Brexit: empathy and engagement

Post-Brexit leaders must put themselves in others’ shoes to help in tumultuous times, says Korn Ferry’s Kirsta Anderson. Second in a series.

Second in a series.
After Brexit: Uncertainty,Opportunity

Kirsta Anderson is a senior client partner with the firm.

It’s not just UK business leaders who are feeling in a state of flux following the referendum in which British voters decided the UK would leave the European Union (the so-called Brexit). Employees at all levels are waiting for definitive answers on how Brexit will affect them. Over the summer we have seen that many fear the unknown, and our view is that if this fear handled badly, employees are likely to become disengaged—with dire consequences for business stability and productivity during this crucial time.

The communication channels between employers and their employees have never been more important. But in the post-Brexit furor, there’s a danger even human resources directors could incorrectly downplay the implications for their workforce. I recently met with an HR director for of one of the UK’s leading retailers, who, despite having a large workforce with many non-British nationals, was primarily concerned with Brexit’s effect on currency exchange rates. This isn’t to say leaders aren’t duly concerned about the referendum’s broader implications for their employees, but they cannot let this key focus waver.

During the financial crisis, Korn Ferry Hay Group found that employee engagement diminished because employees didn’t feel their leaders had stewarded their organizations properly. Brexit presents an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and to show employees the strong leadership, empathy, and care missed back in 2008. Recent firm research shows that businesses with highly engaged employees experience 2.5 times the revenue growth of their peers, and a 40% lower employee turnover rate. Engagement matters—now more than ever.

So how can companies mitigate the potential harms of Brexit on employee engagement? There’s no simple solution. But these steps offer a good, if not critical, place to start:

1. Don’t make assumptions.

One thing I observed post-Brexit was that everyone assumed their peers and colleagues had voted the same way as them. With more than 50% of the British electorate voting to leave the EU, this was unlikely to be the case. Keep communications neutral and stick to facts—or risk alienating people.

2. Demonstrate care and provide moral support.

Employee engagement is a two-way street. Reaching out to staff during a time of change is critical. But so is listening to what they have to say.

During the 2008 financial crisis, Korn Ferry Hay Group worked with a leading financial services organization to run employee feedback sessions focusing on work matters. But the sessions quickly started to cover personal, home, and family issues. The lesson? Stress can seep into all elements of employees’ lives, and their personal support networks may not be equipped to deal with this. There is an opportunity here for employers, especially front-line managers, to show understanding and care for employees when they need it most.

For many non-British employees, remaining in the UK could require added administrative measures. Businesses should help and not let this become a burden for them to face alone.

Ultimately, times of change, uncertainty, and insecurity threaten employee engagement. Now is the time to address this. There may be challenging times ahead. Organizations will need a fully engaged workforce to tackle these—and to realize the opportunities that Brexit may offer.

Matt Crosby, a senior client partner with the firm, also contributed to this report.