‘Dear Colleague’: U.K. Bosses Make Case to Staff Against Brexit

  • Osborne urges firms to speak up as polls show anti-EU surge
  • Leaving bloc threatens jobs, business leaders tell workers

In the heated final stretch of the U.K.’s European Union referendum campaign, a growing number of company bosses are taking the unusual step of writing to employees with a pitch for staying in the bloc.

Encouraged by U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who has called on pro-EU businesses to speak up, executives of companies ranging from telecommunications provider BT Group Plc to textbook publisher Pearson Plc to weapons maker BAE Systems Plc have sent internal memos to make the case.

Managers’ missives to employees reflect concern among “Remain” supporters about a recent poll swing in favor of a so-called Brexit as the “Leave” campaign highlights immigration. So business leaders are trying to shift attention to the economy, saying a vote to quit the EU could threaten jobs and prosperity.

“It suggests a certain concern on the part of the companies and CEOs that the Remain message isn’t getting through because it’s being communicated by politicians, and trust in politicians has gotten so low that unless more voices get through it’s going to go to the Leave side by default,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University.

A smaller number of business leaders in the “Leave” camp, including Anthony Bamford, chairman of construction-equipment maker JC Bamford Excavators Ltd., have countered with their own letters to employees.

Direct Appeals

While the notes generally stop short of urging workers to vote one way or the other, saying that’s an individual choice, executives are going further than they typically do in general elections. CEOs often support a candidate via campaign contributions, television appearances or letters to newspaper editors, but it’s rare for them to make direct appeals to employees.

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The flurry of letter-writing shows that some business leaders are shedding their inhibitions as the June 23 referendum nears. Earlier, some company bosses opted for the safety of numbers, signing joint letters advocating leaving or staying and submitting them to newspapers rather than their own employees. Executives of many consumer-facing companies, including supermarket operators like Tesco Plc, refrained from taking a position out of concern about alienating potential customers.

Material Impact

Some executives have argued that they have a responsibility to their shareholders to take a stand on the issue because leaving the EU could materially affect their companies’ performance.

"From early on we have made clear our company view that remaining part of the EU provides greater stability and certainty for the business," BAE CEO Ian King wrote in an internal blog post. "If the U.K. votes to leave the EU, we would almost certainly enter into a period of uncertainty as the details are worked out."

BT Chairman Mike Rake and CEO Gavin Patterson were joined by representatives of company unions in a letter to employees.

“Virtually all major independent experts believe leaving the EU would result in an economic downturn, one from which it may take several years to recover,” they wrote. “This will, of course, affect us at BT.”

Personal Appeal

A range of other employers, including U.K. subsidiaries of companies like Citigroup Inc., Airbus Group SE and BMW AG have also sent out pro-EU internal memos, warning of the risks to the economy.

Brexit-leaning business leaders have framed their pitches to employees in more personal terms.

“I voted to stay in the common market in 1975. I did not vote for a political union. I did not expect us to hand over sovereignty to the EU. I certainly did not expect unaccountable leaders in Brussels to govern over us,” Bamford, the construction-equipment executive, wrote in a letter that began, “Dear Colleague.” “After more than 40 years in the EU, I will be voting to leave.” The closely held company employs 12,000 people and sells its equipment in 150 countries.

Bale said pro-EU executives’ appeal to employees could reinforce Brexit campaigners’ argument that membership in the bloc benefits multinational corporations more than ordinary people. But he said it could make some workers worry about job security if they vote to leave.

“It brings home to people what the dangers are,” Bale said. “Even if you don’t like your boss, he or she is the person paying your wages.”

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