Companies in the UK need to start communicating to their EU employees now

Even before Wednesday’s vote in the House of Lords, the protection of rights for EU citizens currently living and working in the UK has become a hot topic in the Brexit debate – and gives most companies an employee engagement headache.

Given that both sides in the negotiations have been saying broadly the same thing – we want to preserve the rights of your citizens as long as you do the same for ours, and we want to do it as soon as possible – it might fairly be expected that an agreement would be easy to reach. However, under closer examination, some questions remain. Even where there appears to be consensus, we are still left with uncertainty and have to give consideration to on-going change.

Theresa May has said explicitly that she welcomes the contribution of EU citizens living in the UK, and would happily guarantee their rights if the EU offers reciprocal guarantees for UK citizens living in the EU. Indeed the Prime Minister sought to reach an early agreement, but was rebuffed by EU leaders who say nothing can be agreed or negotiated before Article 50 is triggered.

There is much speculation about the “cut-off date” for protecting rights. Some have argued rights should be guaranteed for anyone who comes to the UK before formal exit in 2019. This is thought to be the favoured option in Brussels, but the UK Government worries it could lead to a migration surge in the interim. Others have suggested 23 June 2016, the date of the referendum. This would not go down well in the EU and could be open to legal challenge. A third option has been mooted – the date Article 50 is triggered, expected to be in the next couple of weeks. This would give some reassurance to any EU citizens already in the UK, but continued uncertainty for anyone about to arrive.

In Brussels, the main players have noted that the issue is a key priority, but continue to tie it quite closely to their chief interests, such as the so-called “divorce bill” of €60 billion. The Commission’s Lead Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has specifically said that talks on a future trading relationship cannot begin until the matter of citizens’ rights and a divorce bill are fully settled. While Berlin has made some promising noises from Theresa May’s perspective, she cannot expect the same from the capital of every member state.

The linking of the rights of EU and UK nationals with a so-called divorce bill underlines just how unpredictable the negotiation process will be. We are going to be in a state of change and uncertainty before, during and after the Brexit process. A vast number of issues need to be resolved – not just the future immigration status of EU nationals, but single market access, trade, regulation – and these are all things employees will be thinking about. Where these have a specific impact on a business, it is important that employees learn of and understand their impact from their employers – not from speculation in the press. All businesses therefore need to be thinking now about how they engage with their employees in order to provide information and reassurance.

The issue of the right for EU nationals to remain in the UK goes to show that preparing your company’s internal message is a job for now, rather than later. Employees uncertain about whether they will be asked to leave the country in which they are working will be anxious and could already be looking for jobs elsewhere. Clear lines of communication and effective messages for employees can mitigate these risks as far as possible.

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