The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked us all. It’s returned the world to a state many of us hoped never to see again, and with stakes many others have never experienced.
It’s an important reminder for us HR professionals to always expect the unexpected. Very few organisations, even those operating in multiple countries, will have plans for dealing with invasions.
However, I’ve always been proud of our profession’s ability to adapt. We’re asked to develop long term strategies, only to be the last to find out about major organisational pivots. It’s this resilience to change which makes HR the obvious choice to manage crisis situations.
This should be a prompt to reassess risks. Despite long-term conflicts in the Middle East, we saw Ukraine as a stable country. Are there similar blind spots in other jurisdictions? Other places where conventional wisdom suggests that something is impossible?
What is your exit strategy? Are there employees who need to be expatriated, and what is the policy for local employees? In Ukraine we’ve seen conscription announced for all men aged between 18 and 60, as well as many civilians volunteering for service. If your employees were to walk out of work to pick up a rifle, how would you deal with that?
Many organisations simply won’t be able to leave a conflict zone. Many facilities can’t simply be turned off and left. If the worst were to happen, what happens to the employees that are needed to stay? And how confident can you be as an organisation that they will?
The Russia/Ukraine conflict is widely seen in the media and society through the lens of Ukraine Good, Russia Bad. This has tipped over into anti-Russian sentiment which could mean employees needing additional support. Whilst most organisations will have established diversity and inclusion programmes, our interventions are typically focused at groups who have always needed support. Organisations will need to act quickly to ensure people whose backgrounds are associated with a conflict are able to access support they may not have needed before.
Whilst politicians were careful from the outset to refer to ‘Putin’s war’ to avoid blaming soldiers, the emergence of war crimes on social media will doubtless make this line less sustainable.
The narrative in the west and the anglosphere has been firmly positioned behind Ukraine. But it’s important to realise that a huge number of countries in the Global South are following a different narrative in support of Russia. Remember that these countries, and nationals of these countries in the west, may hold very different views than the prevailing one, derived from different sources. Bear in mind the old adage that in conflict, especially one being shared live on social media, truth is always the first casualty.
There are also implications for organisations with operations in Russia. Many multi-nationals are withdrawing services from Russia, so what does this mean for their employees at offices and facilities in the country? If sanctions on financial transfers are invoked, can employees in Russia still be paid? If not, what support can you provide?
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HR’s response will be part of a wider organisational reaction. Many, if not all, parts of the organisation will be enacting protocols and planning next moves. For this reason, it’s crucial that the organisation’s response is being coordinated centrally. Force Majeure events are by their very nature fast moving. The information coming from the scene is sporadic, often contradictory, and rarely accurate.
HR’s cross-organisation role makes it best placed to coordinate the response to a crisis. Human life is always the most important thing, so having the most people focused part of the organisation in charge helps maintain that priority. Most other departmental responses are less time critical. None-the-less, we should identify key partners.
Finance is an obvious one. How do we release the funds required to secure transport? And how do we get it to employees on the ground?
Legal is also essential. The boycott of Russia has meant many multinational firms, including McDonalds and Ikea, have seen their stores taken over by copycat brands. These brands have been allowed to register trademarks that clearly infringe those of the original, Western brands. This partisan application of the law raises a clear problem for HR, as it suggests the law will not protect a foreign organisation. Suddenly you have no protection against overseas employees doing anything at all, from data abuse, corporate espionage, or exposure of interests.
Finally, the CEO. It’s important during crisis planning to set escalation procedures. At what point does the CEO have to personally authorise an action, and how far can a department proceed along a planned sequence of actions before business as usual becomes an emergency?
So what can you do?
Wargaming. For the past twenty years war has been something that happened far away to other people. The invasion of Ukraine is somewhat closer to home, and a reminder that not only is the world less safe than before, but for the majority of the world, it was never safe to begin with.
It would be a valuable insight to explore the likely consequences for your organisation of different scenarios. Some organisations may have high exposure to reserve service obligations (especially those with ex-military recruitment programmes) whilst others may be demographically exposed due to a young workforce.
Update social media policies. As I mentioned earlier, in war, truth is the first casualty, and your employees are likely to be discussing conflicts on social media. Is an employee who denies that one side is committing war crimes, or claims that the war is fake, in breach of a policy? They may be bringing their organisation into disrepute, but will any disciplinary action hold up to an employment tribunal?
Identify digital weaknesses. Cyber warfare has the potential to knock HR systems offline – what are your contingencies if rota software or payroll is down for a prolonged period? How long would it take to enact offline processes? Focus on the bare essentials of what employees need and make sure you’re always able to deliver.
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