Should you tell your staff how to vote in the EU referendum?

Reasonably stated Leave or Remain positions are legally permissible – but there is a danger of being ‘condescending and patronising’, says leading HR academic

It is the most significant single issue to be put before the British public in a generation – and it’s only natural that business leaders and senior directors will have their own opinions on whether the country should remain part of the EU.

But as the run-up to the vote on 23 June becomes increasingly heated, the issue of whether organisations should share their views on Brexit with their employees is almost as contentious as the vote itself.

Businesses such as Airbus, Siemens and law firm Clifford Chance have all been unafraid to communicate their views on the topic directly with employees. But others are remaining on the fence, or have even explicitly banned staff from publicly discussing the topic.

Geoffrey Mead, partner at Eversheds, says there is no reason an organisation cannot tell its employees how senior leaders view the referendum, and can urge them to vote the same way. “A director has an overriding duty to act in the best interests of the company,” says Mead. “If he or she reasonably considers the best interests of the company are advanced by, for example, the UK remaining in the EU, it is entirely permissible to publicly express that view, and to encourage staff to vote in agreement.”

Mead adds that a business must not be seen to harass its employees or interfere with their right to vote as they wish; for example, by leaving them fearing consequences if they adopt a different view. However, if a company has formally decided to support a particular view, or to remain neutral, a senior individual who publicly speaks out in defiance of that decision could face disciplinary action.

There are also considerations for senior leaders in the public sector, member organisations or charities that may be constitutionally bound to remain neutral. In March, John Longworth resigned as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce after publicly supporting Brexit. The organisation had said it wished to remain neutral in the debate.

Some private sector firms have been more forthright. Six senior executives at aerospace manufacturer Airbus told its 15,000 UK employees in a letter that staying in the EU was good economic sense: “We do not believe leaving will increase the competitiveness of our British-based operations. We all need to keep in the back of our minds that future investments depend very much on the economic environment in which the company operates.”

The UK arm of the German industrial conglomerate Siemens also told its workforce it was in favour of remaining in the EU, warning that Brexit could cause it to reconsider future investments in the UK. Toby Peyton-Jones, HR director, said: “The EU referendum is for the British people to decide, but we are a major employer and investor in the UK so we think it is reasonable for us to express our view.”

Clifford Chance told staff it had “formed a clear view” that it was in the firm’s interests to remain in the EU. Rival Allen & Overy’s senior partner, David Morley, said he was personally in favour of remaining in Europe, but the firm wouldn’t be taking an official position.

Investment bank Credit Suisse, meanwhile, has asked its staff not to make any public comment on the referendum or any related issues.

Most businesses that have expressed an opinion on the referendum to date have been in the Remain camp. Thirty-six of the FTSE 100 companies put their names to a letter organised by Number 10 supporting the Remain campaign, though polls have suggested that small business owners are more likely than their larger counterparts to favour Brexit. Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal & General, and Timpsons owner John Timpson have both publicly spoken in favour of Brexit.

However, Chris Rowley, professor of human resource management at Cass Business School, says he feels it was “condescending and patronising” for a business to tell its employees where it stood:“It implies that workforces cannot make up their own minds independently on this important decision. Such communications are predicated on the questionable assumption that the workforce is malleable and will do management’s bidding. Yet research tells us that workers often do the opposite as many are dissatisfied with a company’s leadership.”

The issue raises questions about the balance of trust between employers and their staff, says Rowley, adding that businesses should reflect on the “moral and ethical” dimensions of suggesting which way individuals should vote.

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