Many Firms Fail to Protect Workers Traveling, Living Abroad

By Steve Bates March 2, 2014

Many employers send employees abroad without adequate protection from natural disasters and man-made threats, according to travel security experts. By failing to evaluate risks comprehensively and provide critical resources to business travelers and expatriate assignees, organizations are endangering their employees and exposing themselves to significant legal liability.

As terror threats, diseases, natural disasters and other dangers mount, employers must establish detailed plans for ensuring traveling employees’ well-being. This obligation is legal and moral, noted Lisbeth Claus, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR, professor of global human resources at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management in Portland, Ore.

“Every day there is something happening somewhere” that puts business travelers and expats at risk, Claus said, adding that every organization needs a travel management program, commonly known as a duty-of-care plan. The plan must be adjusted regularly as conditions change around the world and as companies review their plans’ efficacy. “It’s not like you can adopt a plan and say, ‘OK, we’ve got it under control.’ ”

A 2010 duty-of-care benchmarking study written by Claus and published by medical care and security provider International SOS, based near Washington, D.C., showed that less than half of companies were monitoring workers when they travel globally.

“Companies are woefully unprepared,” said John Rose, COO of Annapolis, Md.-based risk-management solutions firm iJet and co-chair of the Risk Committee of the Global Business Travelers Association. “They don’t have the infrastructure to keep those travelers safe.”

Claus said that she has seen improvement in duty-of-care planning over the past three to four years, “but the bar is getting higher.”

HR plays a key role in ensuring that travelers are as safe as they can be, given all the unpredictable events that can occur. However, experts say that ownership of duty-of-care plans should be shared by HR with other key stakeholders, including those responsible for security, risk management and travel, as well as with senior management.

“It starts at the cultural level. The onus is on the company to mandate training” on company policies and practices for safe travel, Rose said.

A recent court case demonstrates the potential for legal liability for failure to manage travel risk. In March 2013, a Connecticut jury awarded more than $41 million to a student who was bitten by a tick and suffered brain damage while on a school-sponsored trip to China. The Hotchkiss School, in Lakeville, Conn., failed to warn trip participants about known dangers, according to court testimony. The school has appealed the verdict.

Employers face liability in their home countries and in the locales to which employees travel. The white paper written by Claus and published by International SOS summarizes duty-of-care laws in the U.S., Canada, Australia and several European destinations. Such laws are relatively uncommon in developing nations.

The white paper outlines best practices for managing travel and expat assignments, including:

Assess risks. Understand dangers at locations where employees will be assigned or will visit most frequently. Analyze how job functions expose workers to risks.

Plan. Determine if your organization is meeting its duty-of-care obligations. Create policies and find resources necessary to meet these obligations.

Train. Educate employees about travel dangers and how to react to emergencies while abroad.

Track. Know where each employee will be at any given time.

Assist. Establish a mechanism to communicate with employees at any time and to provide assistance as needed.

Experts emphasize that thorough planning should occur before each employee trip, even if the journey is relatively short and involves a destination generally considered to be safe. Preparations should cover all details of travel arrangements, housing and vehicle choices. Access to up-to-date medical records is crucial, as are methods for employer and employee to remain in contact 24/7 during the trip.

Duty of care should start with the employee onboarding process, said Dov Gardin, director of crisis management and threat intelligence for New York City-based business continuity management group Lootok.

Companies must maintain insurance coverage for traveling employees. But by itself, insurance does not represent a duty-of-care plan. “Insurance is not going to stop things from happening,” said David Hyde of David Hyde and Associates, a security consulting firm in Toronto.

Al Read found that out during a 2010 consulting trip to Bosnia. Soon after arriving, he slipped exiting a shower and hit his head. He felt fine for about 10 days but suddenly lost consciousness.

While he was being evaluated in a Sarajevo hospital, Global Rescue—a Boston-based medical, security and evacuation services firm that his employer had retained—connected surgeons at that hospital with medical experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors determined that, without surgery, Read could die within hours. Surgeons drilled three holes into his head to alleviate pressure. Less than a week later, he returned home to the San Francisco area accompanied by a Global Rescue associate.

“If that surgery had not happened,” Read said, “I guess I’d be dead.”

Some vendors like Global Rescue can help organizations develop sound duty-of-care programs. “There needs to be a basic level of training and policies and procedures for employees traveling anywhere,” Hyde said, “including domestic travel.”

Employees’ Responsibility

The role of the traveling employee is coming under additional scrutiny, experts say. The traveler is being asked to participate actively in planning, to follow procedures during travel, to check in with headquarters often, to use common sense and to ensure that family members avoid unnecessary risk.

Claus terms this role an employee’s “duty of loyalty” to one’s employer.

Though employers ultimately are responsible for travel mishaps, they should “let employees know that they’re expected to follow these policies or there will be consequences,” said John Rendeiro, vice president of global security for International SOS.

Tracking systems help employers monitor employees during their travels. However, some employees are uncomfortable with these systems because they can invade privacy. Many employers require that employees book all travel through a designated travel agency so that each move is documented. Some organizations place a travel app on employees’ handheld devices.

Rose said that he is seeing “more companies mandating checking in every time you get to a new destination.”

Experts say that evacuation expenses, emergency medical care costs, productivity losses and damage to an employer’s brand because of a travel incident can far outweigh the cost of duty-of-care programs.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan. Companies must tailor their duty-of-care programs based on where their workers travel, the nature of their work, the types of employees who travel and the organization’s culture.

“Risk exists no matter where you travel,” said James Walloga, vice president of talent risk management for New York City-based ACE USA Accident and Health, a travel insurance provider. “It’s just different kinds of risks.”

The most common problems affecting travelers are delays, illnesses and lost luggage, according to the 2010 benchmarking study. Terror attacks and airline catastrophes are among the least likely. But some of the most unpredictable events can have huge impacts.

For example, international travel was affected for six days by a massive ash cloud that arose from an Icelandic volcano in 2010. More than 100,000 flights were canceled. About a year later, hundreds of travelers had to be evacuated with little notice during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Renee Sprole, director of response services for Global Rescue, said companies are beginning to move beyond basic legal compliance and are linking their duty-of-care programs to corporate social responsibility. “That’s the sweet spot,” Claus agreed.

Erin Giordano, director of client outreach and innovation for International SOS, said organizations need to remind travelers that they should be on guard at all times while traveling. “HR folks struggle with communicating this at times. You don’t want to scare people unnecessarily.”

Nevertheless, experts agreed: You have to make it stick.

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.​



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