Global Duty of Care: Why HR Shouldn’t Ignore It

By Kim Fernandez Nov 20, 2009
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A French company cancels its annual membership for emergency medical care for its employees who travel overseas and requires its employees to fly economy class to cut costs.

Later, an employee returning home from an overseas trip has a heart attack and stroke on the plane.

An expatriate’s wife is accused falsely of shoplifting in a large Dubai department store. She is detained by security and not allowed to call anyone for help.

A British professional’s flight is delayed, causing him to miss a connecting flight and arrive in India a day after his original schedule. During those 24 hours, his hotel is attacked by terrorists. His company has no contact with him for the full day and no way to track his travel.

What do these stories have in common? They’re all true, and they all illustrate the need for duty-of-care planning by companies whose employees travel abroad or are assigned to positions in foreign countries.

What is duty of care? Put simply, it’s determining the employer’s responsibilities for their employees (and employees’ dependents) who cross borders as part of their work duties.


Duty of care is off the radar screen for many HR professionals,

but recent events … are putting employer obligations to their

globally mobile workforce on the front lines.

Suzanne Garber, International SOS, Americas Region


According to a recent white paper on duty of care released by International SOS, more than 3.5 million international trips were taken by employees in 2008. Twenty-five percent of those were to areas considered high-risk because of civil unrest, illness, natural disaster and other natural and man-made conditions. More companies are sending jobs—and people—overseas to cut costs and improve overall productivity and ROI.

A second study, by Ernst & Young LLP, found that 42 percent of companies considered accidental expats—those who cross borders into other countries while living abroad without notifying company management and human resources officers—to be high-risk.

That said, the study found that 65 percent of companies fail to explain what it means to be an accidental expat to their traveling employees, 54 percent have no policy that addresses these employees, and 55 percent have no system to track their short-term traveling workers.

Companies whose employees travel or are transferred to other countries have a duty of care for them on legal, financial, and moral or ethical levels, says International SOS. Unfortunately, many companies whose employees are overseas routinely don’t understand their duty-of-care responsibilities or neglect them to save money.

“Duty of care is off the radar screen for many HR professionals, but recent events such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the H1N1 pandemic are putting employer obligations to their globally mobile workforce on the front lines," says Suzanne Garber, chief operating officer, International SOS, Americas Region. “HR executives need to play a key role in educating and advising senior management on this topic.”

Prepare Clueless Employees
The International SOS paper explains that when employees travel to foreign countries, often they’re unfamiliar with the physical landscape and the traditions and circumstances of those destinations. Lacking those kinds of understandings can place travelers at greater risk of falling victim to accidents, natural disasters, political instability, crime and infectious diseases like H1N1. Companies are responsible for protecting their employees from those circumstances.

While many company decision-makers have responsibility for duty of care, International SOS finds that their roles often clash, and not all are aware of their responsibilities to educate and provide different types of coverage for traveling employees. These managers don’t understand their legal responsibilities (more courts are siding with employees in these kinds of cases) or they don’t grasp fully their moral and ethical responsibilities. What’s more, shareholders of such companies generally say providing duty of care is a company’s social responsibility.

International SOS calls duty of care a “carrot and stick” responsibility. The stick appears when a company tries to reduce or avoid risk of negligence or liability. The carrot comes when a company establishes a duty-of-care mentality and reduces costs for medical care, evacuation and productivity loss; improves employee well-being; and protects the business’ reputation.

The white paper, released in October 2009, recommends that companies develop strategic and integrated risk management strategies that cover their internationally based workers and their frequent business travelers. Prevention, it says, outweighs the costs of implementing such a program, and such programs should be focused on preventing injury and death, litigation and corporate reputation damage.

Ernst & Young says that the risk areas such policies should address include: regulatory compliance; employment law risk; risk of prosecution; budgetary risk; permanent establishment risk; and the risk of low morale and unhappy employees as a result of an inadequate or nonexistent policy.

While coming up with a strategy is important, International SOS says doing it in a way that will embed itself in the corporate culture is key. This means involving senior managers, line managers, global HR professionals and risk managers. The paper recommends using companies that specialize in international security and medical assistance overseas when writing such a policy.

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md. She can be reached at

Related Articles:

Employers’ Responsibilities for Employees Crossing Borders, SHRM Online Global Discipline, September 2009

Helping Prepare Workers for Global Postings Falls to HR, HR News, October 2007

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