is a storm brewing for the employer brands of UK companies?

August 15, 2016

why the Brexit vote might only be the beginning of a wider battle between citizens and employees

With the shockwaves surrounding the leave vote in the U.K. slowly subsiding, thoughts are turning to what it really tells us — about our politics, about ourselves and about our neighbors. And there’s an awful lot of it, some of which is hard to look at, but all of which demands attention. Many of the key social imperatives are brilliantly articulated here.

I’ve been thinking about what might come next for my world. Beyond a seemingly inevitable slowdown in recruitment and a pause in major investments, what might the wider, longer echoes of the vote be?

damage to brand U.K.?

The question about the impact of Brexit on the ability of organizations to recruit the right talent came up at a recent event I attended. My view then was that the majority of these organizations will do just fine.

Their brand should not have been altered by the vote. Their attractiveness to the very best talent should materially be no different today than it was in the first weeks of June. Though many major organizations weighed in with views and opinions in the lead-up, it’s hard to believe they will be tainted by the result.

Where I think the challenge will come is in the ability of those businesses to recruit top candidates to do their work in the U.K. To my mind, it’s the whole U.K. brand that has changed since June 24th. If I were an in-demand, qualified candidate with an offer of a role in the UK I would have to think about:

  • Is this the kind of place I want to take my skills?
  • What does the vote say about the culture of our country?
  • What does a vote to remove ourselves from the EU say about the opportunities we can offer as a nation for growth and expansion?
  • How can we maintain our access to the latest thinking if we’re cutting ourselves off from the world?
  • Do I wish to raise my family in an environment that seems to view outsiders as the cause of all our ills?

These are questions candidates will legitimately ask themselves about future opportunities. And by no means do I restrict this to those considering moving here. It’s probably just as true for many of us who are here already.

In truth, Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, is spot-on when he says we have to find a way to show that globalization is something everyone can share in the  benefits of, not just some of us. Data on the likely impact of Brexit shows that those who voted to leave have the most to lose. How and why the great lies of the debate overshadowed these undeniable truths is something for us all to be ashamed of. Behind this landslip in the U.K., there is the festering potential for something far larger and more destructive to come crashing down.

a global rejection?

The Brexit vote does not exist in isolation. The rise of Trump to presidential candidacy and the growth of UKIP and similarly jingoistic political movements in many major European countries seems to highlight a rejection of some of the key values of the integrationist agenda on a much broader plane than the little old U.K.

Their slogans have been variants on “Control our own borders, our own laws, our own taxes. Us before you.”

The movement seeks to put up the walls again, mere years after the last fell and heralded a new age of collaboration. Much smarter people than I can make much sounder arguments for what has to happen now— to attempt to unite the alienated, and rebuild popular belief in the value of close alliances with the rest of the world.

citizen or employee?

My focus is on a creeping tension that I see from an employer brand perspective. We live in a world where the global market is a business reality. It is a place where, to many of the largest employers, globalization is not just a commercial fact but also a crucial asset at their disposal when attracting and retaining talent.

Such businesses gain no advantages in a world that reinforces borders or puts up barriers – be they trade, brick or otherwise. They want – and increasingly are asked to stand for – openness and transparency, free of silos and insularity.

How, then, will they view states, governments, politicians and electorates increasingly turning inward? The power and influence of these organizations is well-documented (and oft-lamented). But is it enough to affect this narrative? It is in their interest – as business and employer – to keep the doors open. Do they have a role to play in making it happen?

As our world continues to spin off-kilter, buffeted by ignorance, vengeance, deceit and buffoonery, should there be a role for business at the negotiating table? Could global brands unite and move us forward again, or will they only reinforce the divisions? Can they persuade us that the best employees are citizens of the world and that we’re all better off when we work together, not alone?

In terms of articulating a purpose and a meaning in what you do, I can think of nothing more compelling or more important.

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