Eleven Lessons from HR Professionals in Ukraine
Co-Authored by Uliana Morokhovska and Wendy Ulrich
For HR to continue to advance as a profession, it must  identify trends that affect value for stakeholders and  discover innovations that inform future work to address those trends.
HR work can be organized into four “human capability” categories (see figure 1). Drawing on exceptional curations of many colleagues (David Green [Insight222.com], Sian Harrington [thepeoplespace.com], Mihaly Nagy [HR-Congress.com], Chris Rainey [HRLeaders.co], Tom Haak [hrtrendinstitute.com], Debbie McGrath [hr.com], Josh Bersin [joshbersin.com], David McLean [hr.mcleanco.com]) as well as our work on the future of HR, we suggest eleven trends that are happening across the four categories. We will look at how innovations from recent experiences in Ukraine apply to each of those trends. That Ukraine has become an incubator of innovative HR fulfills Plato’s proposal, “necessity is the mother of invention,” as HR colleagues in Ukraine are reinventing HR to respond to the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian actions listed below come from what we learned in a webinar with over nine hundred registered Ukrainian HR professionals on May 31, 2022.
Talent: HR professionals build talent, which may be called individual competence, workforce, employee, or people.
1. Ensure physical safety. Without physical safety from viruses, invasions, or other safety hazards, employees are distracted, lose confidence in their organization, and cannot give their best at work.
Ukraine HR professionals made “safety comes first” their standard for employees and their families, quickly relocating those in the risky war zones to safe places inside or outside Ukraine. In addition, they adjusted policies to focus on physical safety. For example, sales reps planning business trips would take into account bunkers where they can be safe; employees changed working hours to work during safer times of day; companies provided beds for employees so they didn’t have to travel if roads were not safe; employees were provided protective clothing (bulletproof vests and helmets) if they were in a risky area.
2. Ensure psychological safety or mental or emotional health/well-being. Even as the world, in general, sees the pandemic become endemic, compromised emotional well-being that first stemmed from the pandemic remains so. Psychological safety improves emotional well-being, shapes employee experience, and impacts key outcomes.
Ukraine HR professionals offered psychological services to employees and families such as grief counseling, dealing with trauma, call-in support lines, workshops on mental health and stress reduction, and “side by side” therapy groups where employees could share. (In one company, about 65 percent of employees attended these sessions.)
3. Personalize work. Each employee may have unique work requirements and preferences (where, how, and what work is done) depending on the organization, job, and personal predisposition. Increasingly, leaders should treat employees “one by one” as they personalize work requirements.
In the invasion, Ukrainian employees were all affected, but all differently. In one large company, about 33 percent were relatively safe, 33 percent were working remotely, and 33 percent left the country or moved to safer areas (over one thousand employees and family members were relocated within ninety days). Across organizations, HR tailored their support for each evacuation of families and pets. For those who could not do their job, companies gave their employees the opportunity to do other tasks/roles. For example, office employees could be reassigned to work in a retail store or manufacturing site; talent acquisition teams could provide career support/counseling to those who lost their jobs (employees/family members); employees everywhere could dedicate time (including part of work time) to volunteer projects, a critical country-wide need.
4. Reskill/redeploy employees. As technology replaces people and as new industries emerge, employees face the task of learning and reskilling.
Ukrainian companies are reskilling employees for new opportunities. IT companies are offering massive reskilling/upskilling for all people who want to join IT, and thousands are applying. Many employees pivoted quickly to new skills, like transporting evacuees, moving from growing grain to milling it and preparing MREs for armed forces, shifting from serving consumers to serving armed forces and Territory Defense, and becoming drivers for the supply chain goods required for the business.
5. Engender an employee community of caring. In crises, people look to communities (family, neighbors, religious groups, schools, etc.) for care and support.
HR professionals in Ukraine supported employees in their desire to help one another get to safety, find housing, step into new jobs, care for children, and meet immediate needs for cash or food. Some companies have reequipped their offices to be places where people could stay to sleep, have food, get fuel, receive medicine, and get other support. Companies with international employees actively helped Ukrainian colleagues in need with housing, food, and donations (e.g., for those who lost their homes). Support to employees from the beginning was operating almost 24/7, where customer call centers sometimes became employee support call centers where employees in need could find transportation, housing, food, medicine, and other supplies.
Organization: HR professionals not only ensure individual competence but organization capability (workplace, team, culture, and system).
