Is the EU referendum result a wake-up call for employers?

By on 29/06/2016 | Updated on 30/06/2016
Christopher Johnson, Senior Partner and EuroPac Talent business leader, Mercer

I would like to add a dimension to the EU referendum discussion:  what does the UK Referendum result imply for employers?

I am not directing this question towards whether the UK should be a participant in the single market and, if so, whether that is for goods and services.  The issue that employers should be addressing is what the referendum result is telling us about social issues.  I subscribe to the view that the Leave vote was in part a vote of protest.  A significant part of society is feeling alienated, unsupported and unheard:  voters reacted to some of the effects of globalisation – frozen pay in real terms over the last five years or more; reduced hour or even zero hours contracts; job insecurity and worries that EU citizens from eastern Europe are taking their work; off-shoring of jobs out of the UK; and, continual pressure to reduce public services upon which they feel they depend.  Perhaps, this sense of alienation is also exacerbated by watching senior executives and entrepreneurs enjoy wealth and lifestyles that are removed from the day-to-day realities of you and me, let alone the realities that many face who live outside of London and the South East.

And, who is speaking up on behalf of this part of society?  Once upon a time it would have been the trades unions, but they are now a pale, weakened shadow of what they once were with some merely caught up in political posturing.  In the UK, Labour Party appears also to have lost touch with its traditional supporters.  Although the details are different, we are seeing similar disenchantment in other countries, which may explain the phenomena of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

Is this anything to do with employers, one may ask?  I believe it is.  Most, if not all companies, benefit from liberal markets.  If we are to maintain these markets and to avoid intrusive regulation or higher taxes to fund safety net public services, employers need to exercise their freedoms – to transfer risk to the employee; to off-shore work; to introduce flexible staffing models; to contain pay – with great care and respect for the individual not just for the bottom line.  There needs to be a “golden thread” of core values that guide decisions that affect both the most senior executives and front-line workers.

I am impressed by how many leading employers – for example, Coca-Cola, Mars, Unilever and MSF in the not-for-profit sector – are focused on being “responsible employers” for their employees globally and in their supply chains.  One aspect of this is their concern to pay living wages in the local markets in which they operate.  We need to build on this idea by recognising that responsible employment also matters closer to home in the countries like the UK that, arguably, have been taken for granted.

Mercer too has a role to play.  How we guide our clients and help them to see the importance of acting responsibly as they navigate the many business and talent challenges they face should matter to us.  I am immensely proud of Mercer’s mission to enhance the health, wealth and careers of more than 110 million people world-wide.  If we hold true to our mission, we can make a difference for clients and individuals, we can help to reduce disenchantment and alienation and we can help society be more at ease with itself.

About Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is a Senior Partner for the EuroPac Region and Business Leader for Talent at Mercer.


  1. Mary says:

    The Referendum is a vote for freedom from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, period. It is independence day for Great Britain.

  2. Dan says:

    Sadly, Mary, the House of Lords is, largely, unelected as well: how do you perceive the Referendum result will affect this institution? We haven’t voted for freedom at all, far from it: a vote for “Splendid Isolation” is a vote for past inequalities and a move away from legal and political scrutiny. Back to the bad old days of entrenched, stealth politics hidden away from public view.

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