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Helping Prepare Workers for Global Postings Falls to HR

By Kathy Gurchiek  10/9/2007
 

There’s more to sending an employee off on a global assignment than directing him or her to the company travel agency. Employers have a duty of care to protect those business travelers, and HR can help the employer in doing just that.

That was the message during a concurrent session, “The Duty of Care: Protecting Business Travelers & Cross-Border Assignees,” at the 2007 Virginia SHRM conference in Arlington, Va.

While international business travel is not new, the far-flung destinations attracting business travelers have changed—Libya is the destination for oil companies, the Czech Republic is the destination for consulting firms, and China is the destination for the tobacco industry, presenter Allen Koski pointed out during the Oct. 4, 2007, session.

Also, more and more organizations are finding they need to station employees overseas as businesses go global, said Koski, director of international sales for CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits.

That’s happening for a variety of reasons, including a “gold rush mentality” surrounding business growth, he said, and the difficulty of obtaining H-1B visas for foreign workers to work in the United States.

Heightening unrest around the world also is causing more employers to conduct due diligence to encourage employees to take overseas assignments, he said.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm of issues that have come together,” Koski said.

Globally mobile employees include:

    • Expatriates. Any employee residing and working outside of his or her home country.

    • Third-country nationals. Any employee working for a U.S. company who is from a foreign country working in another foreign country.

    • Inter-regional assignees. Any employee who is functioning like an expat within a region or country.

    • Key local nationals. Any executive, partner or high-level manager working in his or her own country outside the United States or Canada.

    • Inpatriates. Any employee working in the United States who is a citizen of another country; often on rotation or training assignment.

    • Executive travelers. Any employee on short-term assignment or extended business travel.

Employers might not always realize the potential impact overseas assignments can have on their globally mobile employees, Koski said.

For example, the fact that Beijing has poor air quality is something a global employee assigned there will want to know—particularly if he or she will be accompanied by an asthmatic child.

It is HR’s role, Koski said, to help the employer understand the implications and special needs of employees traveling to or assigned overseas, and to help the employer find solutions.

Myriad Issues

Duty of care covers myriad issues, ranging from counseling global employees to wear brown shoes as a way to appear more European and less of a target, to advising employees with medical needs to have a copy of their prescription and making sure their health needs can be serviced in the area where they are assigned.

Other considerations include:

    • Understanding local medical practices. Getting a second medical opinion, for example, is not a worldwide practice.

    • Recognizing that medical standards vary within a country. In developing countries, the best medical care usually is concentrated in the capital or a major city.

    • Understanding the challenges of driving in a new environment, including signage, directions, language issues and traffic patterns, such as driving on the left vs. the right side of the road.

    • Communicating sanitation and hygiene issues. That may include not consuming the water—including as ice, as an ingredient in beverages, and when brushing one’s teeth. It also includes getting the appropriate shots when traveling to certain areas of the world.

    • Making sure your third-country national doesn’t get lost in the system. An employee from France working for a U.S. company located in Brazil can easily be overlooked in how his or her medical benefits are handled, for example.

    • Knowing the employee’s itinerary, providing the employee with a local contact number for the area he or she is traveling to, and recognizing that 1-800 numbers for health providers won’t help employees outside the United States.

    • Having a procedure to follow in the event of a natural disaster, war, terrorist act, medical emergency or epidemic.

There’s no need to go overboard, though, cautioned Koski, who stressed keeping perspective.

“You need to temper the security issues and not get carried away,” he said. He recalled an employer who had an employee balking over an overseas assignment after hearing about a murder in the assigned city.

While it was unsettling, it was the first such incident there in many years. Furthermore, business travelers continue to journey to U.S. cities despite some locations’ high rates of murder and other violent crimes.

Communicate Openly, Thoroughly, Often

More than half of employees who are internationally assigned workers don’t think their employers do a good job of communicating in three key areas—what to do in a safety or security crisis, how to find quality care locally, and what to do in a medical emergency, Koski said.

Clear communication is crucial for preparing globally mobile employees for their assignments. Make sure they know how to deal with various “what if” scenarios as well as what to do if they need medical advice, require a specialty referral for care beyond a general practitioner’s, or find themselves in an urgent or emergency care situation.

Have some plans in place and communicate those plans—openly, thoroughly and often. Best practices, he said, include paying attention to the details, completeness and applicability of the benefits package to global workers; paying attention to family issues; attending to personal and professional needs and wants; using vendors with the right tools, experience and infrastructure to support your global workers; and buying international for best international results.

Duty of care, said Koski, comes down to two words—“prepare me.”

“It seems like a simple concept,” he added, “but it’s often forgotten.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

Related Article:

Business Travelers Doubt Employers’ Ability To Offer Aid in Emergency, HR News, Aug. 22, 2007

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