6. Establish the right culture. Discussions of culture have moved from a focus on values/behaviors to systems/practices, to norms/expectations, to creating the “right” culture (outside-in) given the context.
- At a country level, Ukrainian HR professionals recognized the need for and fostered the change to a pro–Ukrainian culture: “We are proud to be Ukrainians.” One organization further proclaimed, “This is my front,” acknowledging that each employee and department contributes to the war effort. This Ukrainian cultural pride is a re-birth of the country's identity of bravery, care, and resilience as evidenced in the enormous organization and personal humanitarian aid.
- At a company level, this crisis has fostered a renewed sense of equality. Traditionally, HR offered packages for different types of employees (senior management would have unique relocation or reward packages). Most companies now offer equal possibilities to all employees regardless of role and title. For example, when relocating to other locations, an evacuation bus departs at a given time and place, and anyone can join. Or when offering additional pay, the amount is often the same for all regardless of position. This culture of equality and “all in it together” has unified all within the companies.
7. Create agility. Without a doubt, today’s business challenges require rapid change, or agility, in business strategy, organization response, leadership actions, individual employee resilience, and HR services.
Ukrainian HR professionals moved fast in the face of dynamic changes. Imagine reshaping a business agenda in less than ninety days! People mattered more than policies, and efforts were made to care for people by giving people choices about staying in their old jobs, moving to new jobs inside Ukraine, or evacuating to jobs outside Ukraine. Decisions were pushed to local leaders to allocate resources to meet immediate needs. Companies whose businesses were impacted significantly were actively engaging all employees to contribute to finding new business opportunities and re-designing the business model (regular weekly/by-weekly brainstorming meetings were done specifically on this topic), so employees became co-creators of the strategy.
Leadership: HR professionals coach, facilitate, and enable leaders to be effective. New leadership skills will be required post-pandemic, none more important than caregiving.
8. Become caregivers. Traditional command and control leadership has been passé for some time and is more so now. With emotional malaise, hybrid employees, and employee primacy, leaders need to be caregivers to employees by responding to them with empathy, compassion and caring.
HR professionals in Ukraine coached leaders (many of whom may have been more traditional) to hold frequent meetings where they could share not only information but also show empathy and concern by taking care of the individual needs. In particular, delegating decisions to local leaders to provide care for specific circumstances enabled agility and showed personalized concern for employees. Some business leaders/management teams have refused their own salaries to be able to pay salaries and support their employees.
HR Work: HR professionals design and deliver HR practices to deliver value.
9. Adapt reward systems. A compensation/reward system not only allocates financial and non-financial benefits but signals what matters most in an organization.
In Ukraine, reward innovations included allowing all employees to keep salary and benefits through August 2022 even if not able to do traditional work, dividing salary into two parts (some deposited inside Ukraine and the rest deposited in other countries—often in euros, USD, or cryptocurrency), paying people in advance so they have access to money to make personal choices, and financially supporting families most directly affected by the war. Some companies that are in difficult financial situations cannot pay all salaries but are still trying to find ways to keep their team: for example, they have decided to make equal payments to all employees (whether executive or entry-level) to be able to retain the team for a longer time. Some companies allow their employees to take some other part-time jobs/projects to be able to get additional income to sustain their living. Other companies are going even beyond traditional “benefits” by opening schools and kindergartens for employees of the company that were relocated to another country so that kids can continue learning while parents can work.
10. Encourage communication. In a crisis, information becomes critical so that employees know what is happening and how to respond.
Ukrainian HR professionals are information zealots. They stay in touch and check in with every employee daily and weekly to ask if employees are safe and if something is needed, hold weekly meetings for all hands (in-person and/or digitally) to answer questions, set up daily “chat” functions digitally so employees can share with each other, and provide employee families with mobile devices to stay in touch.
Ukrainian HR professionals are creating a legacy of being resilient by facing the realities of their present circumstances, acquiring new skills (e.g., becoming experts on immigration laws for refugees, setting up businesses very quickly in new locations/countries), and offering realistic hope as employees envision a better future.
The future of HR exists today. As noted, we see many trends in human capability, and our Ukrainian colleagues facing daunting challenges are innovating and responding with creative actions. May we support one another and learn together.
Figure 2 shows the trends and encourages the HR community to identify what they can learn from the actions of those in other settings. Figure 3 shows the global HR community support for Ukrainian HR colleagues.