The crisis in Ukraine has brought with it myriad social and economic impacts. Our experts offer advice for businesses on how to respond.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February, more than 3.5million people have fled the country. In the UK, the government has set up ‘Homes for Ukraine’, a scheme that will allow UK residents to offer spare accommodation for Ukrainian refugees for at least six months. Those who take in a refugee will be offered a £350 a month “thank you payment” to help with costs. Successful refugee applicants will be granted leave to remain in the UK for three years.
A coalition of 40 large businesses, including Marks & Spencer, have indicated that they have more than 10,000 jobs available to refugees. “Ukrainian individuals who receive sponsorship under the Homes for Ukraine scheme will not need separate sponsorship from an employer for the duration of the three years they are granted leave to remain in the UK under their visa”, says Hannah Thomas, an employment law specialist at Markel Law. “This means that small businesses, who typically don’t have sponsorship licenses in place for employing people from overseas, can look to employ Ukrainian refugees as well for a time. Employers will still need to conduct right-to-work checks, however, as they would with any other employee.”
Some employees who have volunteered to host a refugee may request some time off to orientate and settle the person they’ve taken in. Leave for this reason is subject to the employer’s discretion.
Compassionate leave and support
Sadly, some employees may be directly affected by the loss of life in Ukraine. Although there is no legal obligation for employers to offer either paid or unpaid time off for compassionate or bereavement leave, individual employers may have a written policy granting time off in certain defined situations. They may also choose to grant time off for reasons relating to the conflict on a discretionary basis. “In either case”, says Hannah, “employers should be consistent in order to maintain trust and confidence when agreeing any time off.” Employees do have a statutory right to take “reasonable unpaid time off” to deal with an emergency situation involving a dependant, however, including to attend their funeral.
Directly or indirectly, news of the ongoing conflict can take its toll on employees’ mental health. Businesses should remind staff of their employee assistance programme (EAP) or other support available, or signpost towards external resources such as Mind, the mental health charity.
Employees with family or friends in Ukraine or Russia may need to make phone calls or send and receive messages during working hours. “Although employers might want to encourage staff to make personal calls during breaks, it’s important to bear in mind that employees may be distressed if they’re concerned about the welfare of their loved ones”, says Hannah. Businesses might consider relaxing rules around mobile phones, and should act reasonably when enforcing them, she says.
Military service and volunteering
Employees who are not UK nationals may be under a legal obligation to comply with a call-up notice for military service by their home country, or they may wish to volunteer. However, there’s no obligation in the UK for businesses to permit employees to temporarily leave their jobs for overseas military service.
Small businesses in particular may find it difficult to grant indefinite unpaid leave, for operational reasons. Instead, says Hannah, employers could decide to “agree a limited period of unpaid leave – maybe two or three months – in writing, to be kept under review.”
Employees may choose to resign instead, but it’s important not to put them under any pressure to do so, particularly if they have completed two years of service at the company, as this could lead to an employment tribunal claim for constructive dismissal.
UK nationals are currently advised not to travel to Ukraine, and doing so to fight (or assist others in fighting) is an offence under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. Although UK reservists are liable to be called up at short notice for military operations and terminating their employment for this reason is an offence under the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act of 1985, the UK is not directly involved in the war from a military stand point.
Employee relations and social media
Opposing views on the situation in Ukraine and its causes could give rise to tensions in the workplace, and Russians working abroad may be fearful of hostility from colleagues. Employers should be proactive in reminding staff that bullying or creating a hostile environment cannot be tolerated, says Hannah, adding that if disagreements become difficult to moderate, asking staff to refrain from discussing political opinions relative to the war may be the best approach. “While anti-war sentiments may be expressed, it goes without saying that Russophobia should not be tolerated in the workplace. Complaints of bullying and/or harassment should be dealt with carefully through disciplinary and grievance procedures.”
“It’s well established that inappropriate use of social media by an employee in connection with their employer can be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal”, says Hannah. Employees who post on social media in a professional capacity – or in a way that clearly identifies them as an employee of their company – must not bring their employer into disrepute. Posts that promote or endorse violence or discrimination – relative to the conflict in Ukraine or otherwise – should be investigated.
The National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ, recently advised that although there is not currently any evidence of “specific threats to UK organisations in relation to events in and around Ukraine”, there are various things businesses can do to improve security “when the cyber threat is heightened”. These include:
- Patching – making sure that vulnerabilities are fixed – or ‘patched – by keeping software up to date
- Verifying access – checking that only those who need access to your systems have access
- Checking defences – making sure that antivirus software is installed and active
- Reviewing backups – checking that your data is properly backed up and your backup devices are running correctly
- Phishing – ensuring that staff know how to identify and report phishing emails
The NCSC has more information on its website.