‘Homes for Ukraine’: What does HR need to know about hiring refugees?

With businesses prepared to open up jobs to people fleeing Ukraine, People Management asks experts how the process works, and what firms need to consider

Amid criticisms that the UK was not doing enough to support refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine, the government last week announced a new package of measures that will allow Ukrainian refugees to live and work in the UK for up to three years.

Already, a number of large businesses have pledged to support this effort by offering to create jobs for refugees who come over on the new 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme – the same scheme that is encouraging individuals with spare rooms to host refugees.   

Marks & Spencer, Lush, PwC and Robert Walters are among a coalition of 40 firms that, according to the Sunday Times, are offering up to 10,000 jobs for Ukrainians – alongside suitable accommodation and language training.

People Management takes a look at how organisations can best support Ukrainian refugees through work.

What does the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme mean for firms?

“Now is the time when businesses can step up to support refugees,” says Nicola Inge, employment and skills director at Business in the Community (BITC). The first step to helping, she says, is to recognise the variety of expertise and skills refugees have. In practice, this may mean revising recruitment practices to better recognise qualifications and experience gained outside the UK.

Employers would also do well to review their employment programmes to see what needs to be adapted to welcome refugee candidates, Inge says, recommending firms connect with expert partners that are able to provide “the holistic support that refugees may need, especially if they are newly arrived in the UK”.

“Above all, employers need to understand that they should handle the situation with care and empathy, as refugees may face barriers including low confidence and past trauma,” she says. “But by stepping up to train and employ refugees, employers will change lives for the better while addressing a business-critical issue in a very tight labour market.”

Can employers favour Ukrainian refugees when hiring?

“Favouring applicants from Ukraine would mean treating applicants from elsewhere less favourably and so on the face of it would be discriminatory,” warns Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells. There are exceptions where certain “positive action” is allowed; however, these rules can be “difficult” to comply with, he says.

“Employers should have an eye on the exceptions as they make their plans and should take early advice,” says Seath, adding that while the risk of a claim is low, “thinking about these issues up front and planning accordingly is better than winging it”.

With a new visa route, how should HR approach onboarding?

The Homes for Ukraine scheme will allow individuals from Ukraine the opportunity to work in the UK for three years. This means firms will need to think ahead, says Chetal Patel, immigration partner at Bates Wells. “If an individual’s immigration status time is limited, firms will need to conduct follow-up checks shortly before the visa expires,” she explained, suggesting organisations diarise visa expiry dates and record regular reminders along the way.

Organisations will still need to conduct right-to-work checks as they would with any other employee, she adds, noting that “otherwise they could face civil and criminal penalties”. And more generally, Patel says employers would do well to familiarise themselves with the rules on different immigration statuses, which vary.

“As things are moving quickly, with different visa routes being announced, we may see the Home Office update its right-to-work guidance and checklist for employers to reflect the new and amended routes for Ukrainians coming to the UK,” she adds.

How can HR create a supportive environment for potential Ukrainian recruits?

Ngozi Weller, director of Aurora Wellness, urges employees to think about how they are going to fully support any refugees they employ. “This is a responsibility and you have to take all the baggage that comes too,” she says. Managers need to be proactive in providing help, and not wait for people to ask. 

She also advised firms to check their employee assistance programme to see whether it covers the support that individuals who have faced trauma from events such as war might need. If it doesn’t, employers will need to consider what can be given in its place and make sure employees know it is there.

It’s important that managers don’t try to be counsellors themselves, but that refugees have access to qualified counsellors who are equipped to deal with the experiences the refugees have potentially been through – and Weller suggests employers don’t rely on publicly provided counselling provisions for this to happen.

Employers can help refugees integrate into the workplace; assigning a work buddy can help individuals quickly understand a job function, while offering flexible working can support them back into work. For some, just being at work and having everyday conversations with colleagues could be beneficial to their wellbeing, Weller notes, taking some of the focus away from what’s happening at home.