Business leaders in the UK may have breathed a sigh of relief last month when the country’s deadline for leaving the EU, originally scheduled for March 29, was pushed back until October 31. The extension is good news insofar as it gives the UK government more time to finalize an agreeable Brexit plan and avoid crashing out of the union, with potentially devastating economic consequences. Likewise, it gives British organizations more time to shore up their own Brexit plans, if they had not done so already. For these organizations, however, and particularly for their HR functions, the extended Brexit deadline is a decidedly mixed blessing, and it would be a mistake to treat it as a reprieve.
One of the most disruptive effects Brexit has had on the UK for nearly three years now has been to introduce major uncertainty into the business environment. Not knowing whether, or when, or how Brexit would finally happen has made it difficult for organizations to make long-term plans that depend on the outcome of this process. It would be one thing if the UK and the EU had decided that Brexit would definitely take place at the end of October, under a finalized deal and with a specified transition plan. The extension agreed upon in April did none of that; instead, it gave the UK government another six months to try and accomplish what it has been unable to do thus far and rally majority support in Parliament around either the deal Prime Minister Theresa May made with her European counterparts last year, or some alternative arrangement that the EU would also accept.
In other words, the uncertain environment that has prevailed since 2016 remains in place: Organizations still don’t know when Brexit will happen and whether it will be orderly or chaotic. As Steve Hawkes, deputy political editor at the Sun, remarked when the extension was announced, another six months of unpredictability “is possibly the worst outcome for business.”
If the UK ratifies the Brexit deal before October, the UK may leave the EU at the start of the following month. If the country fails to hold elections to the European Parliament at the end of this month, it will crash out with no deal on June 1. If Parliament still can’t pass a deal by the new deadline, the country faces the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in November or an additional extension, assuming the EU is willing to grant one. The delay has even amplified uncertainty around whether it will ultimately happen at all, though the government remains committed to achieving Brexit — and organizations must continue preparing for it.
To that end, businesses in the UK cannot afford to slow down their contingency planning for the various Brexit scenarios that may come in the next six months. This is especially true for HR, as Brexit’s impact on workforce planning, retention, and employee engagement are some of its most significant consequences for organizations. While the overall picture of the future remains cloudy, there are a few things of which HR leaders can be sure, at least in terms of what risks they need to plan against. Here are some things UK businesses should be thinking about as they move ahead with their post-Brexit talent strategies: