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When war comes to work: Tensions rise for Ukrainian workers at freelance marketplace

Toptal, a freelance platform that serves Ukrainians and Russians, is the latest site where the information war is playing out

A view of Chernihiv, where Toptal employee Alexander lives, on Jan. 29, 2022. (Oksana Parafeniuk/For The Washington Post)
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Kateryna Korolenko’s life changed on Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Bombs that shook Korolenko’s windows awakened the Kyiv native around 4:15 a.m. She and her boyfriend immediately grabbed a few belongings and hopped into their car. They drove about 500 miles to a friend’s place in western Ukraine, where they’ve been staying since.

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 hiring company that employs her for part-time work. Toptal, which has freelancers in 100 countries including Ukraine and Russia, vets freelancers for their technical expertise, professionalism and communication skills. It then offers businesses a marketplace of talent on demand and takes a portion of what it charges clients.

Korolenko says that when the war began, she requested that Toptal pay her in one lump sum instead of the regular payments over weeks, but she has not received a response. But what upsets her more, she says, is what she terms Toptal’s reluctance to openly condemn the war. She also says it has been uncomfortable to read Russian workers’ reactions to the war on Toptal’s internal Slack channels, with some comments lacking empathy. Challenging the company on how it has handled the war, a group including Korolenko posted an open letter on LinkedIn on March 7.

“People died. We would like Toptal to name [the war] in the right way,” Korolenko, 26, says.

A real-time information war is playing out among Ukrainian and Russian freelancers on internal communication channels operated by Toptal. The heated debates about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and misinformation are forcing Toptal to moderate sensitive geopolitical conversations. It is also receiving backlash from pro-Ukraine freelancers, who want the company to take a stronger stance on the war. Toptal’s situation is a microcosm of the war playing out in the workplace and highlights the difficulties global companies must navigate when dealing with employees in a war zone.

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

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

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Toptal says that it is not accepting Russian clients and that it “condemns Russia’s invasion and the human suffering the war has unleashed.” The company says it has been providing aid to its Ukrainian workers, connecting people to available resources, and is “working around-the-clock” to expedite payments.

Toptal workers’ reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have spilled into the company’s internal Slack channels. Some Ukrainian freelancers have said they feel pain and frustration watching the destruction of their cities and the loss of human life. Toptal workers in Russia also expressed their views — one of which included messaging that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was justified in his military actions against Ukrainian “Nazis,” according to screenshots of messages obtained by The Washington Post.

The conversations are accessible to any worker, meaning a Ukrainian could easily read what was happening in the Russia channels. Occasionally, workers would express their reaction in the opposing country’s channel. The result: friction, anger, shock and, in at least a couple of cases, the banning of some pro-Ukraine workers from the channels.

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Oleksii Rytov, a freelance software developer on Toptal, was temporarily banned from Toptal’s Slack channels for “profanity” and “comments that were interpreted by others as threats,” 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 about his comments. “My intention wasn’t to be rude … but I know what is true. I know where my parents are.”

Rytov is moved to tears as he thinks about his parents in Bucha, a city just northwest of Kyiv. Rytov, who lives in Poland, says his parents are existing without electricity and running water, and cannot get to a bomb shelter because his father is disabled. So, every day, he nervously waits for his mother to make her way to the 15th floor of the building where she lives to be able to send a text message to Rytov telling him they’re still alive.

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

Meanwhile, Rytov said that he struggled to get the company to expedite payments and that the company’s relief efforts have been unclear. Toptal created a Slack channel for relocation efforts, Rytov said, but the company didn’t help in any of the actual efforts to relocate people.

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

Earlier this month, Toptal chief executive Taso Du Val sent an email to workers saying the company aimed to help the “thousands” affected by providing financial, logistical and safety support. The company also told The Post that it moderates its internal Slack channels according to a standard code of conduct. Toptal acknowledged it “regrettably” had to temporarily ban a couple of Ukrainian workers from the Slack channels and has issued two warnings to Russian workers.

“The overall sentiment shared across the company is one of sadness, concern for and a strong desire to help our colleagues in Ukraine and the region and everyone impacted,” Rick Lacroix, Toptal’s vice president for corporate communications, said in an email to The Post.

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

“We want this to stop,” he said. “Hard sanctions is the way to do that.”

Pashchenko, who spoke from a dark room via Zoom, said that Ukrainians keep their lights off and windows covered at night so they aren’t seen by enemy jets and that they’re bombarded with airstrike sirens multiple times a day. He spends his time volunteering to help refugees who arrive via train and gathering supplies for the military. Even though he’s relatively safe, the stress has had a big impact on his work, he says.

“I would stare [at the screen] for 10 minutes,” he said. “Doing effective work is hard for me [right now].”

But work is no longer even an option for some freelancers in particularly dangerous areas. Alexander, whose home was shelled by Russian troops, said he and his neighbors wake up, listen for bombs and determine whether it’s safe to go outside, and check for electricity. Families sometimes have to eat cold meals or visit others for heat. Some of his neighbors are dead, others are missing. When he’s able to leave his basement, he’s helping to provide the military, neighbors and other residents with food and equipment. Everyone does something to help, he said. But the danger is constant, he added.

His brother and father are serving in the military, and he and his mother are not working, given the safety constraints. So they’re spending whatever money they have saved, without knowing what the future may hold. He says one of the companies with which he’s contracting sent him money, no strings attached, although he says he did not need it for now.

“Almost every day I’m not even sure whether I’m going to be alive tomorrow,” said Alexander, who also has been banned from Toptal’s Slack channels.

Nazariy Perepichka, a contract senior data scientist at Toptal in western Ukraine, said he knew that as a contractor he’d be afforded fewer benefits. But he didn’t foresee the risks that would be associated with working as a contractor in a war zone. Perepichka says that there are days when airstrike alarms sound every few hours and that five to six times a day, he might end up sitting in a bomb shelter. Perepichka says that because of his support for the open letter on LinkedIn, Toptal told his clients that he no longer works with the service.

“You can argue that you took some risks [as a contractor] and that’s why you were left behind in this situation,” he said, adding that he’s privileged enough not to need assistance. “But this situation is extraordinary, and I think that companies should be considerate about the fate of their contractors. At the end of the day, we still contribute to the company’s success and the company’s revenue.”

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Before the Russian invasion, Perepichka said his life was much like the average American’s. He was working from his office, drinking Starbucks-like coffee, planning his retirement, reading the Economist, and watching Netflix and American YouTubers. He was freelancing for American companies and was thoroughly wrapped up in American politics. But that all changed in one night, he said.

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