Jo Swinson discusses Brexit negotiation uncertainty and impact on businesses

Jo Swinson, former employment relations minister and director of Equal Power Consulting, discusses what businesses can expect from the Brexit negotiations process and how public reputation is crucial to a business’ success.

In a statement on Brexit delivered in January, Theresa May pledged to provide ‘as much certainty as possible’ to businesses throughout the negotiations. How much information do you expect businesses to receive during the two-year period?

So, the key words in Theresa May’s statement were “as possible”. The difficulty is going to be that it’s a negotiation so we understand that the government doesn’t want to put all the cards on the table, particularly as they won’t know what’s necessarily going to happen; they won’t know how the others are going to respond. I don’t think that every couple of months, there will be a “this is what it’s going to look like”, but obviously, the political world and scrutiny will be continuing, so you will have David Davis as Brexit secretary answering questions every five weeks or so in the House of Commons, so as issues come up, pressure will be put on.

I think this is where trade associations, professional bodies and good quality journalism are going to come into their own in terms of both getting the maximum information out of the government and keeping that close dialogue so that in the negotiations, the views on the ground in terms of the different industries are also very much in the minds of ministers making the decisions.

 

Moving away from Brexit, and in terms of reputation, how concerned should businesses be about how the public perceive them?

I think it’s significant for companies how they’re perceived and obviously companies that are customer facing and are household brand names are going to pay more attention to that than companies that are much more business-to-business and less in the public eye.

But, I remember when I was doing the national minimum wage naming and shaming, even those businesses that aren’t the household names – either very local businesses or ones that were more B2B – they still didn’t like the thought that their trade publication or their local newspaper was going to run a story saying that they hadn’t paid their workers the minimum wage, understandably, because that is a reputational hit, and that’s why we did it.

All businesses need to be thinking about it, and thinking about it in terms of their employer brand because they still need to attract people to go and work for them, so making sure that people feel proud of the place that they work is important. There’s a whole myriad of reputational challenges – it’s not just as simple as you’ve done the right thing by the rules, it’s working out what the right thing is, because that’s what people will hold you to account on.

 

How easy is it for businesses to bounce back from a reputational scandal?

Well, there is a famous quote that talks about the speed in which reputations are made and broken, and it is very true. People do see a big news story about a company and it can take a very long time to rebuild. But, if you have the goodwill of the public and you’ve nurtured that and built it up over years, that when something goes wrong, the public will give you a bit more of the benefit of the doubt and you can bounce back more quickly. Reputations can be broken very quickly but you can also inoculate yourself against that by building up goodwill.

 

How important is recruitment in creating the culture and vision of a business?

I think that it’s an interesting issue. Clearly, having a set of values and recruiting people who are of those values is helpful, but I think that probably more important than recruitment is the induction process. It’s important with culture that it’s thought about and that it’s reinforced by leadership – by the lived behaviours, by someone’s actual experience when they go into the workplace for the first time, how they’re engaged with by others. So, if your culture document says one thing and that’s not the reality, then that’s not going to work. Recruitment is important, but leadership is much more important.

 

What’s your one top tip for HR professionals who want to improve motivation and engagement within their own organisation?

I think a culture of caring about the other people – and that’s everything from the niceties of just asking how someone’s weekend was and actually listening to the answer to really being there at the times when your employee, for whatever family or personal reason, needs some support. Where employers do that, it is paid back in loyalty tenfold typically. But, at the root is that you’re not doing it because it’s some calculation that it’s then going to tie this person to you, you’re doing from a place of just caring about other people. Then people know that they’re valued and that creates its own loyalty and motivation, and it encourages that behaviour from them with others.

 

Related reading