The news from around the world these days is increasingly hopeful. As more and more countries vaccinate their populations against Covid-19, infection rates and deaths dip, lockdowns ease, and borders reopen. Buoyed by this positive trajectory, companies are considering putting their employees back on the road. Before doing so, however, corporate leaders should carefully consider their duty of care obligations to their employees and take steps to address the gaps in policies that were exposed when the pandemic struck almost two years ago.
According to a poll by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), more than half (66 per cent) of those surveyed in January 2022 said their companies were sometimes or usually allowing nonessential domestic business travel; 41 per cent said this was the case for nonessential international business travel. The poll also found 64 per cent of employees were willing to travel for business in the current environment.
Before employees get back on those planes, companies would be well advised to take a long hard look at their duty of care models. Given that the pandemic revealed deficiencies in existing systems, the hard questions they have to ask themselves are: where are the gaps? Where have they been failed? That’s where their focus needs to be.
Understanding Duty of Care
There is the flawed assumption that US embassies around the world are equipped to help US citizens in times of a crisis. The truth is, embassies in foreign countries are not equipped, manned, or trained to protect, care for, or evacuate large numbers of people. It is the company’s responsibility to provide duty of care to its employees.
It has become fashionable for companies to throw around the term ‘duty of care’ without a clear understanding of what it entails. Gone are the days of relying simply on a combination of pre-travel intelligence briefings and alerts, tracking employees on work travel, and insurance plans. All three approaches have value, but that value is limited. After all, there is no ‘care’ involved in providing pre-travel briefings or tracking people; and as Covid-19 has shown, most insurance plans did not even cover a pandemic.
The pandemic has put a spotlight on failures in systems. There is an urgent need for corporations to better understand how to address those failures and provide duty of care to protect their employees from undue harm.
Duty of care is about more than just protecting a company’s brand and its balance sheet. It requires recognising that your organisation has a legal and moral obligation to keep its people safe at the workplace and while on business travel. It’s about execution during a crisis. Can you get your employee out of harm’s way if a terrorist attack were to occur in Mumbai? Is there a plan if your employee is caught up in a natural disaster, contracts an illness, or is kidnapped while overseas? Is your plan roadworthy?
Having a plan should not simply be a box-ticking exercise. It is important that you have the right plan and the right provider/partner with which to execute that plan. Companies should carefully consider what steps they need to take to provide duty of care to their employees. An early investment will more than likely lead to better outcomes when a crisis hits.
Questions to consider
As corporations rethink their duty of care mechanisms, they should start by considering the following questions:
- Are my existing platforms between insurance vendors and providers coherent and appropriate to meet unforeseeable needs during a crisis? Where, when, and why have these systems failed in the past?
- Will my combined platform of insurance vendors, affiliates, and my infrastructure execute the last mile? In other words, is it going to get my people out of Afghanistan when the government unexpectedly collapses, or out of New Orleans when the streets are flooded by a hurricane?
- Where in the world are the vendor’s assets – aircraft, agents, vehicles? Can the vendor respond in real time, or do they need to bring in assets from outside, and if that is the case do those people have relationships on the ground, speak the local language, and understand the local culture?
When it comes to addressing cyber threats, where are the vendor’s analysts based, do they have the capability of negotiating through the dark web, can they execute ransom payments in bitcoin, and what is their track record?
Once a crisis starts, the answers to these questions could mean the difference between life and death. We all get caught up in the contract language, we never ask those very simple questions.
Next steps to providing Duty of Care
Companies should next consider the following steps to better provide duty of care:
- Review your policies. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many HR directors were surprised to learn that their insurance policies did not cover a global health crisis. Companies should pay close attention to the fine print of their insurance policies to better understand coverage and, equally importantly, restrictions in those policies.
- Acknowledge shortcomings. Companies should review the technologies they rely on during a crisis. Is a tracking app sufficient to keep your employees safe in a foreign country during a crisis? Oftentimes, the answer to that question is no. A better understanding is needed of what technology can do for us, as well as its limitations.
- Make the change. All of us in corporate headquarters should take a hard look at our travel policies, platforms, and vendors. How did they perform during a crisis? If any of these have failed – or underperformed – serious consideration should be given to making a change so companies can better provide duty of care.
Eventually, preparing for the crisis that may be lurking around the corner helps a company meet its duty of care obligations. But it also boosts employee morale and productivity by reaffirming the sense that you have their back when they hit the road in what – despite the recent good news – is still an uncertain world.