How to meet duty of care responsibilities for employees working abroad
Travis Vincent, November 02, 2009
Responsibilities to protect the health, safety and security of employees working abroad continue to grow in complexity and importance and yet there is a lack of awareness of the full extent of organisations' duty of care towards business travellers. So what are the challenges for HR professionals in implementing good duty of care practices and how can they overcome these?
Organisations that operate or seek new opportunities in overseas markets will usually experience a higher frequency of travel among employees. Despite the current focus on controlling costs, organisations are forging ahead with essential business travel, often sending employees to unfamiliar locations where they may encounter situations that present increased risk and threats to their health, safety and security. In the past year, more than 3.5 million international trips were made by employees, a quarter of which were to high or extreme risk destinations.
Threats such as terrorism, natural disasters, infectious diseases, crime and political instability increase the risk to the business traveller and therefore the potential liability of the employer. As workforces become increasingly mobile, fulfilling duty of care can seem like an overwhelming task for the HR professional, but it does not have to be. The key to providing adequate duty of care is to demonstrate that steps have been taken to identify and assess all foreseeable risks and negate these through a comprehensive risk management strategy.
Understanding the duty of care responsibilities of the employer
The initial stage of fulfilling duty of care is to become familiar with the travel needs of the employee, the duty of care requirements and the policies and procedures organisations can put in place to ensure these requirements are met. For example, one important requirement is to undertake an assessment of the foreseeable risks associated with a particular location, and to ensure this assessment is credible and documented. The employer should then educate the employee about the environment they are going to and inform them of their responsibilities when travelling on company business.
Senior management and inter-departmental buy-in
Too often, duty of care does not sit neatly within one department in an organisation. The challenge for HR professionals is to understand how departmental responsibilities - such as travel, legal, insurance, procurement, business continuity, occupational health and HR - fit together in order to fulfil duty of care obligations.
HR managers face the further challenge of securing senior level buy-in for investment into travel risk management policies. Due to the lack of literature on duty of care, senior level decision-makers do not always understand its requirements and, as a result, its importance can be underestimated or neglected.
Building a strong business case
The next stage is therefore to build a solid business case for justifying the development of an all-encompassing duty of care strategy. The business case can be divided into two categories, the carrot and the stick.
The ‘carrot' relates to the cost-benefit components of implementing a comprehensive duty of care strategy. The carrot is business continuity, reduced costs for avoidable expenses like medical care, evacuation, productivity loss and damages resulting from liability. In the most simplistic sense, the old adage that prevention is better and less costly than the cure is applicable here. Implementing good risk management strategies also helps to protect the reputation and brand of the organisation for recruitment and retention purposes and to improve employee wellbeing and productivity by avoiding illness or injury.
The ‘stick' is meeting legal compliance and reducing or avoiding negligence and liability. The UK has developed legislation and derivative case laws that reflect employers' expanded duty of care responsibilities, and courts are increasingly favouring employees.
Implementing risk management policies and procedures
The final step is to develop a comprehensive travel risk management plan. Acknowledging that it is impossible to predict exactly when crises will occur, the integrated risk management approach to duty of care emphasises the importance of being prepared and having plans in place for when things go wrong. It is essential that all foreseeable risks are assessed, communicated to the employee and incorporated into the risk management strategy.
If an organisation can demonstrate that steps have been taken to assess the risks and inform, update and assist the travelling employee, then it is on the road to fulfilling its duty of care obligations.
Travis Vincent is director, security services, at International SOS