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The Brexit Column: Do your views skew what prep you do?

The Brexit Column: Do your views skew what prep you do?

Are personal political views dictating how your organisation is preparing for a possible no-deal Brexit? Tim Sarson suggests how you can remain objective.

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Partner and Brexit Tax & Location Lead

KPMG in the UK

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The supposed finality of last weekend’s deal in Brussels has solved nothing: family feuds and barbed words at work are about to get even uglier. And in a grown up democracy I guess we’re entitled to express whatever views we hold. But what happens when those personal views determine the fate of multi-million pound decisions about how your company prepares for Brexit? This week’s column is based on two recent client meetings that exposed this danger.

In one, after a long workshop looking at impacts from a no-deal Brexit, one of the firm’s main decision makers piped up to say that while this was all very interesting, it felt rather like classic ‘project fear’ and there was a danger of us getting bogged down in another Y2K experience. Furthermore, he added, wasn’t the prospect of a Corbyn government more concerning?

In the other, my client opined that Britain was becoming such a global laughing stock and economic basket case that any EU national in their right mind was likely to return home sooner or later, leaving a huge gap in the workforce. He then buried his head in his hands and swore.

It’s no surprise that, when it comes to preparing for a no-deal Brexit, the Y2K man is less inclined to spend time and effort on the task than Mr Global Basket Case.

Then there are those many meetings I have with EU-based companies in which their opening gambit remains,  “But surely your government will cancel Brexit?” (or a more zeitgeisty second-referendum variation on the same theme).

Are you guilty of unconscious bias?

All three are examples of how easily political bias can creep into business decision making. It is risky, it can lead to bad policy and it is hard to avoid. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Several clients are completely unprepared for anything next March because (by their own admission) they didn’t think Brexit would actually happen. A realisation it might do has only dawned in the last month or so.
  • A client agreed to work on a plan some time ago (including securing the immigration status of its employees) but the next time we met one of its teams had done nothing because they were confident that, "Common sense will prevail. There’s bound to be a deal”.
  • Another was so convinced of impending Armageddon that they spent months thinking about whether to close down a UK operation, despite the fact there is no operational or regulatory reason to do so.

And these firms are – by definition – some of the more prepared out there. The very fact that they are Brexit clients of ours indicates a certain level of awareness and concern. If a company isn’t worried, they probably won’t be knocking at our door in the first place… and in many instances the reason for that is down to personal politics.

Readers who have done some training around unconscious bias will know how revealing (and unsettling) it is to know how many assumptions you carry around. Rather than ignore them, the training teaches you to acknowledge them and find processes to limit their effect. The same applies to Brexit planning.

Remainers’ ‘spiral of misery’ or Brexiteers’ ‘project fear’?

At the start of every Brexit workshop we try to agree on a scenario – usually some definition of “no-deal” – and from there on remove emotion and political speculation. Or try to anyway. 

For example, the Remainer spiral of group misery can be quite fun (in the same way a good ghost story told by candlelight can entertain) but it doesn’t make for proportionate risk assessment. Equally, the Brexiteer appeal to the spectre of ‘project fear’ is generally only useful as an antidote to the aforementioned spiral of group misery. 

I prefer to depoliticise things early on with a weather metaphor instead. Whether we receive a biblical deluge or a light shower that clears the air, it’s probably worth bringing in the patio furniture and keeping an eye on the radar.

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What to do now

Is it possible to take political bias out of business planning? Not completely, but we can do enough to stop it from leading to bad decisions. Here are some rules of the road for your Brexit team:

1) Remind everyone that deal, ‘no deal’ or no Brexit are just factual outcomes, regardless of their relative merits. Plan on the basis of probability, not what you hope or fear may happen.

2) Once you have assessed your Brexit vulnerabilities and defined your planning scenario, stick to it unless there is a clear, unambiguous political event that changes the facts.

3) Try not to second-guess the motivations or bargaining positions of the negotiators or politicians. Experience shows we get it wrong as often as we get it right.

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