Managing expats in dangerous areas: what employers need to know

Political unrest in Thailand has highlighted the dangers companies face when sending staff to work in far-flung parts of the world. Nick Martindale looks at what employers are doing to keep employees safe while ensuring business as usual.

At first glance, it’s a wonder any company would send its employees abroad – at least to some of the more volatile areas.

Mass uprisings are just one potential danger; also on the warning list are kidnapping and execution, natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanoes, and the possibility of pandemic disease such as swine or avian flu.

“The first thing you should be doing is making sure you’re aware of the dangers,” says John McGurk, learning and talent development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and former director of research and policy at The British Airline Pilots’ Association. “You can get access to risk reports and carry out a thorough analysis of that country, evaluating the dangers from crime, biomedical hazards and so on.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website is a further source of advice, although it makes no distinction between those going there as tourists and businesses that may feel they have no alternative but for people to travel. “Our advice to everyone is the same,” says a spokesman. “It’s a decision for them as to whether they decide to send people abroad, but we would always advise them to check.”


Professional services firm KPMG uses risk assessment company Control Risks and international security organisation International SOS to monitor dangers and provide security briefings for staff, says Elizabeth Cowley, head of global mobility. Their conclusions help KPMG decide whether to permit travel and what precautions should be taken.

Any preparations that need to be put in place once a decision has been made to send an employee to a potential danger zone will depend largely on the exact destination and the nature of the work involved.


Top tips for international assignments

  • Have an effective tool for tracking assignees, with contact details, including phone numbers as well as e-mail addresses.
  • Be able to respond quickly to any situations abroad, possibly through links with an independent specialist risk consulting organisation.
  • Have a clear escalation process to make decisions regarding support required for, or evacuation of, individuals in hostile environments.
  • Ensure a security briefing is provided to assignees and their families before travelling.
  • Include international assignees in all aspects of the host firm’s security and safety programmes. Translate relevant communication for non-native speakers.
  • Make sure the international assignee provides a primary and secondary emergency contact, including one in the home country.
  • Communicate clearly to assignees what travel and medical insurances – and any exclusions – have been arranged.
  • Explain local protocols to both the assignee and their family.
  • Encourage assignees and their family to sign up for alerts from the British and Foreign Commonwealth Office.
  • Ensure assignees register with the local diplomatic post.

Source: Elizabeth Cowley, head of global mobility, KPMG

“If you send people to Columbia to work on a telecoms contract, you must protect them against the risk of kidnapping,” says McGurk. “You probably need to provide bodyguards, some kind of insulated transport, access to a consulate in that area, and accommodation within a compound.”

In extreme cases, such as failed states like the former Democratic Republic of Congo, this could even extend as far as helicoptering in workers from neighbouring countries, he adds.

Often, though, employees just need someone to give them a bit of advice about the local area. “You’re more likely to get mugged than anything else, so it’s about not being ostentatious about what you’re wearing and not going out alone at night,” says Rachel Floyd, operations director at international health insurance provider PMI Global.


Often, insurers will provide training for individuals before they move abroad so they can go through certain possible scenarios with them and ensure they do not panic if anything does occur, she adds.

Specialist engineering and technical recruiter CBSbutler, which posts staff to locations such as Afghanistan, tries to use ex-forces personnel with direct experience of a particular area for hostile placements. “If they’re going to a potentially dangerous location, all contractors receive full military training, protective clothing and undergo intensive risk assessment studies in preparation,” says Phil Johnson, strategic accounts manager.

Such postings can be further complicated when families travel with the employee. At KPMG, for example, families are likely to accompany their partners on all assignments of more than a year’s duration.

“We would involve them in any security arrangements or briefings that we would provide for the assignee,” says Cowley. “We also provide people with the support of a relocation agent in the host country in terms of accommodation and schooling. Usually there would be a lot of information around local protocols such as travel, using public transport, safety tips and how to contact the local police.”

Coming home

Should the worst happen, companies need to have a business continuity plan that will allow them to pull staff out of affected areas and enable them to carry on trading as best they can. Whether – and when – a company decides to bring people back depends on the exact nature of the work and how things have changed since they were posted there, says Floyd.

“If you have oil workers in Nigeria where kidnapping is quite frequent, then you’re knowingly sending them there with that risk, so you’re not going to bring them home,” she says. But if somebody was negotiating a deal to buy some clothing for a retailer in Thailand, the chances are they would have been recalled when the violence started in April, she adds.

“We always offer the individual the option of coming home because some people are affected in different ways to others,” says KPMG’s Cowley. “But if the risk assessment is such that we feel we need to bring them out, we would do that.”


How one firm approaches risk to staff abroad

When a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers seeks to travel to a potentially dangerous part of the world, the first stage is a request that goes to a bids committee.

“We have a risk register of countries and categorise them into extreme risk, high risk or medium risk,” says Mark Avery, head of business services.

“We then get information from the global security team and local senior partners to make sure the areas we’re putting people into are suitably looked after, given the severity of the risk.”

Appropriate security measures are also put in place, says Richard Stanley, head of UK security. “If it’s a medium risk country it might just be a case of ensuring there are adequate meet-and-greet services in place at the airport rather than getting in a taxi,” he says. “In an extreme case such as Iraq it could be putting in place the armed response units and protection teams.”

If anything does occur, the advice to employees is to sit tight until an evaluation of the situation has taken place. The company uses security organisation International SOS which provides medical care and even goes into hotspots to evacuate personnel if required.

There are financial considerations too. But contrary to expectations, it is possible to insure against the costs of repatriation and possible incidents arising from posting people to potential hotspots, even where the Foreign Office advises against travel.

“It’s perfectly possible to get cover for Iraq and Afghanistan provided you tell the insurer what you’re doing,” says Floyd at PMI Global.


HR departments must also be prepared to resist pressure from employees to travel if they come to the conclusion it is too dangerous. “If you felt the risk was disproportionate and you put people in because they want to be there – and usually risk includes reward – you could be culpable for that,” says McGurk at the CIPD.

Ultimately, employers have both a legal and moral duty to take care of their staff. Susan Doris, senior associate in the employment, pensions and benefits practice of law firm Freshfields, warns companies could face substantial sums in compensation if an employee suffers injury or death as a result of their failure to take reasonable steps to ensure their safety.

This can be mitigated by ensuring employees are given hostile environment training, relevant security briefings, personal protective equipment, appropriate medical advice and vaccines, private security personnel and transport arrangements, insurance and relevant embassy or consulate details, she says.

It is also a good idea to make employees sign a contract, ensuring they will receive hostile environment training or have the experience and qualifications that would make this unnecessary, she adds, although this would not exclude or restrict liability for negligence.

HR has a pivotal role to play in working with other departments to attempt to find a solution that suits all, says McGurk. “It needs to work in terms of helping to facilitate the company’s understanding of how it can operate in those markets, rather than stopping them going there because they’ve done a risk assessment,” he says. “It needs to explain the issues and have the courage to challenge when they think risks are being taken for the sake of trading in that market.”



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