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Staff travel overseas: an HR pitfall

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It's an area of liability that businesses need to take seriously.

Most people in the profession agree the role of HR is essentially maintaining a balance between employee and employer welfare. We need to treat our workforce fairly, while making sure we have delivered policies and procedures that protect our companies too. As an HR consultant, my role is frequently to check that company codes are in line with current guidelines and thinking, as well as legislation. One area of significant liability that employers need to pay attention to is the matter of staff travel overseas.

The problem is that this is an area that is so easily overlooked. Companies operating in obviously hazardous areas have all their procedural ducks firmly in a row, but since overseas travel - especially if it is occasional - isn't viewed as a core area of business, often the right policies or support systems aren't in place. This could be an omission that leaves you as exposed as a tripwire in the loading bay.

Constant changes to employment laws are leaving businesses open to huge fines and even prosecution if found guilty of negligence.

It is absolutely in our interest to properly protect employees required to do overseas trips. They are usually relatively senior - so probably time-poor, meaning that 'minor details' are more likely to be overlooked - or shortcuts taken - by them. They have significant value to the company, yet businesses often dispatch them around the world, expecting them to sort out everything from their own travel insurance to appropriate medication.

To help allay problems relating to staff overseas travel, I recommend the following seven points to employers:

First, explore your potential liabilities by treating overseas trips as you would your own holiday - consider areas such as car hire, roaming mobile calls, internet access, insurance and medication and assess the risk of any activities employees may be involved in

Agree internally how much the business can (or should) reasonably sort out for an employee, versus how much more practical it is for them to make their own arrangements

Talk to department heads and ask them about budgeting for these activities. It is hardly fair to challenge an employee on their expenditure if they weren't given guidelines as to what the company's expectations are

Prepare a policy document detailing what the company code is on all aspects of travel, including who to contact and where to obtain appropriate medication, especially prior to travel

Always ensure that insurance requirements are complied with at all stages. If your local pharmacy can't handle the complexities, there are several reputable, UK-based online pharmacies that comply with the Care Quality Commission's code of conduct. They can provide an immediate consultation and deliver medication within 24 hours. Consequently, malaria tablets, Tamiflu (the swine flu preventative) and cystitis medication (a serious problem for many women going abroad) can be acquired at short notice

Ensure senior managers agree to the policy and have bought in to supporting it

Circulate it among employees, so that ignorance is no excuse!

Millicent Grant is a specialist HR consultant and director of Novavista