Tensions rise for Ukrainian Toptal workers amid Russian invasion

As a freelancer working in interface design in Ukraine, Korolenko says she has limited financial and logistical support from Toptal, the San Francisco-based global staffing firm that employs her on a part-time basis. Toptal, which has freelancers in 100 countries including Ukraine and Russia, selects freelancers for their technical expertise, professionalism and communication skills. It then offers businesses an on-demand talent marketplace and takes a portion of what it charges customers.

Korolenko says that when the war started, she asked Toptal to pay her all at once instead of regular payments over several weeks, but she received no response. But what upsets her most, she says, is what she calls Toptal’s reluctance to openly condemn the war. She also says it has been uncomfortable reading Russian workers’ reactions to the war on Toptal’s internal Slack channels, with some comments lacking empathy. Questioning the company on how it handled the war, a group of which Korolenko posted a open letter on LinkedIn March 7.

“People have died. We would like Toptal to appoint [the war] in a good way,” says Korolenko, 26.

A real-time information war is being played out between Ukrainian and Russian freelancers over internal communication channels operated by Toptal. Heated debates over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and misinformation compel Toptal to moderate sensitive geopolitical conversations. It also receives backlash from pro-Ukrainian freelancers, who want the company to take a tougher stance on the war. Toptal’s situation is a microcosm of the war unfolding in the workplace and highlights the difficulties that global companies must overcome when dealing with employees in a war zone.

“It’s not just a war with guns; it’s information warfare,” said Alexander, a software architect who uses Toptal and lives in a basement in the Ukrainian town of Chernihiv. Alexander spoke on the condition that his surname would not be used, for the safety of family members who joined the military.

“Toptal may or may not want to admit it, but the war is going on inside their [Slack] channels as well,” Alexander said.

Toptal says it does not accept Russian customers and “condemns the invasion of Russia and the human suffering the war has unleashed.” The company says it has provided relief to its Ukrainian workers, connected people to available resources and is “working around the clock” to expedite payments.

Reactions from Toptal workers to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spread through the company’s internal Slack channels. Some Ukrainian freelancers said they felt pain and frustration seeing the destruction of their cities and loss of life. Toptal workers in Russia also expressed their views – one of which included messages that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was justified in his military actions against Ukrainian ‘Nazis’, according to screenshots of messages obtained by the Washington Post.

Conversations are accessible to any worker, which means a Ukrainian could easily read what was happening on Russian channels. Sometimes the workers expressed their reaction in the chain of the opposing country. The result: friction, anger, shock and, in at least a few cases, the banning of some pro-Ukrainian workers from the chains.

Oleksii Rytov, an independent software developer on Toptal, has been temporarily banned from Toptal’s Slack channels for “profanity” and “comments interpreted by others as threatening”, according to screenshots of communications between the company and Rytov. But Rytov, whose parents are still in Ukraine, said he wanted to be heard.

“Maybe what I said wasn’t very polite,” Rytov said of his comments. “I didn’t mean to be rude…but I know what’s true. I know where my parents are.

Rytov is moved to tears thinking of his parents in Bucha, a town just northwest of kyiv. Rytov, who lives in Poland, says his parents live without electricity or running water and cannot go to a bomb shelter because his father is disabled. So every day he nervously waits for his mother to come to the 15th floor of the building where she lives so he can text Rytov telling him they’re still alive.

Rytov, who was born in Russia and is fluent in the language, said given his situation, emotions ran high when he saw a message from a Russian worker justifying the war. He said he reported the matter to the Toptal team – he says he never heard any follow-up to the situation – and posted heated responses on Slack to comments about the war.

Meanwhile, Rytov said he had struggled to get the company to speed up payments and the company’s relief efforts were unclear. Toptal created a Slack channel for relocation efforts, Rytov said, but the company hasn’t helped in any of the actual efforts to relocate people.

“They didn’t do anything,” he said. “They just let us discuss our issues.”

Earlier this month, Toptal chief executive Taso Du Val emailed workers saying the company aims to help the “thousands” affected by providing financial, logistical and training support. security. The company also told The Post that it moderates its internal Slack channels according to a standard code of conduct. Toptal acknowledged that it “unfortunately” had to temporarily ban a few Ukrainian workers from Slack channels and issued two warnings to Russian workers.

“The general feeling shared across the company is one of sadness, concern and a strong desire to help our colleagues in Ukraine and the region and all those affected,” said Rick Lacroix, vice- president of corporate communications at Toptal, in an email to The Post. .

Bogdan Pashchenko, a contracted iOS developer who uses Toptal in central Ukraine, said he was “extremely frustrated” with Toptal’s moderation of Ukrainian workers’ comments, which express painful emotions and realities on Slack. Another source of discontent for Pashchenko is Toptal’s ongoing work with Russian freelancers, who he says could help pressure the Russian government to end the war.

“We want this to stop,” he said. “Strong penalties are the way to do it.”

Pashchenko, who spoke from a darkened room via Zoom, said Ukrainians keep their lights off and their windows covered at night so they are not seen by enemy planes and bombarded with airstrike sirens several times a day. He spends his time volunteering to help refugees arriving by train and gathering supplies for the army. Although he is relatively safe, the stress has had a big impact on his work, he says.

” I will look at [at the screen] for 10 minutes,” he said. “Doing an effective job is difficult for me [right now].”

But working is no longer even an option for some freelancers in particularly dangerous areas. Alexander, whose home was bombed by Russian troops, said he and his neighbors woke up, listened to the bombs and determined if it was safe to go out and checked the electricity. Families sometimes have to eat cold meals or visit others for warmth. Some of his neighbors are dead, others are missing. When he is able to leave his basement, he helps supply the military, neighbors and other residents with food and supplies. Everyone is doing something to help, he says. But the danger is constant, he added.

His brother and father serve in the army, and he and his mother do not work, given security constraints. So they spend all the money they have saved, not knowing what the future holds. He says one of the companies he has a contract with sent him money, unconditionally, although he says he doesn’t need it at the moment.

“Almost every day I’m not even sure I’ll be alive tomorrow,” said Alexander, who was also banned from Toptal’s Slack channels.

Nazariy Perepichka, a senior contract scientist at Toptal in western Ukraine, said he knew as an entrepreneur he would enjoy fewer benefits. But he hadn’t anticipated the risks that would be associated with working as a contractor in a war zone. Perepichka says there are days when airstrike alarms go off every few hours and five to six times a day he could find himself sitting in a bomb shelter. Perepichka says that because of his support of the Open Letter on LinkedIn, Toptal told his clients he was no longer working with the service.

“You can say you took risks [as a contractor] and that’s why you were left behind in this situation,” he said, adding that he was privileged enough not to need help. “But this situation is extraordinary, and I think that companies must be attentive to the fate of their subcontractors. In the end, we always contribute to the success and revenue of the company. »

Before the Russian invasion, Perepichka said his life was very much like that of the average American. He worked from his desk, drank coffee at Starbucks, planned his retirement, read The Economist and watched Netflix and American YouTubers. He was freelancing for American companies and completely absorbed in American politics. But everything changed overnight, he says.

“I woke up after a call from my mother,” he said. “She said, ‘The war has started,’ and my life isn’t the same.”

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