Planning for the impact of Brexit

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EU nationals living and working in the UK are understandably anxious about how the ‘leave’ vote will affect their long term prospects – and employers have been plunged into uncertainty over what changes to employment law may or may not be on the horizon.

There are many questions in particular around the whole ‘right to work’ issue –  will a new points system be introduced? will employing migrant workers become more complex? will the rules about exchange of data across Europe be changed? – and of course no-one knows the answers.

But the issue has brought the importance of employee screening sharply into focus – and highlighted some key areas that HR needs to pay attention to.  So if your business employs EU workers, what are the issues you should be thinking about?

1. Business as usual

Although there is much speculation about changes that may be made to the immigration system, for the moment nothing has changed.  All the previous rules for employing migrant workers still apply and it is vital that employers continue to conduct rigorous checks on candidate’s identity and their legal right to work in the UK.  Documents still need to be checked to establish that it is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that they have not been forged or falsified and that people are who they say they are.  The penalties for getting it wrong are severe.  Employers face a potential fine of £20,000 per illegal worker, as well as a two-year prison sentence if they are found to be knowingly employing illegal workers.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the uncertainty means you can relax and overlook the rules.  UK Visas and Immigration is applying increasing pressure on employers to make sure the necessary checks are carried out – witness the recent experience of the Byron Hamburgers chain, where dozens of staff were arrested following an immigration crack-down.

2. Communicate with employees

Brexit has caused an enormous amount of anxiety amongst EU nationals, many of whom are extremely worried about the potential impact on both their work and home lives.  As an employer, you cannot provide the answers, but it is important to keep the lines of communication open and to give employees the opportunity to voice their views and concerns.  Take whatever opportunities you can to stress the value the business places on having a diverse workforce.  Be prepared to listen to people’s concerns both on a one-to-one basis and through staff forums.  Use your intranet or other regular communication channels to keep people up-to-date with any developments as they arise.  Don’t forget that staff who are not directly affected may also be feeling unsettled and concerned about their colleagues.  A recent CIPD poll showed that 70 per cent of HR practitioners believed Brexit would either weaken or significantly weaken employee morale.  Both senior management and HR have a key role to play in ensuring regular, open communication takes place, but line managers will also find themselves facing questions and may need guidance on the most appropriate way to deal with their team in the current ambiguous scenario.

3. Think Ahead

Do you have a clear overview of the immigration status of your workforce in the UK and Europe?  If you have gone through a thorough vetting procedure, you should have all the necessary proof of right to work documents on file.  Now is probably a good time to conduct an audit so that you can get a helicopter view of just how many staff may potentially be affected if the rules change.  An audit will also help you get a picture of people’s individual situations and to see when documents expire or need to be renewed or revalidated.  Don’t forget to include UK staff who are working in or seconded to positions in other European countries as they may also be affected depending on the final arrangements that are made during the Brexit negotiations.  Having a clear picture of the make-up and status of the workforce will mean you are better prepared to react if and when changes are made.

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