Brexit and the multiple challenges and questions it poses to HRM

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In this paper, we report on the views of UK employers and EU workers on the impact of the Brexit vote for workplace dynamics, considering the consequences for individual workers, interactions within workplaces, and the potential implications for human resource management. This paper aims to shed light on the emerging HR policies and practices addressing EU workers at the organizational level. Brexit poses significant challenges to the future of HRM, work and employment in the UK. Following the referendum result, there is a significant level of uncertainty surrounding the future of EU workers who have come to account for about 5% of the UK labour market (Office for National Statistics, 2016). These challenges concern both EU workers and their employers. In the short term after the Brexit vote, there has been an increase in racist and xenophobic behaviour towards EU workers in the UK, which has highlighted some of the unintended consequences of Brexit and changed dynamics in British workplaces (Elliott & Stewart, 2017). In the long term, the availability of EU workers under free movement is unlikely to continue, and will require employers, particularly in sectors highly dependent on EU labour, to develop alternative recruitment strategies (Doherty, 2016). So far, discussions about Brexit have primarily focused on the overall future impact of leaving the EU, and in particular on its effects on public finances, trade and financial stability (Begg & Mushövel, 2016; Belke et al., 2016; Bouoiyour & Selmi, 2016). Despite it being practically impossible to isolate employment issues from these other concerns, the relationship between 'EU workers, Brexit and employment' remains largely neglected in the Brexit agenda (Procter, 2016). Aside from the recognition of political game-playing in discussions about the use of European nationals as ‘bargaining chips’ in Brexit negotiations (Wintour, 2016), very little attention has been paid to how the Brexit vote has impacted EU workers and their interaction with and within the UK labour market. In that respect, the voices of EU workers remain largely missing in discussions. Something similar holds for the long-term implications in terms of recruitment; employers have expressed concerns about the challenge to replace EU workers but these issues have taken a back seat to the more immediate concerns about the process of Brexit negotiations. The paper draws on data gathered from interviews and focus groups with EU workers and UK employers. Investigating employers’ views of the (changing) HRM policies and practices and of EU workers’ experiences provides good insight on the daily challenges of being in workplaces in Britain at this particular moment, characterised by so much turbulence and uncertainty. Understanding experiences of these actors can help to set the analytical ground for further work that looks into the challenges ahead both for organizations in general, and HRM in particular. It has been argued that Brexit will have implications for employers and might affect HRM policies and practices (Cumming et al., 2016). It might also have implications for labour rights (Gumbrell-McCormick & Hyman, 2017) and it would be useful to understand how these implications are starting to shape. First, EU workers are important actors in the landscape of work and employment in the UK, so it is fundamental to understand their experiences, efforts and prospects for the future within or outside a post-Brexit UK labour market. The lack of work reporting on their perspectives could suggest an implicit assumption that decisions about, rather than by EU workers are the only thing that merits attention. However, this does not acknowledge that EU workers themselves may reconsider their participation in the UK labour market. For instance, they might foresee or experience difficulties to stay in the country or might decide to leave - despite having a right to stay –due to emerging push and pull factors linked to the Brexit vote. Second, another issue concerns the multiple implications that Brexit poses for human resource management. These implications are both immediate and long-term, both practical and conceptual/epistemological. In the short-term, there is the potential impact of the aforementioned negative implications on workplace relations. Even more fundamentally are the challenges that Brexit poses in terms of recruitment in a post-Brexit labour market. Factors such as the prioritisation of short-term shareholder value, the deregulation in labour markets (e.g. the introduction of fees for employment tribunals) and weakened position of unions in many industries and workplaces have contributed to a rise in insecure contracts and overall temporal insecurity, evidenced by the growth in flexible employment forms such as temporary agency work, zero-hour contracts and (bogus) self-employment (Cumming et al., 2016; Grimshaw et al, 2016; Rubery et al., 2016). In that respect, questions emerge about what a post-Brexit labour market would demand in terms of the ability to recruit using such forms of employment, and the implications this will have for HRM in organizations. EU migrants ‘qualify’ for these employment types because of the right to free movement. However, the recruitment of new migrants in the post-Brexit labour market is likely to require greater employment security. Something similar may hold for the recruitment of UK workers who may demand higher levels of security, in both employment and hours, or require such employment because of the greater need to invest in training. The developments may thus force employers to offer alternative, more secure employment contracts for a variety of reasons and demand new alternatives to existing HRM models. Whatever the outcome, the implications of Brexit will be a key issue facing workplaces in the UK in 2017 and beyond (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, 2017). References Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) (2017) Sir Brendan Barber predicts Brexit, gender pay, gig working, industrial disputes & the Trade Union Act will be key workplace issues in 2017. News, 1 January. Available at: Begg, I. & Mushövel, F. (2016). The economic impact of Brexit: jobs, growth the public finances, LSE Research Online Documents, LSE. Available at: Belke, A., Belke, A., Dubova, I. & Osowski, T. (2016) Policy Uncertainty and International Financial Markets: The case of Brexit. CEPS Working Document No. 429, December. Bouoiyour, J. & Selmi, R. (2016) Are UK industries resilient in dealing with uncertainty? The case of Brexit. Working paper, CATT WP No. 3, Centre d’Analyse Théorique et de Traitement des données économiques University of Pau. Available at: Cumming, D. J., Wood, G. & Zahra, S. A. (2016) The rise of right wing populism and its effect on HRM, Available at SSRN: Doherty, M. (2016) Through the looking glass: Brexit, free movement and the future. King’s Law Journal, 27(3): 375-386. Elliott, C. & Stewart, J. (2017) What are the (C)HRD implications of Brexit? A personal reflection?, Human Resource Development International, 20(1): 1-8. Grimshaw, D., Johnson, M., Keizer, A. & Rubery, J. (2016) Reducing Precarious Work in Europe through Social Dialogue: the case of the UK, Report for the European Commission. Available at: Gumbrell-McCormick, R. & Hyman, R. (2017) What about the workers? The implications of Brexit for British and European labour, Competition & Change, DOI: 10.1177/1024529417698514. Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016) Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: February 2016. Procter, S. (2016) What about the workers? Brexit and employment relations, Public Lecture, Newcastle University Business School, November. Rubery, J. Grimshaw, D. & Keizer, A. (2016) Flexibility bites back: the multiple and hidden costs of flexible employment policies, Human Resource Management Journal, 26(3): 235-251. Wintour, P. (2016) Theresa May accused of treating EU migrants as a pawn in Brexit talks, The Guardian, 3 July. Available at:
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusIn preparation - 2017


  • Brexit
  • HRM
  • EU Nationals
  • UK employers
  • UK workplaces


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