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Keep Employees Safe When They Travel Abroad

An airplane is taking off on an airport runway at dusk.

​For employers sending employees abroad for work, it's necessary to take precautions and have protocols in place to minimize risk, especially if employees will be traveling to a region experiencing unrest. 

"There is this concept of duty of care legally, where an employer in the United States is responsible for maintaining the welfare and safety of an individual employee while they're working," said Mary Miller Sallah, corporate travel expert and co-author of Check-Up, Check-In: Why Business Travel Strategies Should Prioritize Employee Health and Wellness (Advantage, 2023). "There can't be a hands-off approach."

Employers should think beyond the risks inherent in traveling to locations experiencing violence. They must also consider the stresses of traveling to remote areas or the risks to travelers' health.

"Travel risk is more generic in nature, like your passport or visas, or the physiological risk of traveling, which could be fatigue," Sallah said.

Safety risk, along with destination and location risk, is where the physical safety of the employee might come into play. "You don't necessarily have the ability to control everything in your surroundings," Sallah said. "There's always a risk, especially when you're in a different jurisdiction."

Plan Ahead

The first step should be to evaluate whether the trip is necessary. "In today's day and age, the very first consideration we would start off with is that whatever you're trying to accomplish, can that be done virtually?" said Anuja Agrawal, co-author of Check-Up, Check-In.

If the travel is necessary, a company should complete a pre-trip risk assessment. According to Agrawal, questions to consider, well in advance of the trip, should include:

  • What is the risk potential?
  • Where should people be allowed to travel? Where should they not?
  • What trips are mandatory? What are optional?

"It's important for employers to lay that out, rather than doing that on the fly when a trip actually comes up, and make that part of policy," Agrawal said. "There should be a process where you sit down with the employee and discuss the trip and any risk factors, and that should include [whether] either the employer or the employee has the ability to deny the trip."

Although an organization will not be able to anticipate every risk an employee may be faced with, there are steps an employer can take to plan for and communicate challenges that may arise. Executive buy-in will be critical to the success of a program designed to provide protection for employees working abroad. No international assignment strategy would be complete without the full support of the executive team and the budgetary funds to back up emergency plan creation and implementation.

It is also crucial to prepare a plan that equips employees with the necessary resources to deal with various types of emergencies. Information on what steps to take and who to contact in the event of an unplanned disaster must be clearly and regularly communicated to all affected employees. Several resources are available to assist employers in preparing a business emergency plan and a business continuity plan. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has developed a website, Ready Business, with tools to help employers develop the right plan.

There are other resources employers can use to evaluate risk ahead of time. "[American companies] can always go to the U.S. State Department website and understand the current travel advisories for a particular destination," Sallah said.

The U.S. government offers a program to U.S. citizens called Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). "Enroll the employee in STEP, and they would at least be able to receive important information from the embassy," Agrawal said. "The embassy would be available to help them out if there was a particular risk."

Using a Third Party

Another option is to engage the services of a third-party organization in the region where employees will be traveling that can help employers evaluate risk ahead of time and manage any unforeseen circumstances. 

"When something happens, I would always encourage [a company to go] through the appropriate diplomatic channels like the State Department, and hopefully that company has a relationship with a third party that can help strategically manage those situations," Sallah said.

Employees should also have a plan for who to contact if something happens in the region, which could be the State Department or the local police. It's helpful for companies to buy appropriate insurance ahead of time, just in case something unexpected happens.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

Related Resource: SHRM Navigating International Crises page.


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