Following Ukraine Invasion, Russian-American Workers Are Being Harassed

Global HR

​Some Russian-American employees in the U.S. are being discriminated against and harassed based on their national origin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work in Chicago, offered some recent examples of discrimination:

  • An executive at a Midwest-based textiles company temporarily denied a Russian-born sales manager new customer opportunities, according to Weiss. The executive said to the sales manager, “Let’s avoid any unnecessary negative vibes with potential clients, at least until this whole Ukraine thing blows over.”
  • A supervisor at an East Coast marketing firm suggested that a new hire “just keep your head down and try to lessen that obvious Russian accent a bit for the next few months, particularly around top management,” Weiss noted.
  • A manager at an accounting firm put a Russian-speaking certified public accountant on the spot at a team meeting by repeatedly asking her to “please explain Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine.”

Managers in a number of corporate environments have ignored harassment or failed to respond when they learned of employees engaging in offensive “Russia-phobic” taunts and tropes, Weiss said. “These might include verbally calling workers of Russian origin ‘commies’ or e-mailing these individuals images of a hammer and sickle,” he said.

“Since the Ukraine invasion began, we have seen a 70 percent increase in clients requesting the inclusion of additional tangible, realistic national origin-related scenarios in our EEO [equal employment opportunity], management skills and workplace respect training programs,” Weiss said. “Some of these examples can help reveal that someone’s ancestry or national origin often does not define their political views, and knee-jerk assumptions about colleagues’ sympathies are, therefore, often widely off the mark.”

From a morale and productivity standpoint, he noted that the costs of such discrimination include:

  • Employees verbally sparring with one another over the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Staff from Russia feeling ostracized or disengaged.
  • Organizationwide loss of confidence in leadership’s commitment to fairness if EEO policies aren’t uniformly applied.

“A workplace where inappropriate conduct is not strictly prohibited could negatively impact employee retention and ultimately an organization’s bottom line,” said Mishell Parreno Taylor, an attorney with Akerman in Houston and Los Angeles.

Prohibited Conduct

Examples of conduct prohibited by Title VII would include doing any of the following because an employee is Russian or Russian-American, said Manori de Silva, an attorney with Taylor English in Atlanta:

  • Terminating the employee.
  • Removing the employee from client-facing tasks.
  • Singling out an employee to ask the worker to denounce the invasion.

“Additionally, failing to hire Russian or Russian-American candidates simply because of their nationality would be illegal, as would making generalized comments disparaging Russians,” de Silva said. “On the flip side, giving Ukrainian employees preferential treatment or promotions in light of current world events simply because they are Ukrainian would also be illegal.”

She added, “It is fine to ask your Ukrainian and Russian employees—discreetly and in a confidential setting—if they and their families are safe.”

Harassment of Russian or Russian-American employees is more likely than retaliation, said Jim Paretti, an attorney with Littler in Washington, D.C. He noted that harassment has arisen in other similar contexts, such as against
Muslims and Arabs following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and against
Asian-Americans in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Employers must make it clear that such harassment will not be tolerated, Paretti said.

Supporting Ukraine

If employers want to address the conflict in Ukraine, whether publicly or internally, they are safest focusing on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, de Silva said. For example, employers might share links to charities providing support for people fleeing the invasion.

“If the employer does wish to make a more forceful denunciation, the employer should limit it to denouncing the decision of Vladimir Putin to attack a sovereign nation—as opposed to using language like ‘Russians attacking’—and indicate that the employer supports all those fighting and protesting the invasion,” she added.

“It is one thing to condemn the Russian government or Putin. It is another thing to make disparaging comments about the Russians as a people,” said Jonathan Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City. “The former is appropriate and acceptable. The latter is unacceptable and harassing,” even if it isn’t severe and pervasive enough to be unlawful harassment.

Sometimes, negative comments will be made that clearly are intended to disparage Russians as a people. The corrective action needs to be strong, more than just coaching, Segal said.

“In my experience, training on harassment often does not provide enough attention to national origin or ancestry,” he said. “This must change if we want cultures of respect, let alone to avoid claims.”

Lead with Empathy

The C-suite should “lead with empathy and appreciate that world issues may personally impact certain employees more than others,” Parreno Taylor said.

“Ensuring that leadership is mindful to how current world affairs may impact a subset of its workforce more than others is an important part of creating a workplace welcoming to all,” she said. “A great way to do this is to ensure that business leaders are trained on business diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and unconscious bias.”

All employees should “receive training making it clear that national origin is a protected characteristic under Title VII and discrimination or harassment on this basis will not be tolerated,” said Andrew Maunz, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Pittsburgh.

How can you help?
The International Committee of the Red Cross remains active in Ukraine, saving and protecting the lives of victims of armed conflict and violence. Its neutral and impartial humanitarian action supports the most vulnerable people, and your donation will make a huge difference to families in need right now. Donate here.

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