Fallout Against Russian-born Employees

Question:

Like most other oil-patch companies that need highly skilled employees and want to diversify their labor pool, ours has hired several Russian emigrants. Other than coworkers complaining that these employees’ accents make understanding them difficult, we had no problems — until Russia invaded Ukraine.

At first, nothing occurred that created worry. Many of our employees knew little about Ukraine and so peppered the emigrants with questions. But as the horror of what was happening in Ukraine continued, our employees grew angrier. Several employees asked their Russian-born coworkers how they could possibly “defend” what was going on. Things got worse when one of the emigrants defended Putin, calling him a strong leader.

How much trouble do we get into if we fire this one employee? While she’s technically skilled, she’s not well-liked and often causes friction by acting superior when she disagrees with coworkers or even her supervisor on technical matters.

Answer:

You’re not alone. According to a recent Society for Human Resources article, managers in a variety of workplaces are dealing with employees making Russia-phobic taunts and ostracizing Russian-born employees.2

 The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and most state and municipal laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin. Actions that might constitute illegal discrimination would be firing a Russian-born employee simply because of their national origin or removing a Russian-born employee from customer-facing tasks.

Attorney Phillippe Weiss, President of the legal compliance firm Seyfarth at Work, reported several recent examples of potential discrimination. These included a supervisor asking an employee to “try to lessen that obvious Russian accent” for the next few months, and a manager denying a Russian-born sales manager new customer opportunities, saying “Let’s avoid any unnecessary negative vibes with potential clients, at least until this whole Ukraine thing blows over.”1

But can you fire an employee who publicly supports Putin? According to attorney Eric Meyer, Partner at FisherBroyles LLP, the answer for private sector employers not subject to off-duty conduct or political speech protection laws is yes, given that this employee’s statements could undermine your organization’s culture or values.4 As a recent example of employer actions, a Virginia school district suspended a substitute teacher who told his eighth-grade Spanish class, which included a Ukrainian student, that he personally supported Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.3 Although public employees have limited free speech rights if they speak in their role as a private citizen on a matter of public concern without interfering with their job, this substitute teacher’s job was teaching Spanish, not world events.

When you’re making these decisions, be careful not to conflate an employee’s love for their Russian origin with being “pro-Putin.” While reacting to the former potentially shows national origin bias, no laws protect Putin admirers. You also need to remember that an employee’s national origin doesn’t define their political views. Putin isn’t Russia, particularly for employees who longer live in Russia. After all, they left Russia for a reason.     

Finally, this is just the latest surge of national origin harassment, and similar to the harassing behaviors that occurred during the onset of COVID-19 against employees with Chinese heritage. Employers need to make it clear to all employees that nation-origin harassment won’t be tolerated. World events, however, impact all employees, and what’s occurring in the Ukraine creates widespread grief. Are there ways you can channel your employees’ anger and sense of powerlessness by offering them avenues to respond in humanitarian ways that support Ukrainians fleeing the invasion?  

You’ll find effective strategies for aiding those suffering from the invasion in https://bit.ly/3wpM1KM

p.s. On a personal level I #standwithUkraine. Absolutely. At the same time, I don’t take my anger against the horror happening in Ukraine against employees who were born with a different national origin.

1 Following Ukraine Invasion, Russian-American Workers Are Being Harassed (shrm.org) & additional fact-checking with attorney Weiss

2 Eric B. Meyer via The Employer Handbook <eric.meyer@fisherbroyles.com

3 Virginia school suspends substitute teacher after he backed Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine | Daily Mail Online

4 Pro-Putin Workers May Pose Legal Conundrum For Employers – Law360 & additional fact checking with attorney Meyer

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7 thoughts on “Fallout Against Russian-born Employees

  1. The simplistic, “I #standwithUkraine” doesn’t come close to addressing the complexities of the situation. The Donbas area is Ukraine, yet “Ukraine” has been fighting the pro-Russian, anti-government, Donbas region for over 7 years.

    Then there are the similarities of us not wanting missiles in Cuba and Putin not wanting NATO in the Ukraine. I stand for PEACE and just wish civilization was advanced sufficiently for members of the human race to live in harmony. Unfortunately, Taiwan is very likely next on the agenda of the world of disorder…

  2. This is how insane this “cancel culture” is becoming:

    “The Iatros Clinic in Munich is now refusing to treat Russians and Belarusians amid a NATO-led crusade of hatred and xenophobia against all things Russian.”

    A statement from the German hospital explains that “from now on and until further notice, we will not treat Russia and Belarusian citizens.”

  3. Thanks for the balanced comments on whether you can fire an employee for expressing support of Putin or for making comments against Ukraine or even for advocating for Ukraine. And thanks for sharing your personal opinion in the column, though this probably wouldn’t happen in your workplace. IT seems, some days, there are more issues than ever.

  4. https://www.activistpost.com/2022/03/its-now-offensive-to-listen-to-long-dead-russian-composers-and-other-absurd-global-weekly-news.html

    Russian Musicians Canceled, Dead or Alive

    The Cardiff Philharmonic in Wales canceled a concert scheduled for tonight which was to feature Russian composer Tchaikovsky.
    Although he has been dead for 129 years, two of his featured pieces celebrate Russian military victories. The 1812 Overture celebrates Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading army, and Marche Slave commemorates Russia’s involvement in the Serbian-Ottoman War.
    The orchestra’s director said they “were also made aware at the time that the title ‘Little Russian’ of Symphony No. 2 was deemed offensive to Ukrainians.”

    Meanwhile in Canada, a living Russian pianist, Alexander Malofeev, was canceled just for being Russian.
    The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal canceled three performances by the young pianist scheduled for last week.
    It said, “Considering the serious impact on the civilian population of Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion… OSM feels that it would be inappropriate to receive Mr. Malofeev this week.”
    The baby-faced 20-year-old even denounced Russia’s invasion, despite the risk to his family still in Russia.

    Apparently just being Russian, whether 129 years dead or barely an adult, makes you guilty of Putin’s crimes.

  5. Even the dead who had nothing to do with the invasion are not allowed to Rest In Peace………

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/yuri-gagarin-the-first-person-in-space-has-had-his-name-removed-from-a-space-foundation-fundraiser-following-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine/ar-AAVgP3M?ocid=msedgntp

    Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, has had his name removed from the US-based nonprofit Space Foundation Foundation fundraiser, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yuri Gagarin died March 27, 1968.

  6. More Lunacy:

    The Washington Post
    @washingtonpost

    International Cat Federation bans Russian cats from competitions
    washingtonpost.com

    International Cat Federation bans Russian cats from competitions
    The Fédération Internationale Féline is among the latest groups to isolate Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
    3:39 AM · Mar 3, 2022

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