Protecting Expat Staff During Crisis Events

iStock-186538582 lightningAnthony Fee takes a look at how international workers are protected during times of crisis.

Imagine that you are a manager of a multinational organisation, and one or more of your international operations has been caught up in a major disaster. How confident are you that the safety of your expatriate staff would be well managed? Could you trust that they would be safely evacuated and their physical and psychological wellbeing taken care of? Experience shows that a range of natural and man-made disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, virus outbreaks, targeted violence or medical emergencies – can threaten the wellbeing of international workers, even in seemingly low-risk locations like Paris or London.

Over the past five years I have been investigating the many varied ways that multinational organisations ensure the safety and security of their expatriate staff during crises events. This has involved reviewing hundreds of academic papers, analysing literally thousands of pages of organisational plans, checklists, policies and security briefings, and interviewing dozens of managers, security experts, and employees who have designed, implemented or been affected by their organisation’s practices (including numerous evacuees). A distillation of the results of my investigations are presented in Chapter 8 of the Research Handbook of Expatriates.

The challenges of managing and protecting staff during crisis events are particularly acute for expatriates because: (1) different parts of the world have varied levels or risk due to the (lack of) stability, development and/or infrastructure; (2) environments that are unfamiliar are generally less predictable and so more dangerous, irrespective of their inherent hazards (that is, the safety and security ‘liability of foreignness’), and (3) unlike their domestic counterparts whose wellbeing can be monitored with relative ease, expatriates operate out-of-sight and out-of-mind, often thousands of kilometres and several time zones from head office. Compounding this is the fact that expatriates frequently represent the very best of a firm’s global talent, and therefore are among the most important of their human capital. In a nutshell, expatriates are both valuable and vulnerable.

In spite of this, one of the key findings from my research to date is the starkly different levels of crisis-preparedness that exists among multinational organisations. At one extreme, some organisations leave their expatriates’ welfare entirely to external service providers (often bundled with insurance policies and ‘contract managed’ by a single HR employee). In effect, these firms choose to outsource duty of care responsibility for their expatriates.

At the other end of the spectrum are organisations that develop in-house expertise in designing and managing comprehensive plans to mitigate and respond to crisis events involving their expatriates. These organisations tend to be those with vast experience operating under elevated levels of risk; notably, those involved in delivering international aid or overseeing mining operations in contexts that are perceived as hostile. Organisations that manage their crisis preparedness most comprehensively have several common features: for instance, they employ in-house security experts, they coordinate central hubs for collating and interpreting relevant information (from security incident reports to media scanning), they customise their crisis preparation and response to suit local circumstances, and they use a variety of technologies in clever ways to communicate with expatriates and capture information about on-the-ground conditions prior to, during and after a crisis.

While certain initiatives may be beyond the budget and expertise of some organisations, Chapter 8 makes clear that a range of relatively inexpensive activities can help organisations develop a ‘safety and security’ culture. What seems to be most important is a central philosophy or approach that corresponds with the firm’s strengths and limitations, and that is suited to the on-the-ground realities of the countries in which it operates. This central organising philosophy can be supported with a coherent set of practices in at least five foundational areas:

  1. Information services: Keeping abreast of major threats in locations where expatriates operate, as well as being attuned to vulnerabilities that may heighten expatriates’ insecurity, like the attitudes of local communities to the organisation and/or staff.
  2. Relationship management: Nurturing relationships with key informants, government officers and service providers that may be sources of intelligence, support or advice.
  3. Welfare support: Ensuring that the psychological and physical wellbeing of expatriates is accounted for. This includes making available culturally-appropriate counselling services to all staff who might have been affected directly or indirectly by an actual or threatened crisis event.
  4. Resource provision: Providing local business units and expatriates with sufficient resources to prevent and cope with crises, including training to help expatriates reduce their risk exposure (e.g. cultural sensitivity training).
  5. Policy framework: Articulating clear policies that address the realities of the conditions in specific locations. This typically centres on a country- or city-level ‘security management plan’ detailing (at a minimum) current security/safety conditions, standard operating practices, evacuation and crisis management plans, and relevant contact details (e.g. emergency service providers, safe house operators).

Of the multinational organisations I have studied, many develop and are committed to policies and practices that go well beyond their minimal legal requirements. The reasons for this are complex but reflect a growing acknowledgement that, when it comes to expatriates’ safety and wellbeing, a strong business – as well as moral – case for ‘return on prevention’ may exist.

Dr Anthony Fee teaches at the University of Technology (UTS) Business School in Sydney, Australia, and researches the experiences of global workers. He is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Global Mobility and an Editorial Board member of The International Journal of Human Resource Management. He is the author of more than 50 peer reviewed journal articles, conference papers and book chapters, including several relating to expatriate safety and security.


The Research Handbook of Expatriates edited by Yvonne McNulty and Jan Selmer is out now.

Read Chapter 1, by Yvonne McNulty and Chris Brewster free on Elgaronline

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