Managing International Assignees During a Crisis

Warren Heaps – Birches Group LLC

With the recent events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere around the world, a common question we’ve been hearing a lot lately is, “What do we do about the expats we have there?”  The simple answer is that you need  a plan.

In Egypt specifically, the recent events evolved quickly and after more than a week, there are no signs of the crisis abating.  There are reports of ATMs running out of cash; food shortages because deliveries cannot be made; and a great deal of uncertainty about what happens next.  Many companies have begun to evacuate their international staff, and some have even closed operations temporarily.

Last Sunday (January 30th), Dr. Paula Caligiuri, Professor of Human Resource Management at Rutgers University, was interviewed on CNN to talk about how companies should handle the current situation in Cairo. Here is a video of the interview:

Many large companies that have international assignees in potential crisis areas take steps well in advance of a crisis to plan their response to any unexpected events which may occur.  And it’s not just political and social unrest that requires a plan; natural disasters, like the flooding in Australia, Pakistan and Brazil, the tsunami that hit Thailand and environs a few years ago, or the earthquake in Haiti also require one.

A good crisis management plan starts with a cross-functional team, usually led by corporate security, along with HR representatives, insurance and risk specialists and public relations experts.  The team works to identify how the organization wishes to react to a crisis, not only with respect to international assignees, but in general, for the overall business.  We will focus, however, just on the international assignee issues in this article.

Develop Your Plan
A sound crisis management plan will be a guide for your company in case a crisis occurs.  Of course, the safety of your assignees and their families is the paramount concern. Here are some things to consider in developing your crisis management plan:

  • Do you know where all your assignees are? Of course you know which country they are assigned to, but do you have a means to track their travel, in-country and internationally?
  • What about family members? Which ones are with the assignee in-country, which ones stayed at home or in another location? What about kids in boarding school or university?  They could be in-country during school breaks.  Do you keep track?
  • Does your company have a way to identify short-term assignees and business travelers?  These are often the forgotten group when serious actions such as evacuations are necessary.
  • Do you conduct security briefings with assignees and their families upon arrival in the assignment location, and periodically during the assignment as a refresher, or when circumstances warrant it?  Outside security consultants can be helpful in this regard, as well as embassy personnel (usually the embassy of the country where the company is headquartered).
  • If the assignment is a high-risk location, most companies put in place extra precautions for their international assignees.  This includes things like secure housing, guards, security-trained drivers, secure vehicles, or simple steps such as awareness training and having assignees take a different route each day to the office.
  • Communication is key.  Do all of your assignees and their families know the details of your plan, when it comes into play, and what actions to take when the plan is activated?  Make sure you have communicated this information to those concerned.  It’s a good idea to have it available on your assignee website as well.

When Evacuation is Necessary
Many crisis situations pass without the need for any action other than caution on the part of expats and their families.  Sometimes, though, evacuations are necessary.  When this happens, your crisis plan goes live. If everyone knows what to do and when to do it, things usually go smoothly. Once again, communication between the company, the employees and their families, service providers, and any government officials,  is critical to success.

Short-term evacuations (up to 30 days) are usually straightforward.  After that, though, you need to think about a myriad of issues.  For example:

  • Temporary living expense reimbursements
  • Adjustments to expat allowances
  • Housing costs – who pays for temporary housing while evacuated?  What about the housing in-country?
  • Schooling gets interrupted.  What is the best approach to get kids back in school?
  • Which payroll to use, if you were using the host for some payments?
  • How will paid time off benefits be affected if employees cannot work for an extended period?
  • Evacuations are usually done in groups to one location.  How long before people go their own way, back to their home country, perhaps, to stay with family, or to a temporary new assignment location?
  • What about visas and immigration issues?  Some folks may be able to stay in a new location indefinitely, while others may have to leave sooner.
  • Finally, no one likes to consider tax issues at moments like these, but you need to think about it.  Will your evacuees become accidental tax residents in their temporary location, piling on even more expense to an already expensive adventure?

Evacuations are rare for international assignees, but with a good crisis management plan you can manage things smoothly. If and when the time comes to activate your plan, good communication is the key to success.

Share Your Experiences
Have you been involved in an expatriate evacuation, as an assignee or HR professional?  Leave a comment to share your experiences.

