Duty of Care: An Employer's Moral, Social and Legal Responsibility

Not a week goes by without reading about a natural disaster, a coup d'état, a kidnapping, a plane crash, or a terrorist attack. We less often hear about infectious diseases such as malaria or dengue fever, or road and work accidents that take the lives of employees while abroad.

All the above, however, take place on a daily basis, affecting someone somewhere (an international assignee, their dependents, or international business travelers) and creating hardship for them and some serious financial repercussions for the organizations that employ them if careful policies, referred to as "The Duty of Care," have not been established and implemented.

Without a doubt, doing business internationally is the smartest way to build a stable business, as it diversifies the stream of revenue by making it come from different markets--thus making the organization less vulnerable to the fluctuations linked to any local economy. This being said, many organizations make the mistake of focusing primarily on the business at hand, thereby forcing their employees to operate on sheer audacity and rely mainly on luck when abroad -- thus neglecting to realize there is a direct moral, social and, of course, legal responsibility that links any U.S. employee on international assignment to the company. Indeed, all companies operating internationally must be aware of the home and host country laws that protect employees. Unfortunately, too many C-level executives are not aware that they are ultimately responsible for what happens to their employees abroad.

Reading through the case studies compiled by Dr. Lisbeth Claus in her white paper, one realizes very quickly how punitive and long-armed those foreign laws are. Dr. Claus's work focuses mainly on European countries, as well as some of the strongest economies of the Commonwealth where a strong protection of workers is in place.

One of the hypothetical case studies Dr. Claus uses in her presentation really stuck with me. It is one of a U.S. businesswoman who travels to London from San Francisco to attend a meeting. Because her company does not pay for business class or an extra night in a hotel to rest before the meeting, she travels coach and arrives in London the day of the meeting. Upon her arrival at Heathrow, she rents a car and drives to her meeting in Wimbledon. Tired and not used to driving on the left side of the road, she crashes and seriously injures herself. Because the employee is considered "at work" while driving the car, and because it cannot be demonstrated proper care had been taken to ensure she would safely report to her meeting (ability to take a rest or driver awaiting her to take her to her meeting after an intercontinental flight), the company could be negligent in its failure to plan (i.e., appropriate policy and enforcement of these policies).

Having had the privilege of seeing Dr. Claus presenting live in front of a group of Global H.R. Directors, it quickly became obvious to me that few of the multinational companies present, whether large and small, showed the proper level of duty of care toward their traveling employees. None could have proven to a foreign state that they had put in place the necessary steps to protect the company from its own legal obligation and foreign labor protection laws. It thus seems important to disclose some of those steps and mention what an employer can easily do to protect the employees and the company at the same time:

-- Carefully groom your employees to make sure they have the right attitude to succeed in the host country (fit for the job, don't take unnecessary risks, respectful of people's culture and religion, curious and willing to learn the language, etc.);

-- Communicate, educate, and train your employees to increase their awareness of the type of environment in which they will be operating once in the foreign country; make sure they are aware of the protocols, risk and dangers associated with certain behaviors that might be considered offensive in the host country;

-- Assess employee risk prior to any international travel;

-- Provide access to adequate and safe air and ground transportation (private driver instead of rental car or cab, business class or extra night in a hotel to properly rest, proper escort for female employees in certain regions, etc.);

-- Track and monitor your employees; have a system in place wherein you know at all times where your employees are when traveling internationally or operating abroad;

-- Keep on assessing the possibly changing risks when employees are on the road;

-- Have a crisis management plan and exit strategy in place in case of rioting, earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, war, coup d'état, etc.;

-- Provide comprehensive travel and medical insurance to your entire international workforce;

-- Understand the medical and environmental risks and provide the necessary vaccinations and preventive medications.

According to Dr. Claus, "Managers who fail to pay attention to employer's duty of care responsibilities, especially for their employees crossing borders, are failing in their commercial, fiduciary, legal, moral, and social responsibilities as managers."

Don't be one of those companies.Take international travel seriously and demonstrate proper care toward your workforce. After all, a business amounts to nothing without the people who drive it.