“I used to be responsible for their development. Now I’m responsible for their lives”

The war in Ukraine has sent shock waves across the world – and HR has a pivotal part to play in supporting workers affected both directly and indirectly

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

War, broadly speaking, is experienced in two distinct ways. For most in the UK, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a conflict understood through devices. Though this makes news of cities bombed to rubble and of displaced peoples thronging at border checkpoints no less horrifying, it does make it all somewhat distanced; viewed through laptops, phones and TV screens, listened to via headphones and speakers.

Despite this interspace, events of 21 February 2022 and beyond have sparked many into wanting to do as much as they can to help, business leaders and HR practitioners among them. Here, information and best practice sharing has been most prominent. Sergio Caredda, until recently chief people officer at Italian retailer OVS and a current adviser there, is constantly updating the well-visited ‘HR for Ukraine’ site he created, crowdsourcing insight on how organisations support Ukrainian colleagues who have been impacted.

In addition, some firms are changing their people operations. A UK business coalition, including Marks & Spencer and Robert Walters, is advertising 10,000 roles for those displaced or who want to leave. Adecco, the recruitment firm, has started a specific jobs board for Ukrainian refugees. For those with staff in Ukraine, Sally Llewellyn, regional security director for EMEA at International SOS, which offers security risk management services to businesses, says her organisation is helping employers create escalation plans and look at where employees might be impacted. “The organisations that have been most effective in assisting their workforce in Ukraine are those with contingency planning in place and clear communication, verifiable intelligence gathering, and decision-making structure” she explains.

Yet even for those now deeply intertwined in aid or risk management efforts from afar, these involvements are still distinct from the other experience of war. The one where you awake to the shock news that your country has been invaded. The one where among the first things you encounter is a spouse in tears, just after dawn, a time when you would usually be preparing for a normal working day. The one where you hurriedly ring relatives to check in, to inform. It’s the experience Roman Zomko, CEO of Impressit, a Ukraine-based digital agency, tells People Management was his and that, a month into the conflict, makes it “hard to recall how things used to be before this war.”

Zomko is still living and working in Lviv, a western Ukrainian city away from regions that have seen the most intense fighting, though multiple missile strikes have hit surrounding areas. “I saw [my wife] crying like never before…and I sent a message in our joint [whole company] Slack channel; let’s say it was a bit emotional,” he says of when the invasion first began. He explains that the primary driver, and all subsequent actions, in those first moments of war were about ensuring his employees were safe, including a Kyiv-based DevOps engineer who was recruited but had not yet started working for him, and that he was well informed. “The main goal was to make sure everyone was safe and that we knew what was happening with every member of our team,” he says, adding that among the first decisions he took was to call his HR lead so they could align on employee care before telling staff to ignore work and focus on their families for the time being.

Zomko’s approach highlights the need to consider the total people impact of war and not just its impact on business operations: a mindset that HR teams not in the country are also driven by. Drinks giant Diageo has paused some operations to focus on its five staff inside Ukraine; SAP has closed offices and is taking safeguarding measures; and other businesses are employing security firms to bus workers out of the country. AstraZeneca, which employs 200 people in Ukraine, is providing temporary accommodation for those who flee the country, alongside financial and emotional support. For those still in Ukraine, the pharmaceutical giant has rolled out virtual education sessions for employees’ children.

But wartime employee support doesn’t have to take agency away from individuals. Revolut, the challenger bank with people in Ukraine, is rolling out help – financial and tool-based; there is a significant trend of non-Ukrainian companies with a Ukrainian employee presence delivering relocation and/or wartime funds for their staff . As a company spokesperson tells People Management: “[Support is there] if they want to relocate.”

Revolut’s internal efforts are matched by changes to business operations, making it easier for customers to donate to Ukraine-focused charities and easing account set-up requirements for refugees. It’s a showcase in ensuring values are practised in an holistic manner, something HR knows the importance of. And for staff that don’t want to move, the fintech firm has partnered with a global security partner and onboarded all Ukraine employees to a security app, using experts to deliver tech and solutions HR teams aren’t used to providing.

