Legal dilemma: seconding staff overseas

I’m an HR director for a UK company that has, at any one time, about 350 staff seconded to various overseas locations. What are my employer’s duties regarding briefing and advising such employees on legal issues and custom and practice that they may face in the countries in which we send them to work? Or is it down to the employee to be aware of such information?

There is no minimum information enshrined in UK employment legislation that you are obliged to provide. However, to ensure the secondments are successful, it would be sensible to ensure to flush out as many potential issues as possible before it begins.

Much will hinge on the length of the secondment, the jurisdiction to which the employee is being sent and the cultural differences that are likely to apply. You should clarify the contractual provisions that will continue to apply during the secondment and ensure the employee concerned is aware of any additional responsibilities, employment laws, policies or rules they will be expected to abide by.

If there are written codes of practices, regulatory requirements or dress codes then you should consider varying the individual’s contract or putting in place a separate agreement to expressly require that they comply with them while overseas. To avoid discrimination liability, if the host country has more generous entitlements such as annual leave or family-friendly provisions or financial benefits, you should consider how such inconsistencies would be dealt with.

Cultural differences can be an area for potential exposure, particularly those that affect female employees. It is in both parties’ interest to ensure that employees know what to expect and you should ideally support and encourage the process of familiarisation with customs, taboos and potential threats.

One way of approaching this may be to arrange for relevant staff to speak with an employee who is working in the host organisation before the secondment starts to discuss any concerns. Given the practicalities of briefing 350 employees, you may wish to standardise the briefing process as far as possible, perhaps by arranging collective briefing packs, presentations, or setting up an overseas buddy scheme. Some larger organisations facilitate virtual online tours of popular host countries.

In some circumstances, the employer can be liable for the conduct or unlawful acts an employee commits while overseas. Anticipating potential issues jointly with the employee, is likely to be mutually beneficial in helping to avoid disputes arising once the secondment has begun.

Hannah Ford, associate, Stevens & Bolton

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