How HR deals with the worst duty of them all

No one likes to think about the death of a colleague but in the wake of the
horrifying death toll caused by last week’s terrorist attack in the US, it is
an issue many HR professionals face. Gavin Evans advises on how to deal with
the death of an employee overseas

The human tragedy of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New
York has been uppermost in business minds over the past week.

But beyond that there is the unfolding and unsavoury challenge of having to
return bodies of overseas staff killed in the catastrophe to their families in

It is a common problem faced by Michael Weiland, international services and
medical affairs manager of Global Emergency Medical Services.

He explained that most companies find it harder to bring home a dead person
than to arrange emergency medical treatment or evacuation for those still
alive. The first difficulty they find is that international medical insurance
stops at death.

Karen Froud, of the British-based health insurer Bupa International, said
that in the case of serious illness her company will immediately pull out all
the stops, including emergency evacuation, but if the member dies, the story is
rather different – in effect, death ends the contract.

"We would advise the company to contact the embassy for practical
advice, but we ourselves offer no special procedures for death, beyond
providing a doctor to sign the death certificate, and we don’t cover for
returning the body home," she said.

This means it is up to the deceased’s company to cut through the red tape
and sort out the mess. Weiland explained, "Deaths in a foreign country can
be a web of bureaucratic compliance, religious rites woven into laws and
pay-offs to everyone in the chain of events."

The problems vary according to the circumstances. For a start, it may take a
while for the death to be discovered. "We’ve had situations where a
businessman has died in his hotel and the maid thought he was sleeping, and
just closed the door, and it took another 24 hours to discover he was dead.
Even then the hotel had no information about whom to contact," said

This is most likely if the traveller is alone in a foreign city. He will
then be at the "mercy" of locals at the time of death.

He may not be carrying his passport or any company document, which could
mean that the foreign hospital or police service has difficulty identifying
him, and his body remains at the local morgue for several days before he is
reported missing and traced.

But even if they are quickly identified, there can still be problems. If the
police suspect there was a crime involved, the body may be part of the evidence
in a lengthy trial.

If the person was the victim of an accident or a crime, his family might
decide to pursue legal action.

In both cases, his company can expect to cover the costs of an autopsy, and
they may need to retain an independent pathologist.

A hospital death is the easiest to deal with because then a doctor routinely
signs the death certificate. But this too can create its own difficulties. For
example, if it is suspected that the person died from a communicable disease,
you can expect a long delay before the body is released, and local health
officials may demand cremation.

If the employee has lived abroad for some time, the authorities may be
reluctant to release his body unless all his taxes are paid. They tend to hold
the body as a kind of ransom, because it is their only means of getting the
money. There have been several reported cases of caskets being used to smuggle
contraband, particularly drugs, so in some countries it may be prudent to check
for this before the body is flown home.

And finally, the deceased’s family may want to accompany the body home.
Weiland recommends taking great care about the logistics of this trip, to the
point of booking them in business or first-class seats on the left side of the

"Cargo is normally loaded from the right, and the first class and
business class are forward of the cargo hatches, so family members looking out
of the left front windows are less likely to be upset by seeing the casket on
the tarmac or being loaded – and sometimes the airport staff drop it, which
makes things worse. An outburst of grief may scare the crew and passengers and
cause the family to miss the flight," he said.

What it all points to is a hands-on, prepared-for-the-worst approach well
before disaster strikes.

Some companies have learned through their own hard experience. Three years
ago, the Korean chief executive of Daewoo South Africa was murdered in an armed
robbery. The process of replacing him, bringing the body home to Seoul and
helping his family provided an object lesson for everyone in the industry.

And the lessons spread to other motor manufacturers. BMW promptly reviewed
its procedures for dealing with tragedies abroad. "If anything goes wrong
– for example, a death, car-jacking or serious illness – we take a hands-on
approach from the word go," said BMW’s HR director Christine Watson.

"There is nothing we wouldn’t do to assist the families, even long
after they return home, and that includes counselling."

Guide on handling the death of an employee working overseas

– Ensure your HR department is well-versed in how to handle an overseas
death and is kept informed when anyone is abroad

– Retain up-to-date information on how to contact travelling employees at
all times. If one of them dies, you should be the first to know

– Make sure you can contact his or her spouse, partner or children at home –
not just an address and home phone number but also mobile and work numbers. It
is useful to retain details of religious affiliation, including the name of a
priest or minister

– Be prepared to ask someone in the company who knows the employee’s family
to take on the task of breaking the news. It is best not to inform the next of
kin about the death over the telephone

– Include the family in all the preparations for the return of the body, and
make sure you are fully briefed on their wishes and they on your actions

– Be prepared to contact the embassy immediately and request their
assistance as soon as you learn of the death. A pre-prepared list of embassy or
consulate numbers in every city where your employees visit is useful

– It helps to have a reliable agent or contact in the city where the death
occurs – someone you can rely on to monitor arrangements

– If you have several employees working abroad it may be worth retaining the
services of an international emergency medical service with experience in
returning bodies and bringing families of dead employees home

– Alternatively, consider dispatching a company official to the scene. Even
if the employee’s spouse is there, she or he will need someone else to take
charge of the paperwork

– Expect emotional volatility from family members, particularly those who
are living abroad with the deceased

This article originally appeared in Personnel Today’s sister title Global
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