Taking The Time

Our regular columnist, Steve Herbert takes a look at the early priorities for UK business leaders in 2020 – starting with Brexit-related priorities

But Minister, it takes time to do things ‘now’!

Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister

A new decade, a much-changed and emboldened new Government, and a new place for the United Kingdom (UK) in the world’s trading and economic order.  So not much material to comment on in my first article of the 2020s then!

But paradoxically we probably need to start at the end – by which I mean the end of this calendar year.  Clearly the months ahead are likely to be “interesting” on many levels, but since my last Employer News blog-post (written the day after the General Election) it has become evident that the Government’s intention is not to extend the transition period with the European Union (EU) past the end of December 2020.  This at least provides some form of certain destination in the Brexit journey, even if what happens after that still remains rather unclear.

And there is our old friend uncertainty again.  Negotiating a comprehensive new deal with the EU in 2020 alongside advantageous trade deals with other geographical regions – and the United States in particular – would appear a significant logistical and political challenge.  And all this whilst the Government allows sufficient time, focus, and resources to ensure that the UK’s rather fragile economic figures stay well clear of recession territory.  Yes, these are interesting times indeed.

So it follows that 2021 and beyond still remains shrouded in a fog of doubt for UK business.  Yet there are always some actions that HR professional can take in mitigation of potential future issues, and to ensure that the period of waiting-time is used to the employer’s advantage.

And, out of the mists of uncertainty, arise two connected tasks that I really believe HR professionals should be looking at as a key priority right now:

1)  Settled Status Applications

It is of course widely known that many EU citizens working in the UK need to apply for “Settled Status” to ensure that they can continue to work and reside here.  What is less clear is how many employers have actually taken action to ensure that their EU workers have applied for this status.

I raise this point because a recent survey by Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing of almost 200 senior HR and Finance professionals found that more than 1 in 3 (35%) employers had not provided any support to their workers in this really important process.  If you are such an employer – or if you have not looked at this issue since the General Election result – then urgent action is probably needed right now.

It’s also worth remembering that just encouraging EU workers to apply for Settled Status (and assuming acceptance if you hear nothing to the contrary) is really not enough for employers at this time.  A cursory glance at social media will highlight many examples of EU citizens who have lived and worked in the UK for many years – sometimes even decades – being unexpectedly rejected for Settled Status.  Of course some rejections might be for perfectly justifiable and legitimate reasons, but it is equally likely that many applications are being returned just because of some minor misunderstanding or oddity of the application process, which could perhaps be easily revisited and resolved.  Indeed recent evidence suggests that 9 in 10 appeals against the initial settlement decision may have been successful.

Yet actually making such an appeal might be a step too far for an employee who already feels alienated by the process and/or the initial decision, and even more so if the worker can see little or no evidence that their employer is willing and able to support them in what must often appear a daunting struggle.  It follows that employers can make a huge difference here by overtly offering moral and practical support to their EU workers in such situations.

Then there are those EU citizens who are not sure how to apply for Settled Status, or possibly not even aware that they need to.  And what about those UK national employees who have an EU citizen partner or parent living with them in the UK?  A declinature of Settled Status rights for a family member might still force a potentially hasty relocation decision for your worker, with the employer perhaps being none the wiser until the very last minute.

Of course such support requires a business case to be made.  But that is surely relatively simple given that the UK continues to experience extremely robust national employment figures, which suggests that employers need to maximise their investment in retention of experienced staff, regardless of whether they are a British or an EU citizen.  Not to do so risks staffing shortages, loss of skills, and damage to business relationships.  It will also involve more expense in the training and acclimatisation of every replacement employee so that they achieve optimal productivity as quickly as possible.  None of this is ideal at a rather uncertain time for both individual employers and the wider UK economy.

But there is a second – yet often overlooked – challenge for UK employers to consider here as well…

2)  Looking after UK workers in the EU

In today’s global marketplace, many organisations will have at least a few UK employees based overseas, and particularly within the EU.

Now it would be so easy – and even understandable – for HR departments to sometimes overlook these individuals, and indeed the Howden survey suggests that only 21% of employers with UK workers based overseas had both reviewed their policies and communicated with their workers regarding the impending changes of Brexit.

Yet these workers need support too – arguably more so since they are at arms-length from the constant background Brexit noise in the British media.  Again, the continuity of staff retention is just so important to employers at this time, so this should be something to look at urgently.

It’s also worth highlighting that employer paid insurances for overseas employees might also be subject to change – as might local regulations regarding insurances within different countries of the EU.  So it’s a good idea to stay on top of this subject, and my colleague Adam Harding ([email protected]) is running a sense-check service for employers looking for further support in this area.

Take action now!

Statements made last week on behalf of the Government will have softened the perception of potential hard-lines and automatic deportation from the UK for non-compliance, and it can probably be expected that the EU will follow a similar “soft-touch” approach too.  Yet not being routinely deported for a failure to achieve Settled Status does not necessarily equate to the right to remain and work.  So the potential problems for employees, their families, and (of course) employers remain very real indeed.  And, as this article from the House of Commons library (published on Friday) makes clear, there are still around half a million applications to be made in the UK alone.

The bottom line is that it’s very much in the employer’s interest to take action on both these really important issues right now.

Doing so will ensure that you use this relatively quiet time in the Brexit process well, and that any problems can be resolved long before the final cliff-edge of settlement cut-off dates are close to being reached.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing