policies and processes governing discrimination, harassment and bullying. Are they really up to scratch? Do they cater adequately for the current problem? Should you call in specialists’ help to advise you of their efficacy? Should you discuss them with representatives of groups who may become targets of intolerance? Second, make clear to your employees what intolerance means and what may offend vulnerable people even if no distress was intended. An easy way, of course, is to tell them, but if you truly want your people to fully understand and accept the harm that they can cause, hold small discussion groups. Ask them how they would feel if they heard racist jokes aimed at white Englishmen, or if Australia decided to expel all British born immigrants, including their son or daughter who had set up home there 20 years ago. People who are caused to think these things through are more likely to shed their intolerances than those who are just told what not to do.

Third, train your managers at all levels to look out for any examples of intolerance and to react promptly and effectively to them. They may well require training in dealing with incidents. Some form of disciplinary action should be taken against the offender, while the victim will require an apology and maybe even some counselling. Whatever, victims need to be assured that they are safe in your employment. Fourth, if you are confident that the offender really did not intend to cause offence nor come across as racist, then an informal warning may be sufficient, but this must be firm and not a polite request to desist from such behaviour. Anything other than a minor offence really should result in a final warning and, if the offence is repeated, summary dismissal.

Closely allied to this last problem is one that is happening already — significant numbers of EU nationals are quitting their jobs in the UK and returning to their home country. We cannot be sure whether this is the result of actual or perceived harassment or because they believe that ultimately they will be forced to leave, but the problem is that you may lose good employees from jobs that are hard to fill.

To minimise this risk you should of course ensure that there is absolutely no harassment or other form of pressure on them in your workplace, but go further and do whatever you can to assure them that they are still needed and safe with you. Do not assume that, because you generally treat them well, they understand that. Go out of your way to praise them, and indeed all your employees, and let each know that he or she is valuable. Also, do what you can to introduce greater job flexibility such that you have other people trained to move into key jobs that suddenly become vacant.

Conversely you may encounter a labour shortage as foreign employees, whom you traditionally rely upon to fill vacancies, refuse to come to the UK while the Brexit process continues. If you recruit foreign workers through an agency, its staff may be able to change perceptions, but otherwise there seems little you can do to maintain the flow of applicants from abroad. Instead you may have to adapt your organisation to run with a reduced number of employees.

This may therefore be an opportunity to analyse each job, break it down into the tasks that are actually done, and grade each task as vital, important or desirable, and then try to eliminate the tasks that are neither vital nor important. This can be surprisingly successful because, whereas employees are given additional duties from time to time, rarely are duties taken away from them. Many employees are carrying out tasks that add little to the effectiveness of the organisation because they have never been told to give them up. This exercise may require you to redistribute tasks in order to produce a better balance of work. It results in a leaner, more efficient workforce, reduces stress and enables you to operate with fewer employees.

These exercises should help you to deal effectively with whatever changes our exit from the EU bring. Brexit should be treated not as a threat but as an opportunity — for your organisation to not just survive but get better.

Last reviewed 16 February 2017