Supporting staff affected by events in Ukraine: Guidance for small business employers

Blogs 18 Mar 2022

Hannah Thomas from FSB Employment Protection and Christine Husbands from FSB Care share practical advice for small business owners with employees affected by the conflict in Ukraine.

As the war in Ukraine continues and news of the shocking devastation, refugee crisis and loss of life in Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, it is inevitable that at some stage, as an employer, you will need to address issues that arise in relation to your staff that are either personally affected by the conflict, or more indirectly impacted.  

Rules on personal telephone calls during working hours

Your employees may wish to make or accept personal telephone calls to family or friends in Ukraine and/or Russia, including during working time, so you may need to consider your approach to this. 

You should consider whether, within reason, to relax any current rules you have in place prohibiting or limiting personal telephone calls during working hours and/or allowing staff to keep their mobile phones with them while on-site; or to remind employees that personal telephone calls should take place during work breaks, where possible.

You should be alert to the fact that your employees may be in distress where they have concerns regarding family or friends’ welfare and should act reasonably when enforcing current rules.

Employee relations

Your staff may have opposing views on what’s happening, or the cause of the conflict, which could lead to potential conflict in the workplace and Russian employees may fear reprisals or hostility from colleagues. 

You should follow your policy on bullying and harassment, including any policy on social media postings that are connected to the employee’s employment. If there is a risk of arguments between employees because of different viewpoints, employees can be reminded that bullying, or other conduct that may create a hostile atmosphere in the workplace will not be tolerated.

Complaints of bullying and/or harassment, including on racial grounds, should be dealt with under your disciplinary and grievance procedures. Employers should be careful to investigate any complaints/grievances in a reasonable manner.

You may want to prepare managers as to how to respond to concerns from employees and of any relevant policies you have in place, such as compassionate leave policies for those directly affected by war or bereavement. 

Counselling support

You may offer an Employee Assistance Programme, in which case employees can be reminded of how to access this support.  Alternatively, you may choose to signpost employees to organisations, such as Mind, that provide mental health wellbeing support.  You may wish to send a company-wide message to all employees reminding employees of any existing wellbeing policies or support they have in place, or point employees to relevant organisations. 

Non-UK nationals who are called up to military service by their home country, or non-reservists who wish to volunteer

It is possible that a non-UK national employee will be under a legal obligation to comply with a call-up notice for military service by their home country, so may have little choice but to comply; or they may simply wish to volunteer. However, there is no statutory obligation for employers under UK law to permit employees to leave their employment on a temporary basis for military service by overseas armed forces, although employers will want to act fairly where possible. You will need to decide how to respond in this scenario.    

For most small business employers, it will be operationally difficult to agree to permit an indefinite period of unpaid leave for the purpose of military service. You may wish to agree to a limited period of unpaid leave, say for two or three months initially (to be kept under review) and record this agreement in writing. 

Alternatively, your employee may choose to resign their employment; although they shouldn’t be put under any pressure to do so, as this may lead to a potential employment tribunal claim for constructive dismissal if the employee has at least two years’ employment. 

You could take steps to dismiss the employee for ‘some other substantial reason’, but legal advice should be sought in the first instance to reduce the risks of an unfair dismissal claim if employees have sufficient service to bring a claim. FSB members should always contact the FSB Legal Advice line prior to taking steps to dismiss.

By contrast, under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, members of the UK volunteer reserve forces, or the regular reserve forces are liable to be called up (or recalled) at short notice for military operations.

It is an offence under the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 to terminate a reservist employee's employment because they have been (or are liable to be) called up for active military service by the UK reserve forces. At present, however, the UK is not taking part in the conflict and UK nationals have been advised against travel to Ukraine by the UK government.  The UK Foreign Office website makes it clear that it is currently an offence to travel from the UK to Ukraine to fight, or to assist others engaged in the conflict.

HR advice you can trust

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Employee wellbeing

It has been well recognised that the past two years of the pandemic have had a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of many people. The events in Ukraine are bound to add to this toll both for those who are directly affected as well as the impact of the humanitarian crisis.

Therefore, you should be aware that some workers may experience increased stress, anxiety and depression and think about what they can do to help.

The impact of this crisis will be experienced differently by each individual, so you need to be flexible and supportive. A culture where it’s okay to talk about concerns, fears and the impact on individuals is a great foundation. Other tips include encouraging employees to be selective in their monitoring of news through reputable sources rather than social media, or supporting employees who wish to donate or volunteer towards humanitarian efforts.

You should take care to notice any employees who appear to be struggling and ensure that they are given appropriate internal and professional external support such as an Employee Assistance Programme.

FSB members have free access to FSB Care which provides long-term access to a registered mental health nurse who can give professional advice, guidance and support, as well as sourcing the most appropriate form of therapy or other appropriate professional help. FSB Care can also give members advice about an employee or support the employee directly for an additional cost.

You don’t have to face it alone

Running your own business isn’t always smooth sailing, but when you’re the boss, who can you turn to? Access confidential and long-term support for physical or mental health conditions from FSB Care. We’re here for you.

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