HR issues in the UK appear banal when placed against the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia with its horrifying death toll, misery and refugee crisis, but the kind of problems they may soon be grappling with are beginning to be raised. Adam McCulloch reports
Ukrainian sports stars, with their high public profile, have expressed anger and dismay at Putin’s invasion, but employees in various sectors have echoed their sentiments, some attracting considerable attention.
In the US, one Ukrainian software engineer, Maxsym Chernikov, was suspended by his employer EPAM Systems after sending an email to 58,000 colleagues and others, demanding that the outsourcing giant denounce President Putin’s violent actions. The company has a large workforce in Ukraine and businesses across the world, many in eastern Europe.
Despite his work accounts being suspended, Chernikov’s message, originally sent on 25 February, spread across LinkedIn and Facebook. His colleagues began to criticise his suspension and EPAM CEO Arkadiy Dobkin, called for the fighting to end – but stopped short of mentioning Russia.
In short, the workforce risks becoming divided with about 32,000 having links by birth or family with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Chernikov said: “I never said Arkadiy is a bad guy but I wanted him to be a hero, a true leader in this situation. This situation is war not business. In the war many factories, brands, and companies – they work for the needs of the war and change their business model.”
He demanded that EPAM sever ties with Russian and Belarus clients and close down operations in those countries, where the company has 18,000 employees.
He told Forbes he had spoken with Chernikov. “At any other company he would have been fired immediately,” he said.
Chernikov’s emotions are easy to sympathise with: he’s witnessing the probable death of his country in slow motion and a terrifying threat to the lives of friends and family. His parents have been sleeping in a basement bomb shelter in Kharkiv, which has been subject to missile attacks and air raids in recent days.
Being suspended for his emails, which are clearly in breach of company rules, was the least of his concerns. “If I were there I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t write this letter, I couldn’t even think about this,” says Chernikov. “I do not even care about being fired. When you can do something you should do something.”
He is not alone: the impossibility of his situation must apply to many expatriate Ukrainians in the UK.
In an Instagram post on Tuesday, footballer Vitaliy Mykolenko, who plays for Everton, echoed Chernikov’s desperation, accusing Russia’s international players of failing to show support for the people of Ukraine.
“While you remain silent along with your shithead football teammates, peaceful civilians are being killed in Ukraine,” the 22-year-old wrote.
The West Ham forward Andriy Yarmolenko also raised the issue in an Instagram video posted on Tuesday night. “I have a question for Russian players,” he said. “In my country they’re killing people, killing wives, killing our children. But you’re saying nothing, you’ve given no comments.”
The captain of Russia’s international football team, now banned from competition, responded: “To some colleagues who sit in mansions in England and say nasty things: it cannot offend us, we understand everything! Peace and health to everybody!” Other Russian footballers have denounced the invasion, however.
Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky has joined the country’s army and promises he “will use gun if I have to”.
An array of companies, such as Apple, Boeing, Exxon, Airbus, Disney, Ford, General Motors, BP and Shell, have extracted themselves from projects in Russia. The impacts on supply chains, on employment and on culture are sure to be immense, but are an as yet an unknown quality.
I do not even care about being fired. When you can do something you should do something.” – Maxsym Chernikov
With so much emotion and anger on display as Putin’s horror unfurls, it is reassuring to read that according to one EPAM staffer: “There is way more unity between EPAM Ukraine, Belarus, Russia than tensions.”
EPAM boss Dobkin also points to another reason why he feels the need to tread carefully: “I have a very strong reason why. I have senior people in Belarus and I know if I risk this they can be arrested … I have responsibility for 14,000 people in Ukraine but I also have responsibility for 18,000 people in Belarus and Russia. These are good people.”
As we’ve witnessed, protest within Russia and Belarus does not go unnoticed, so those in the West criticising the preference of some international corporate leaders for rather more diplomatic language than Mykolenko or Chernikov’s, may need to take heed of the true nature of the problem.
Dobkin’s company is itself involved in efforts to evacuate its staff from areas near the fighting to the relative safety of western Ukraine. It has also paid employees in Ukraine a $1,000 emergency grant, supplied volunteers to relief efforts, and worked with SpaceX to transport and install Starlink satellite systems donated by Elon Musk.
Tech sector dislocation
The disruption caused by the invasion has already been keenly felt in the tech sector. One in five Fortune 500 companies use Ukrainian IT services and the country is considered a fast growing tech talent hub, with more than 4% of its GDP stemming from the sector.
Ukraine has benefited from having English-speaking developers in time zones that are easier than Asian ones for companies in the US and EU. It is thought that there are about 250,000 tech specialists in Ukraine and many thousands working internationally. The country ranks first in Eastern Europe in outsourcing developers and fifth in a league table of the best software developers in the world.
Several companies are trying to move their employees and contractors out of Ukraine, such as Israeli software company Wix, for example, which has evacuated employees to Poland and Turkey, but the ability for many to move has already been affected by the ban on military-aged men leaving the country. Some companies are moving employees towards more remote parts of the country, away from the main thrusts of the invasion.
Grammarly (which was founded in Ukraine) and San Francisco-based JustAnswer (with a third of its workforce in Ukraine) have moved their data out of the country and are now storing it in the US.
Writing for Bloomberg, Bhaskar Chakravorti predicts that Western tech firms will find that without Ukraine, the “worldwide tech talent shortage will get even worse”.
He adds: “If high-end tech work needs to be moved to other locations, some alternate European cities could be Istanbul and Tallin – they are the closest to Ukrainian tech cities in terms of socio-economic characteristics.
“Making a switch would be costly and difficult, but it is something companies will have to consider if the crisis drags on or if Putin is successful.”
Coming out of Covid into a new crisis was the last thing business needed. Commenting on the Institute of Directors’ economic confidence index, Tony Russell, chief growth officer at change consultancy Proteus, said: “Unfortunately, we have stepped out of one frying pan and into another. The Ukraine conflict will pose a significant threat not only to confidence and wellbeing, but also to supply chains and other business activities that are impacted by the crisis.”