National Origin Discrimination and Russia’s War on Ukraine: Why Employers Must Be Proactive

For employers, a key component of preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace includes an awareness of current events and the potential that certain employees may become higher-risk targets of discriminatory conduct. Employers who have cultural awareness and who treat their employees with empathy in the process of operating their organizations are more poised than others to foster a work culture where respect is the norm and where all employees feel welcome.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian-American and Russian born employees in the United States may be at an increased risk of being discriminated against and/or harassed on the basis of their national origin, whether actual or perceived. This is especially true now, where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting war is a daily headline and where the actions of the Russian government or Vladimir Putin may become subjects of discussion among employees. While criticism of the war or Russia’s political actions is not discriminatory or unlawful, such criticism may easily launch into conversations among employees where disparaging comments are made about Russians generally. These conversations may serve to foster a hostile work environment for Russian born or Russian-American employees, which is dangerous territory for employers who are seeking to foster a positive work environment, comply with anti-discrimination laws, and avoid potential litigation.

Title VII and a plethora of other state and local anti-discrimination laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York Human Rights Law, compel employers to take all steps necessary to prohibit harassment and discrimination, including based on national origin, and to avoid retaliating against employees who complain about unlawful conduct if and when it occurs. This is true whether those employees are on the receiving end of the harassing conduct or they witness such conduct in the workplace and report it to management.

Prudent employers seek not just to prohibit and address harassment and discrimination, but also to prevent it in the first place. To that end, it is crucial for all employers to have strong anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place. Employees should be required to sign off that they have received, read, and understand these policies. It is also critical that all employees receive routine anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. Thorough anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training not only educates employees about the types of behavior that constitute harassment and/or discrimination in an effort to prevent it entirely, but it also provides the mechanism for reporting violations of such policies should they occur. If and when employers are faced with a complaint of harassment or discrimination, employers must utilize and apply these policies uniformly to immediately investigate the complaint and address any violative conduct.

In light of current affairs, employers may want to take time to reiterate that their organization has a zero-tolerance policy toward all forms harassment and discrimination.

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