For companies with employees in Ukraine, the Russian invasion is a test of crisis management

When the world seems to get more complex, interconnected, and turbulent, experts say crisis-management teams will go from “nice to have” to “need to have.”
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· 5 min read

If The West Wing were rebooted in 2022, the cast of characters walking and talking at a furious pace about international crises might not be White House staffers at all—they might work in HR, IT, and facilities at global brands viewers know and love. Running a company in an increasingly interconnected world can mean being as well-versed in geopolitics as seasoned political pros. Perhaps the best display of this reality was the swift corporate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.

Many global firms routinely assess geopolitical risk, and for weeks, some that operate in Eastern Europe have been quietly taking progressively greater steps to activate contingency plans to protect employees’ safety, ranging from communicating with employees on the ground to shuttering facilities and arranging relocation options.

Protocol reported that some US tech companies—including Lyft, Uber, and Wix—are offering to relocate Ukrainian employees to safer regions after the invasion. Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez International (the company that produces its Oreo cookies in the region) announced quickly that they were temporarily shuttering factories, warehouses, and supply chains in the region, while other manufacturers, like Nokia, Cisco, and PepsiCo, confirmed that their crisis teams had been working closely with Ukrainian employees for weeks to provide them with additional support.

To better understand how organizations prepare for the unpredictable consequences of war and other calamities, HR Brew spoke to two crisis-management experts at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University: founding co-director Leonard Marcus and associate director Eric McNulty.

Marcus said the corporate actions during the week of the 24th were likely the result not of watching one news cycle, but having a constant eye on the tensions.

“For those that have been [doing business] there for a long time, this harkens back to the Soviet era. So they’ve been thinking about this [possibility], no doubt, for some time. They no doubt have been watching the reports that have been coming out from the intelligence community,” Marcus said.

He added that organizations that operate in Eastern Europe in particular would have found the news of Russia’s invasion “very unfortunate, though not shocking.”

911, we already know the emergency. Many large global companies have dedicated crisis-management teams tasked with monitoring situations like the conflict in Ukraine and developing response plans. At their best, Marcus says the teams represent perspectives from across the company, including the C-suite, IT, HR, and facilities.

McNulty said crisis-management teams often run fire drills so that when the worst-case scenarios do happen, like when a war breaks out, teams communicate quickly and well to adjust workstreams, stay agile, and keep employees safe.

“In the best-case scenario, you’ve got a team. The team has trained together,” Marcus explained. “So they’re using the same vocabulary, the same ways of thinking about a crisis. They know what each other does.”

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McNulty stressed that training doesn’t have to break the bank.

“There’s a large-caliber way of doing this, which is the ‘build out and do these full-blown exercises’ [approach], which is really useful, but a smaller approach for small and medium-sized enterprises that may not have a lot of resources, could be that when you read a headline and something happened to somebody else, take an hour over a brown-bag lunch and talk through it: If this happened to us, what will we do? Where are our vulnerabilities?’”

Another approach McNulty suggested is to build in what he calls “strategic inefficiencies” so that if personnel, supply chains, or workflows are disrupted due to an emergency, overall operations are less impacted. He said that being lean “is great when everything works” and “not so great when everything doesn’t work,” like a time of crisis.

“Build the ability to flex and surge into your system—that could be having people cross-trained in jobs, so that if you lose one chunk of people, others can step in.”

The future is fragile. Though Ukraine is now in the news, McNulty said that crisis management will increasingly become part of running a business.

“There is more complexity to it than there used to be in part because our supply chains have truly gone global for a lot of different industries—as has the workforce—and so you have to be aware of the geopolitical currents of what’s happening in terms of world politics,” McNulty said. “And as those become less stable in more places, it’s important to be a bit of an international ambassador as well as the traditional notion of running a company.”

He added that remote work will continue to complicate the picture for companies that might not have traditionally considered themselves global firms.

“You may have thought, ‘Okay, all of our workforce is in the tri-state area. And that’s great. We know what to worry about.’ But all of a sudden, now you’ve got folks working from all over the country or all over the world. You’ve got a very different footprint,” McNulty said. “[For example,] what if one of our employees is stuck in Lithuania because they decided to go to Lithuania? Are you going to provide them any kind of assistance getting out if they have to? It’s just good to raise those questions.”— SV

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HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.