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For the past month, people around the world have watched in horror as Russia invaded and attacked Ukraine, viewing the horrific bombings of civilians and thousands of women and children fleeing to safety across the borders to Poland and Hungary. Particularly in the U.S., where divisions in opinion are more common than not, there’s been almost universal support for Ukraine as it faces down Russia in this conflict. And with that support of course has also come condemnation of Putin, Russia and even Russian brands and citizens. Not only have most major U.S. brands, including Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple and Amazon, shuttered operations in and sales to Russia, a backlash against all Russian products and even people of Russian descent has ignited.
But for companies — particularly tech companies with substantial engineering staff based in or recruited from Eastern Europe — this anti-Russian sentiment is resulting in some dangerous workplace conflict. It’s not uncommon in Silicon Valley startups and big tech behemoths to have teams of developers comprised of both Ukrainians and Russians on the same project or division. And in some cases, speculation about someone’s ethnic background is causing rifts, suspicion and general workplace unrest among employees.
Same old story, new ethnic group: The in-group, out-group conundrum
People are predictable. Twenty years ago, Middle Eastern terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York City, killing thousands of people. And for the next several years, Middle Easterners experienced a barrage of harassment in their workplaces, communities and societies all over the world. There were countless workplace examples of employees calling co-workers terrorists, and of Middle Easterners being physically and verbally assaulted based solely on their national origin.
With the Russian war on Ukraine, which has already killed thousands, it’s predictable that anyone who looks or sounds Russian is bound to experience similar harassment and aggression. People are scared and angry at Putin’s war crimes and his killing of innocent civilians. When people are angry and scared, they unconsciously react negatively to anyone associated with the group causing their fear, even if that association is nebulous.
Just like 20 years ago, it’s important for all of us to ensure the safety, respect and goodwill towards anyone of Russian descent, or who appears of Russian descent. That means we remind our coworkers and community that Russians throughout the world are not the cause of the war, and even Russians within Russia have no agency to stop this war. People of Russian origin are just as powerless as other communities to stop the war with Ukraine and should be treated with sensitivity and respect.
So what’s a company leader or CHRO to do to foster productive workplace relationships and healthy culture among employees who might be experiencing or exercising bias against Russian-born teammates? Here are a few steps to take.
Understand the importance of in-group/out-group dynamics
First, it’s important to recognize that the dynamic between in-groups and out-groups in the workplace is a huge driver of culture. The 2020 Workplace Culture Report my company produced analyzed data from 40,000 employees. The findings concluded that in-group/out-group dynamics were the biggest cause of workplace culture issues. Employees who reported experiencing being a member of the out group received less empathy and respect from their coworkers. What constitutes an in group or an out group can change depending on the company, the makeup of the workforce or even what’s happening in the news. You’ll never get rid of them altogether. But recognizing their impact on culture, and finding ways to deal with that impact, will help you no matter who’s in or who’s out at any given time.
Start and continue conversations on respect and empathy
Continue engaging and educating your employees on bias and harassment throughout the year using microlearning techniques, discussing it during all hands meetings and sharing real stories and experiences. And keep that conversation going. If the past 24 months have taught us anything, it’s that there will always be global events that can threaten communities, workplaces and culture. So it’s best to constantly have conversation and training to build empathy and respect as skills.
Lead with empathy
More than anything else, business leaders should lead with empathy and understand that employees are impacted by the war in Ukraine differently. Some people might have friends and family in danger. Some might have friends and family in Russia. Others may be worried about the potential for a WWIII. Everyone will have their own perspective and concern, and it’s up to business leaders to model empathy and support for everyone.
Simply reach out
Communicate with your employees. By simply asking how they are feeling and what you can do to offer support, you will make your employees feel heard, supported and respected. People leaders are doing a better job of this now. It’s work that must continue as the latest political/global moment forces new groups of people into the out group.