The response to Ukraine will change the way companies react to conflicts

Some companies say they stand with Ukraine’s people.
Some companies say they stand with Ukraine’s people.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
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The corporate response to the war in Ukraine has been swift and self-perpetuating. Hundreds of companies have cut ties to Russia, hoping to pressure its political leader to back down. Seemingly every new company that joins the boycott gives another CEO the courage to do the same.

Why are companies as varied as big banks, tech giants, and fast food outlets like McDonald’s leaving Russia despite the financial losses, often after decades of investing in the country? And even when some argue that leaving Russia only punishes everyday Russians, rather than its political leaders?

Partly, they’re reacting to public opinion. But also, as New York Times journalist Peter Coy notes, CEOs are human, too, and “they’re as appalled as everyone else by the death and destruction that Putin is visiting on Ukraine.”

The same can be said for their employees. Across the US, workers have been vocal about their wish to see companies leave Russia, make statements condemning the war, or pledge their support for the Ukrainian people seeing their homes, schools, and hospitals bombed, says Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a global association that advises HR managers and companies.

Quartz asked Taylor about what he’s hearing and what advice he has for companies as they watch employees struggle with news of the war. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: When companies started pulling out of Russia, was some of that a response to employee pressure?

Taylor: My instinct is most of it came from consumer activism. But there are absolutely employees speaking up. I’ve had employees at SHRM asking asking “Are we going to say anything or do anything?” The employees were very, very vocal. So companies needed to put together a plan allows that allows employees to know that you’re not ignoring what’s going on globally, and that you are bothered by violence of any kind, war of any kind.

What kinds of questions do company leaders grappling with the Russia-Ukraine issue have for you?

There are really three categories. The first thing is, should we respond? We’ve had this ongoing debate now for the last several years. I want to be clear: We’re a global society, so everything impacts you whether you know it or not. But the question is, where should a company respond to issues that aren’t arguably directly connected to your business?

Secondly, if you’ve decided you’re going to respond, what do you say and what’s the real focus of your statement? Are you taking a position about war generally? Are you taking a position about how it might be impacting your employees? Or do you go externally and get into the fray and decide to take sides?

The third level of inquiry is: Now that we’ve made a statement, and we’re talking to our employees, what is the focus? The employers I’ve spoken with have tried to be very careful with this, because an employer who takes a position runs the risk of offending employees who might be of the other ethnicity. In my shop, I have people who were born in Russia, and then there are people who are married to Russian-Americans. While you may want to take a position about Russia, that comes with risk as well.

How do you answer these questions?

No matter who the employee is and where they stand on the issue, we use empathy to let employees know we suspect they’re feeling saddened and shocked, and this is not good for them. It’s creating stress in their life. Mental health was the topic that we are all incredibly focused on pre-Russia-Ukraine, pre-pandemic. It’s “Know that we are going to do everything we can do to allow you to focus on the mental health implications of this,” and then provide services like employee assistance programs and make sure people are aware of them.

We learned this from the post-George Floyd moment: It’s not okay to say to people “Don’t talk about this, or do it only on your personal time.” Instead, say if you need to or want to talk about this at work, your human resources professionals will find a way to make sure you can be heard.

Companies will decide their tolerance for doing this versus taking a side.

With companies that have pulled out of Russia, I think it would be hard to argue that you’re not choosing a side. Has anybody tried to say this is not against Russians, it’s against Putin’s actions?

It is absolutely brilliant to focus on the individual who ultimately is making this decision—again, if you feel compelled to take a side. If what we’re seeing is accurate—the bombing of children and maternity wards—it’s a safe position to say, “I’m going to take a side on this.”

A company that I spoke with made exactly that point, that we are not taking a position on it, we’re talking about Putin. That’s not without risk either because there were people who really felt equally outraged during the US-Iraq situation, and they despised our president for taking the position that he did and wished his death and everything else. It gets murky. But it seems the overwhelming agreement is that the way in which Putin has ordered this is barbaric.

Do you think that the reaction we’ve seen so far is going to push companies to have to take similar take similar stances in the future, or is this just such an egregious example that it won’t change future expectations?

I think there is no question that it will open companies up to questions in the future. I want to be really clear: I’m not suggesting that a company should not take a position, because I do think this is incredibly egregious. That being said, we all should acknowledge that we’re playing with a slippery slope. We’re already beginning to see this in the workplace. There is a question amongst the employee population, why now? Why this one and why not when other atrocities have occurred? Why not the same level of outrage? And it’s a fair question.

Is there anything else employers can be doing right now as employees around the world absorb the news from Ukraine?

I have an 11-year-old daughter. Children are obviously exposed to everything on social media and this situation is omnipresent, so it’s having an impact on children. When I see my 11-year-old asking, “Did they really hit a school? Am I safe at school?”—as a parent, you don’t leave that at home when you leave your kid. You think about it all day.

We’re also really mindful about helping our employees know how to, if they choose to, discuss this war with their children because it does create real stress. Guidance for parents on how to talk to children about war is not a small issue; these children are traumatized because they don’t have the context, they don’t have the maturity, so they’re totally overwhelmed by all of this. Why would people kill children? And is it safe to attend school?

I’ve read stories about Russian employees being harassed in US workplaces. Is that becoming a widespread problem?

Companies have to be really mindful of the diversity that is the American workplace. No one should be held accountable for something that Putin does clear across the world. We, as employers, have an obligation to protect people from workplace harassment.