How to keep your employees safe overseas

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With more British businesses operating in emerging markets, employees' safety while abroad should be a pressing concern

In Lord Browne’s 2010 autobiography Beyond Business the former BP chief executive described his globe-trotting adventures during his career in the oil and gas industry. He traversed the planet, visiting countries such as Iran, Colombia and Libya. But life was never the same: no longer was going for a coffee a simple task – it came with relentless planning, a fleet of bulletproof cars and bodyguards.

This is part and parcel of being a senior figure within the oil and gas business, one might argue. Yet such stringent security is no longer purely the domain of those in the uppermost echelons of UK Plc. Increasingly, as British firms tout their wares overseas, employees at all levels and across all sectors are being sent on assignments in every corner of the globe.

“Historically, it was the oil and gas, mining, extracting industries working in these sorts of places,” says Tim Willis, a security director at International SOS and Control Risks. “[But] we’re increasingly seeing a more diverse client base going to a lot of these more frontier markets.”

WYG, an engineering firm, has built a business on its reputation for undertaking infrastructure projects in some of the world’s most challenging locations. Its teams have provided support to the Royal Engineers on infrastructure delivery programmes across Afghanistan and it’s currently working on programmes in Nigeria and Bahrain. Keeping employees safe is a business imperative, says group HR director Karen Brookes.

“Our raison d’etre has become working in foreign conflict-affected states,” she explains. “If you’re going to do that then you have to be able to give assurance to clients that the people working on those projects are one, competent, and two, safe. Because obviously it’s damaging to the client’s reputation as well as ours if [an incident is] splashed all over the newspapers.”

The threat to employees when they are working overseas is two-pronged: they face both security and health risks. Security risks can include things like natural disasters, geo-political instability, or crime, whereas medical risks can encompass endemic diseases such as malaria and Dengue fever. Often the headlines don’t give an accurate interpretation of what the real threats are, says Katie Geary, medical director at International SOS.

“At the very beginning of the Ebola outbreak we had business travellers heading to Sierra Leone and naturally they were very concerned. But actually their much bigger risk at the time, from a health point of view, was malaria,” explains Geary. “What we strive to do is try to balance people’s behaviour with their risk perception.”

The same is certainly true on the security side. While employees will often be most anxious about geo-political threats, they can often overlook some of the more common (albeit less headline-grabbing) risks. And experience is not necessarily a marker of a savvy traveller, adds Willis. “With the old cowboys, people who’ve travelled for 20 years to West Africa or the Middle East, there’s a sense of, ‘you can’t tell me anything; I’ve been out there and know what’s going on’. But it’s making sure that people are aware of the evolving risks and changing threats they may encounter.”

Managing the evolving threat landscape is a full-time job, says Lisa Johnson, global practice leader at Crown World Mobility, a consultancy. A new threat could emerge at any time. “There are some places that we know are high risk: Iraq, Afghanistan or Kazakhstan. But there are some places where you can’t anticipate [there will be trouble],” she says. “You didn’t know the ebola virus was going to emerge or you didn’t know there was going to be a military coup.”

Prevention is better than cure. Many HR departments work with partners such as International SOS to help prepare travellers for overseas trips. They will be given information about their destination, whether via the company’s website, its apps, or on courses and group education days. Before travelling to Afghanistan, Brookes underwent several days of training. “I had to go through CONDO [contractors on deployed operations] training, which is anything between three and five days. It prepares you for what it will be like and explains how to keep safe.”

Often there is isn’t much room for interpretation of safety guidelines. Corporate guidelines may seem paternalistic but they are in place for the employee’s own good, says Brookes. “It depends on the location the person’s in, but generally speaking there’s no room for anybody to try and use their common sense because they have no idea what may kick off in a particular location.”

Johnson predicts HR departments will have more trouble persuading younger workers to stick to the rules: “The millennial generation likes to do things for themselves and doesn’t like to be told what to do. They’re more an age that says: ‘I’ll ask for forgiveness later, but I’m going to do it my way.’”

Some companies hand out stiffer penalties than others when it comes to breaking the rules, says Willis. “There has to be a baseline where the company says: ‘If you are travelling on company business, we expect you to comply with our procedures.’ Where companies vary is in terms of the sanction if someone does transgress. Some companies are very hard on that – a couple of strikes and you’re out.”

Where companies tend to take a tougher line is when it comes to breaking the law. There are certain countries where laws govern the behaviour of women, for example. “There are parts of the Middle East where a lone female traveller may not be allowed to travel with a male in a car, so women may not be exposed to criminal activity but may encounter difficulties in terms of the laws,” says Willis.

Similarly, with LGBT employees, it may be necessary to heed local laws and customs, he adds. “There are numerous countries in Africa where homosexuality is illegal – Uganda, for example. It’s a controversial topic given the Western view, which is that for countries to make homosexuality illegal is an archaic, almost medieval, practice. The reality is those are the laws of the country to which you’re travelling and we would counsel people to be aware and respectful of those laws.”

Ingrid Waterfield, a director in the people practice at KPMG, says that the approach to rule-breaking has to fit with the rest of the company culture.

“The more enlightened organisations will have policies, but are willing to make minor tweaks and minor exceptions if necessary,” she says. “Every organisation is different in terms of the level of paternalism, and that can be down to the nature of work people do, the age of the employees, and the culture of the company.”

Further reading

Top tools for keeping staff safe abroad

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