The UK-headquartered bank’s approach might seem counterintuitive: why allow your most important assets to stay in a warzone? But there are valid reasons. Many aren’t allowed to leave. In addition, commercial flights are halted, getting foreign working visas can be complicated, and border crossing is fraught. As Louise Haycock, partner at immigrant law firm Fragomen, explains, many won’t leave for a mix of cultural, logistical and familial reasons. “This is not the usual situation, where people might arrive in a country ready to work,” she says. “This is a [war-hit] population with specific needs. The driver for where these people end up is not just going to be about where employers want them to be.”

There are also those who see it as a duty to stay in the country, bringing in much-needed funds to a struggling economy. Ukraine has a rapidly growing technology sector – producing the founders of WhatsApp and Grammarly – worth £5bn a year and employing hundreds of thousands of people. Many see it as the key to Ukraine surviving past this war, so HR needs to think of ways it can support those it engages with here. Zomko explains that work on culture and team ethic is crucial in being able to work through successfully, adding: “Tech is at the moment one of the few industries which can continue operating and the Ukrainian economy largely relies on businesses that continue working on the global market.” 

This focus on the role culture and team dynamics have to play in war may be somewhere HR needs to focus in the medium term as Zomko’s ‘stay and work’ approach isn’t unique. Oleh Humeniuk, CEO of WePlay Holding, an e-sports business, believes that keeping work open and paying staff offers a slice of normality. He says: “Keeping a company running during the war is an extremely responsible thing to do, as people don’t feel safe and have no idea if tomorrow will even come.” Zomko agrees: “The best thing that companies can do right now is to distract their teams in Ukraine with work.” Separately, a UK HR leader notes a “staggering will to work” among Ukrainian teams, recalling one employee who apologised for being five minutes late to a meeting because a bomb alert went off.

But such steadfastness can’t exist in silo: it needs support. For WePlay, that means salary is deposited in advance, conscripts are still paid, and ‘positive’ news is shared among staff at the end of the day. Humeniuk has also enlisted the help of a therapist, who is available to provide individual consultations to employees, and his HR team shares ways non-combatant employees can pitch in with the war effort. For Kerstin Rothermel, VP of people at Bolt, a ride hail and food delivery firm, it also requires good crisis management.

In her view, leadership alignment between Bolt’s senior management in Estonia and Germany and line managers in Ukraine, as well as having pre-invasion organisational flexibility, allows the firm to be reactive when needed. “[Our] crisis communication team has been meeting more or less every day since the war started to discuss actions that the business can take in response,” she says. “Our team is used to being flexible, adapting to changing circumstances and working remotely. All these skills have proven crucial during the war.”

This flexibility is crucial because uncertainty, explains Rothermel, is one of the most difficult aspects of war that HR needs to manage. “It is unclear how long this conflict will last, and even when it does end, it will take a long time until the people of Ukraine return to normality,” she explains.

For Ksenia Prozhogina, VP of people at 3DLOOK, a virtual fashion try-on business, which has 80 per cent of its staff in Ukraine, whatever path HR takes, all efforts now need to underpin safety and business continuity. To do this, 3DLOOK is trying to show staff that jobs are secure by continuing to talk regularly. “We have daily and weekly meetings and we speak about the future and show what we have done and how many contracts sales are delivering,” she explains. “We are trying to show our people that we will survive.”

It’s an approach grounded by compassion. Though Prozhogina, who showed her willingness to support staff by continuously working as she was driven to Poland away from Ukraine, believes HR needs to be resilient, now more than ever, so they can think clearly about how best to protect their employees. “Before, I was responsible for their jobs and development; now I’m responsible for their physical lives,” Prozhogina adds. 

Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, believes that this care should extend to all parties a business engages with, not just full-time employees: “Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, [HR] should reach out to agency workers and ask what help would be most beneficial,” he adds, noting also a wider responsibility to contractors and supply chains.

For some, the support they now deliver is firmly in the realm of what they may have thought their day jobs would entail. It might be about engaging on a personal level with staff: for Zomko, it was offering employees and their families a seat in the car driving his wife and child to safety on the Hungarian border in the early moments of the war. For his HR lead, it involved doing a headcount at the initial whole company meeting so they could follow up with staff who didn’t attend to check on their safety. In later days, tasks would involve ensuring that two of Impressit’s conscripted employees had bulletproof vests, tactical equipment and helmets. 