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7 responses to “Managing International Assignees During a Crisis

  1. Pingback: Managing International Assignees During a Crisis - International HR Forum - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Warren,
    Thanks very much for your excellent and timely comments. These are most helpful and track well with my own experience in placing assignees in highly unsettled and war zone areas.

    A few suggestions to complement yours:
    1. Since employees can be involved in critical accidents and threatened by geological and climatic crises, as well as political and conflict situations essentially anywhere in the world, ALL organizations need to establish emergency management crisis teams. The team must include Corporate Security, top Human Resources execs, Corporate Risk Management, Corporate Travel and an expert external security consulting firm. This team should develop an over-arching crisis management philosophy and policy, establish emergency management plans, put in place an effective mechanism for tracking all employees, worldwide, at all times, and set the key decision-making protocol including, especially, who has authority to set evacuations in motion. This team should meet to review situations and update plans no less than monthly.

    2. Organizations should be keenly aware of their “duty of reasonable care” and responsibility for ensuring the safety and well-being of their employees and employees families when accompanied assignments are involved. Failure to monitor situations and take effective steps to protect employees (and families) could mean very serious liabilities for the organization.

    3. Companies should consider their “duty of care” relative to local national employees as well as international assignees and business travelers. Do we evacuate assignees from a volatile situation yet expect our local employees to continue to come to work and fend for themselves?

    4. Companies should strive to, as best they can, “see it coming”. A key part of emergency planning and management is to establish a reliable ongoing mechanism for gathering quality intelligence on developing situations. Major media and employees’ reporting shouldn’t be ignored but those sources usually don’t bring the news early enough to allow pro-active steps, they do not evaluate situations from a planning perspective and rarely provide a full and balanced picture. The good security consulting firms and Security Officers in the embassies and consulates (US and otherwise) in each assignment location provide highly valuable information. Many security consultants issue daily news briefings well worth monitoring. US companies that operate in especially challenging locations should consider becoming a member of the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) Also, keep a regular eye on the travel advisories issued by the US Department of State.

    5. Don’t wait to act decisively until after the diplomatic arm of the Department of State recommends evacuation. The DoS has been known to be reluctant to order evacuations because this could signal a loss of faith in local governments with which positive, face saving, political and diplomatic relations are critical. Better to leave too soon than to wait until it’s too late.

    6. Evacuation plans must include primary and secondary procedures. If airports are closed or all telecommunications and electrical power go down, then what? We’ve seen evacuation plans that included three alternative approaches for evacuation and included issuance of satellite phones to key personnel. Even stores of cash for use in acquiring goods or local assistance could be well advised.

    7. Don’t leave the decision to stay or evacuate to in-country staff or assignees themselves. They’re not always likely to have a full and balanced view of the situation and many have been known to minimize the risk at hand. At one of the first international HR meetings I attended at the beginning of my career, the guest speaker was an expatriate who had been on assignment in Tehran. By sheer good fortune, he and his family were in the US on home leave when the revolution took place and the Shah of Iran was overthrown. He hadn’t seen it coming nor did he think that the revolutionary rhetoric posed any real threat.

    (For an interesting read about US expats and the Iranian revolution, see Ken Follett’s book “On Wings of Eagles”.)

    There is an old saying, “May you be in heaven for 30 minutes before the devil knows you’ve died”. Perhaps in the realm of dealing with highly volatile situations such as recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, our saying should be, “May you be safely out of country a week before the presidential palace is burning”.

  3. Hi
    Thanks for all these tips which i percive to be timely considering am about to take up a new job offer on managment of goble employees.May you please send me more tips on managment of gobal employees to my email address.

    • Susan,

      Congratulations on your new role. I suggest you simply search for the category “Expatriates” on the sidebar of the blog, and you will see all of the articles about global employees that we have published over the last 18+ months.

  4. Pingback: HRBlog | Editor’s top 5 posts: global HR

  5. Dear Warren

    I am a global mobility specialist based in asia, singapore.

    I have only recently started to read your articles and really enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Your experience and articles are highligh informative and i really look forward to more great articles on Global mobility.

    Kind regards

    • Al-ling,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s always nice to hear from readers who find our site informative. I hope you will find our future content equally useful