Keeping employees safe abroad is an HR responsibility that typically accompanies success in the global economy. That responsibility is to balance risk, cultural factors and specific resources at each destination.
In a speech delivered in 2013, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker discussed the many opportunities for U.S. firms selling to Saudi Arabia. She specifically mentioned Headworks Bio, a Houston-based provider of wastewater equipment.
Suppose you are an HR Director at Headworks Bio. You've just hired a young woman, and she's the perfect employee to handle the $32 million in new Headworks business with King Saud University. You understand that keeping employees safe abroad is a critical organizational obligation. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's air force is striking at Houthi forces in Yemen, and in October of 2015, a gunman killed five civilians in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Your decision won't be an easy one.
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. According to the MigrationPolicy.org, the State Department estimates there are 6.8 million Americans living overseas in 160 different countries — many of them working for U.S.-based firms.
In-Country Office Planning
The idea of setting up an office in Riyadh to service the new King Saud University was always going to be complicated. With a mix of local Saudi employees and U.S. nationals, the organization must address an array of concerns related to employee health and safety. This makes for a complex mix of local in-country, government and specialty services working together to maintain employee safety.
This case study is partly fictional, but based on fact. While it did win the contract, Headworks may or may not have set up an office in Riyadh, but the pursuit of global business opportunities inevitably touches upon issues of employee safety for any firm.
The concerns are real, and the risk cannot be fully eradicated; however, there are useful and effective measures that an employer can take to mitigate risk.
What follows are three general categories of risk mitigation that large employers have used:
1. Employ Local Resources
Countries vary greatly in the local services they offer to support U.S.-based employers, but there are a few commonalities:
- Contact the local U.S. embassy and police services in the jurisdiction where the employee will be operating or traveling.
- Security firms can supplement physical security in country.
- Think through common scenarios: petty theft of ID or cash, lost luggage or products, authorized shipping brokers and family issues (minors may have different travel and risk issues).
- "Duty-of-Care" is seen as a minimum obligation for employees, but practical recourse for health or safety emergencies are often dependent on location.
2. Resources at Home
The U.S. government provides warnings via the Department of State, grouped into Travel Warnings (for concerns such as unstable governments) and Travel Alerts (for specific short-term events, such as a disease outbreak).
The Department of Commerce hosts the International Trade Administration, which offers trade counseling. Its access to local legal and regulatory issues in the target country may include information that employees will need for safety, health and emergency services.
In addition to these government resources, consider private firms such as Europ Assistance, On Call International and International SOS.
International SOS is a U.K.-based firm with offices worldwide. It offers travel, medical and security specialty services to a variety of U.S. employers. International SOS says it has fielded 4,700,000 assistance calls.
Additional assistance could come from sector-specific associations. For Headworks, that could be other U.S. organizations working in Saudi municipal infrastructure projects.
3. Employee Training and Notification
Even the best and most timely resources will fall short if employees are not fully aware of what they have access to or provided with cultural orientation. This important training can fall under the purview of business managers to make sure everyone is up to speed.
Risk Contexts: Bigger Broader
The consultancy EY produces a Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey intended to understand best practices and trends in how firms manage worker mobility more generally. EY points out that the issue likely reaches beyond simple employee safety to broader issues in talent management, compliance, tracking and repatriation.
Keeping employees safe abroad will entail arduous work developing role-specific teams within your organization: HR, Chief Learning Officer, in-house counsel, CFO, in-country and contract resources may all be called upon. But the cost, both financially and in the investment of time, is small compared to the cost of endangering even just one of your employees working on foreign soil.
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