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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