Security in an insecure world

Assistance providers help organizations ensure the health and safety of employees abroad

Jetting off on an overnight flight for a meeting in Moscow or Beijing is common practice, but in the post-Sept. 11 world, there is greater cause for concern and heightened security awareness. Tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides and strange illnesses make international assignments even riskier.

Protection has taken on an expanded meaning that continues to evolve. Companies need to develop ways to protect global workforces in the face of disaster and this protection is a critical component of a company’s business continuity planning.

Developing a plan of action is the best way to avoid panicking in the event of a crisis. The HR department needs a step-by-step guide for what needs to be done, and by whom, at each stage of a crisis. The objective is to facilitate a co-ordinated response quickly and efficiently.

Since many crises that businesses encounter can be anticipated, a company’s business continuity plan should include potential scenarios and responses — including actions, draft communications and contact lists for all stakeholders. This accelerates the organization’s ability to respond quickly, which is critical in bringing any crisis situation under ­control.

With so many companies expanding internationally, HR directors, often with little or no international expertise, are required to go beyond the depth of a local crisis plan and develop a strategic, integrated global assistance program. Maintaining a global workforce is complex and requires a different kind of expertise from domestic relocations or employee management. It is becoming more important to complement standard benefits policies with tailored services that provide integrated medical and security solutions.

Working with global risk management experts to assess potential risk and safety of employees overseas gives employers, employees and their families peace of mind. Together employers and assistance providers ensure that businesses have the appropriate programs and services to protect their staff when travelling abroad or working in remote locations. It is about planning ahead before a hurricane or terrorist strike.

Prevention is better than a cure. Developing a pre-travel plan that details where employees will be and what vaccinations they need are good practices. Knowing the political climate of the country, what health and personal safety issues employees may encounter, where to access safe medical facilities and even whether or not it is safe to take a taxi alone, should be part of any organization’s health and security plan when sending employees on international assignment.

One service most assistance providers have is a global locator system. The program tracks employees’ movements and provides accurate, up-to-date information about employees wherever they are. If there is a natural disaster, or political instability in a certain country, an HR manager would be alerted via e-mail by the assistance provider. She could then access contact information for employees in the affected country through the provider’s website almost immediately.

While abroad, employees need to be assured that around-the-clock help is just a phone call away. Regardless of whether the complaint is serious, such as a kidnapping or medical emergency, or mundane, a global assistance network gives employees access to advice and assistance when they need it. International standards of primary medical care can be accessed even in developing countries so that employees receive levels of care that are comparable to what they would get at home.

A global assistance provider is also prepared to deliver medical and security evacuations on an urgent basis. All of these services require providers with local knowledge and local networks to provide logistical support that is truly global. Without these emergency networks in place, continuity of care and access to treatment are jeopardized. For example, in a medical emergency in a remote part of the world, it’s critical to have the ability to find a doctor or a hospital with a clean blood supply. This isn’t easy without local expertise.

Having risk management plans and appropriate assistance in place to protect employees will help Canadian companies hold on to top talent. Smart corporate administrators will build strong business continuity and crisis teams to ensure they can reassure and protect their most important assets: their employees.

Alex Elson is president of assistance provider International SOS Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] and (905) 940-5522.

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