Having to supply employees with military hardware is a sobering reminder that HR cannot shy away from engaging with the brutal reality of war. This means worst-case scenario planning has to be on the cards. It’s something Zomko has had to engage with as one of his team is now active in a fighting area. “We are quite concerned about him, so we offered additional funds to his family for them to be comfortable,” he adds, noting they regularly update staff on his wellbeing. 

As part of this willingness to give updates, Impressit’s communication channels were also re-jigged. Some Slack channels moved to read-only so important messages wouldn’t be missed; this is especially important as the war gets more complex. For firms larger than Impressit, people leaders are using automated chatbots which ask teammates if they’re okay, where they’re located, and if they’re able to work; automating otherwise time-intensive tasks so HR resource can be used elsewhere.

The role of the line manager should also not be overlooked. As with the pandemic, line managers are often seen as the front line of good crisis management, being the visible support point. However, Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, says they can only be successful if given the right tools. “Too often we expect line managers to undertake activities that they are not prepared for, so providing guidance here is crucial,” she says.

In fact, by ensuring line managers have the skills to manage such a crisis, HR is partly ticking the box for what Rachel Suff, senior employee relations advisor at the CIPD, believes will be key for overcoming this crisis. That is, being proactive and ensuring both structures and people are as prepared as possible. “Organisations need to be proactive in offering help rather than waiting for people to ask for it,” she says, adding: “During times like these, an organisation’s values and culture are tested. If managers and senior leaders role model empathy and understanding, then the wider organisation is likely to as well.”

And though it is the impact of the pandemic that might have made some organisations and individuals less able to absorb this disruption, it is Rothermel’s view that strategies from this time can act as a good model for HR teams having to navigate the Ukrainian war. She says: “With the pandemic sharpening organisational ability regarding crisis communications, something useful once more during this conflict, the same thinking could be extended for future conflicts.”

Cheese also believes this. With CIPD research showing that organisations with a strong values and culture are better able to navigate crises, there is a clear playbook for how HR might navigate future macro-disruption. “We have much we can all learn from this crisis and embed in positive ways for the future, such as more flexible and hybrid ways of working and the critical focus on wellbeing,” he says.

This will be critically needed now, too, as the challenges from this war are already huge and in acute need of HR care. As one Ukrainian worker told People Management: “It will never be okay. I am killed in my heart.”  

Immigration options for Ukrainians

  • The easiest option to leave and work outside Ukraine is to travel to a European Union (EU) member state.  
  • If an employer has offices there, there are EU provisions for Ukrainians to access work, education, accommodation, and other benefits. The EU has also set up a directive to best place Ukrainians across the whole member zone.
  • Alternatively, many European countries have national schemes that can be accessed.
  • Employers also need to know the difference between visa-free and visa travel, immigration, work permit and refugee pathways. There are also nomad visa options available in and outside EU countries.
  • If any employer wants to employ a Ukrainian national in the UK, there are three main routes. There is a route for skilled workers – slow and expensive, but offers a five-year visa and a route to settlement – and two concessionary routes: the Ukraine Family Scheme visa and the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The latter  route will eventually be rolled out so it can be provided via organisations, not just individuals.
  • The immigration situation is dynamic and changing. Sourcing independent legal advice is essential.

Providing support for employees in Russia

More than 500,000 employees in Russia have been hit by Western sanctions, affecting pay and job security: the result of more than 500 companies taking measures ranging from suspending new business to exiting Russia completely. These companies include Adidas, Airbnb and JP Morgan.

To help any Russian-based employees with their pay, organisations can explore using international payroll providers or third-party agencies. With the rouble under pressure, some are thinking about using foreign currency or even riskier cyber currency alternatives. Separately, if a company decides to pull out of Russia completely, they need to understand Russian rules around collective dismissal, severance pay, and insolvency.

Regarding relocation, the situation is very fluid. With travel restrictions in place, getting employees out of the country might require using circuitous routes and is increasingly expensive. There are also rumours that Russia might soon impose legislation making it illegal to relocate Russian citizens with specific skills abroad.

A further complication in trying to get Russian employees out of the country because of the pandemic. Many countries don’t recognise Sputnik, Russia’s main vaccination. Additionally, many countries require a visa for Russian citizens unless they are a country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). 

More broadly, companies must consider providing wellbeing support and ensuring that Russians aren’t discriminated against because of their nationality inside or outside of the country’s borders.