Business/Economy

With the attack on Ukraine, some Russia-born employees have come under fire. How should employers handle it?

Q: Like most other oil-patch companies that need highly skilled employees and want to diversify their labor pool, ours has hired several Russian emigrants. Other than coworkers complaining that these employees’ accents make understanding them difficult, we had no problems — until Russia invaded Ukraine.

At first, nothing occurred that created worry. Many of our employees knew little about Ukraine and so peppered the emigrants with questions. But as the horror of what was happening in Ukraine continued, our employees grew angrier. Several employees asked their Russian-born coworkers how they could possibly “defend” what was going on. Things got worse when one of the emigrants defended Putin, calling him a strong leader.

How much trouble do we get into if we fire this one employee? While she’s technically skilled, she’s not well-liked and often causes friction by acting superior when she disagrees with coworkers or even her supervisor on technical matters.

A: You’re not alone. According to a recent Society for Human Resources article, managers in a variety of workplaces are dealing with employees making Russia-phobic taunts and ostracizing Russian-born employees.

The Alaska Human Rights Law, AS 18.80 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination based on national origin. Actions that might constitute illegal discrimination would be firing a Russian-born employee simply because of their national origin or removing a Russian-born employee from customer-facing tasks.

Attorney Phillippe Weiss, president of the legal compliance firm Seyfarth at Work, reported several recent examples of potential discrimination. These included a supervisor asking an employee to “try to lessen that obvious Russian accent” for the next few months, and a manager denying a Russian-born sales manager new customer opportunities, saying “Let’s avoid any unnecessary negative vibes with potential clients, at least until this whole Ukraine thing blows over.”

But can you fire an employee who publicly supports Putin? According to attorney Eric Meyer, Partner at FisherBroyles LLP, the answer for private-sector employers not subject to off-duty conduct or political speech protection laws is yes, given that this employee’s statements could undermine your organization’s culture or values. As a recent example of employer actions, a Virginia school district suspended a substitute teacher who told his eighth-grade Spanish class, which included a Ukrainian student, that he personally supported Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Although public employees have limited free speech rights if they speak in their role as a private citizen on a matter of public concern without interfering with their job, this substitute teacher’s job was teaching Spanish, not world events.

When you’re making these decisions, be careful not to conflate an employee’s love for their Russian origin with being “pro-Putin.” While reacting to the former potentially shows national origin bias, no laws protect Putin admirers. You also need to remember that an employee’s national origin doesn’t define their political views. Says University of Alaska adjunct professor Irene Bortnick, “Putin isn’t Russia, particularly for employees who no longer live in Russia. After all, they left Russia for a reason.”

Finally, this is just the latest surge of national origin harassment, and similar to the harassing behaviors that occurred during the onset of COVID-19 against employees with Chinese heritage. Employers need to make it clear to all employees that nation-origin harassment won’t be tolerated. World events, however, impact all employees, and what’s occurring in the Ukraine creates widespread grief. Are there ways you can channel your employees’ anger and sense of powerlessness by offering them avenues to respond in humanitarian ways that support Ukrainians fleeing the invasion?


Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Managing for Accountability”; “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is President of Communication Works Inc. Send your questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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