The revelation that one of the most searched for terms on Google after the EU Referendum was ‘what is the EU?’ both shocked and horrified many people, but the complexity of the subject led some organisations to develop educational workshops to help their employees understand what they were being asked to vote on.
Chemicals business BASF UK, which employs nearly 1,400 staff across 16 locations, was one such company. Andrew Mayer, head of public affairs UK and Ireland, said the company, whose parent business is headquartered in Ludwigshafen, Germany, had been considering ways to engage in the campaign.
As a business it supported the Remain campaign, but didn’t want just to be one of the pack, signing business letters and nothing else. Nor did the company want to make public statements that it might regret in the future. Japanese car maker Nissan, for example, urged Britain to join the euro in 1999, threatening to quit and move overseas if the country did not do so. (Britain rejected the euro, Nissan stayed and today produces 500,000 cars at its Sunderland plant.)
Its old position was used by Vote Leave in their ‘wrong then, wrong now’ attack campaign on pro-European CBI members. And finally, BASF was not keen to release a report with ‘big scary numbers’ that it knew would cause people to switch off.
Instead, after drafting its own position, BASF UK launched a series of 25 workshops, each lasting between an hour and 90 minutes, across 12 locations which explained the Referendum process, provided information ‘to help employees understand the issues and detailed why the company backed Remain.
Mayer explains: ‘We asked both the Vote Leave and Remain campaigns to provide materials [a leaflet and a video] which could be used as the basis of our discussions. We wanted those keen to engage in the campaign to be well informed.’
The discussions in each workshop focused on three themes:
• What was it about the EU that was good for BASF?
• What was it about the EU that limited BASF’s business?
• What does the EU mean to me personally?
‘At the end of the day, we were not advising our employees on how to vote,’ explains Mayer. ‘But the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One third of our employees – 419 – participated, and the vast majority (88 per cent) said they felt better informed as a result.’
Mayer and his team were there to facilitate, he says, and to answer factual questions, such as what did a fall in sterling mean. ‘We would explain that while it meant exports would get cheaper, imports [which BASF also needs] would also get more expensive, so the benefits might be limited or temporary.’ If a political question was asked, the facilitators would simply point to the literature from both sides. ‘We were not there to spin,’ he adds.
Younger participants were ‘less vocal’, older staff ‘were willing to make the peace argument’ while those who had recently come out of education, such as science post graduates, ‘remembered the EU had paid for that education’. Leave voters were ‘shy’, says Mayer.
‘They were reluctant to talk about immigration but would say there are things that worry me or I don’t want to say this but...’
Each region revealed different concerns or thoughts, on issues ranging from job security, health, education, global trade, travel and solidarity.
Following the workshops, 78 per cent of BASF UK staff indicated that they would vote Remain while just 14 per cent said they would opt to Leave. The actual result has meant that Mayer has held some workshops on the implications of Brexit for the business and its employees.
‘At the moment, we are explaining some of the technical issues but when we get a clear idea [of the Government’s stance] and what leaving the EU will mean, we can then start engaging more widely.’