How to engage employees with difficult issues

As BASF found out, a divisive subject like Brexit doesn’t have to divide the company

 When BASF wanted to talk with its employees about the 2016 UK Referendum on EU membership, it didn’t want to close the door to future engagement with Leave campaigners, or do harm by adding to a chorus of ‘elite opinion’ that appeared disconnected from voters.

A referendum roadshow was its solution.

Image: Getty Images.

In 2015, following a surprise general election win for the UK Conservatives, we knew there would be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Establishing a position on the outcome was easy: BASF is an EU headquartered major manufacturer of chemicals that benefits greatly from the single market and customs union streamlining supply chains. We supported Remain.

The difficult question was how we would do this. Traditional business advocacy engagement with big political questions tends to involve CEO letters to newspapers, thought leadership reports on the facts, and speeches to staff urging their support.

In the case of the UK-EU relationship we considered this approach to be both high risk and likely to be ineffectual. High risk because pro-EU businesses were to be targeted by Eurosceptic campaigns, for example the ‘wrong then, wrong now’ campaign highlighting the empty threats to leave the UK made by some on previous occasions. And ineffectual, given our relatively small voice in a wider business campaign and a strong rise in public antipathy towards elite opinion, including that of major employers.

Instead, we opted to mobilise our workforce by running a referendum roadshow campaign, one that was open equally to both sides, and put us in the role of facilitators of debate, not lecturers. Over three months around a third of our 1,400 employees participated in 25 workshops, 60-90 minutes in duration, at 12 locations.

Both sides now

 The lead campaigns for Remain and Leave each submitted one video and one leaflet, which were given to staff verbatim without interpretation. Instead, we let them react and ask questions, of us, and each other. After the materials, we had a simple three-question format for the facilitated discussion:

• How does the EU benefit our business here?

• How does the EU limit our business here?

 • What about the EU (good or bad) matters to me personally?

Our role in that process was to answer questions factually if, for example, about process, or to give both sides if about politics. We were not neutral, but maintained impartiality. Mostly, those participating asked and answered questions of each other, and this was very much the point. Internally our intuition was that peer-to-peer persuasion would favour Remain.

Externally we fed back anonymised verbatim responses to both campaigns, our business groups and government.

"We were not neutral, but maintained impartiality."

On the former point, we were correct: pre-sampling and post-polling analysis showed a 20 per cent uplift for Remain as result of the programme. For example, when somebody would mention their immigration concerns (tending to favour Leave), someone else would highlight this was their wife, parent, or friend they were concerned about, putting a face on what was an abstract fear (favouring Remain).

 On the latter, it enabled us to build relationships and be genuinely useful to all sides during the referendum. For example, we quickly learnt about the low utility of the ‘big numbers’ campaigns. Much is made of the compelling message Leave managed with their message “£350m per week for the NHS if we leave”. Our employees largely said they didn’t believe it (although could remember it).

There were similar claims on the Remain side – for example the Treasury’s “£4,300 cost of leaving per household”. Our employees didn’t believe those either. Largely the ‘fact-based’ economic campaign was a draw, inspiring more contempt than engagement.

Leave were better than Remain at convincing people that they were on their side, rather than that of a remote elite. Remain were better than Leave at speaking to their day-today business concerns.

"Leave were better than Remain at convincing people that they were on their side... Remain were better than Leave at speaking to their day-today business concerns."

That kind of insight put us in a much stronger position to engage with the new government after the result, both through new relationships and in that we were much better prepared for what followed the Leave vote. Very few businesses expected the Leave outcome. We saw it in the polling data and raw reactions of our staff to initial materials before discussion commenced.

Approval rates

The principle cost of the programme was our time. Actual expenditure for the workshops was low given campaign-donated materials and the use of our own sites, which also improved participation. The low cost and our impartial delivery also avoided us becoming an authorised third party to the referendum, requiring submissions to the elections regulator.

BASF view on why Leave won. Source: BASF

More importantly, the workshops landed well with those involved. Average workshop satisfaction was between satisfied and very satisfied, 88 per cent attending claimed to be better informed as a result. People asked if we could do it again in future, and we only had one piece of qualitative feedback that questioned whether companies should do this at all.

We even found ourselves running a version of the programme for the French services company Engie. Having found out about it through a contact we delivered the model to around 150 of their managers at an event in London, albeit too late in the referendum to roll out more widely.

To our surprise, though, this approach was not being used more generally by business. Most had avoided the issue altogether, others took the traditional letters, reports and speeches approach.

 In 2017 we were shortlisted for a UK Public Affairs award, and won a European equivalent. We would have preferred to have won the referendum, but in the event a similar opportunity arises to engage our employees with a difficult issue that matters to the company, we hope to repeat the programme.

Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is the head of public affairs for UK and Ireland at BASF plc. He has 20 years’ experience in UK-EU relations and public affairs, and has been leading BASF’s UK engagement work on the referendum and Brexit. Previous roles include strategy director at Millward Brown and UK political advisor at BP International.