Expat duty of care: how to stay compliant

20 March 2017

If you were asked to boil the purpose of an HR department into a single phrase, you might say that it is there “to ensure talent is developed and applied in the most effective way possible”. But there is another, rather warmer dimension to the role of the HR or global mobility team when it comes to looking after expats: they are there to provide “duty of care”.

Life for expats can be anything from just taxing to downright dangerous. Assignments, destinations, and the expats themselves vary immensely. So, with all this variation, how do you know whether you are extending the right level of support?

Not just welfare

One of the key points is to understand that duty of care extends much further than just welfare. If you are responsible for ‘looking out for the expat’ consider each of the following areas, because the expat (and your employer) will look to you first if something goes wrong.

  • Insurance – ensuring that medical and other cover is arranged as appropriate, and in accordance with local requirements. (including local law)
  • Emergency response – this is the worst case scenario, but you have to be ready. Be prepared to support employees – or ultimately withdraw them – following events such as political violence or natural disasters. (Find more detail in our post on The Expatriate and Safety: Turning Risk into Risk Management)
  • Personal information and data. These days, if you are protecting an individual, you also need to protect their data. Companies have a wider obligation towards all employees; the difference with global assignees is that data is inevitably shared with third parties often overseas and not subject to the same data protection laws and conventions.
  • Benefits package. Is it adequate? Expats often look after themselves, but are supported financially to do it. You therefore need to ensure that the budgets and spend limits are structured to allow employees to make safe choices for themselves and their families. (Some of the different approaches to expat compensation are outlined in our post here.)
  • The support of suppliers. Do your expats have access to specialist advice when they need it? The experience of third parties can be invaluable – not least the advice and support available from FAIM-certified relocation partners.

What level of care should you provide?

The level of care will of course vary from assignment to assignment, but it will be dictated by the following three requirements:

  • What is legally required
    This is the basic level of compliance. If you fail to provide this, you’re running some big risks. HR departments should be aware of the bare legal minimum and ensure it is in place.
  • What is customary
    What an expat expects and what is required by law are not the same thing. Expats are notorious for comparing packages with colleagues and former expats and will use these conversations to form expectations – that you then have to meet.
  • What your brand expects
    The way your company handles and supports global assignees is a key part of the employer brand. Certain companies become known for doing things in a certain way, and you have a responsibility to maintain it. In a way, you also have a duty of care to the company’s reputation.

Duty of care – a joint effort

One of the most important aspects of complying with your duty of care obligations is to be aware of the needs and dangers your expats may face. You can plan in advance but regular communication and monitoring are essential to ensure that needs are being met, and so you can be satisfied that your efforts to support expats are in line with either legal requirements, expat expectations or employer brand guidelines.

However, also remember that expats have a responsibility to themselves. They’re grown-ups and ‘duty of care’ does not mean you have to look out for them every day. This is why expats and global mobility teams should have a common understanding of what is meant by duty of care, and that adequate training and briefing should be provided before the expat leaves. That way, they will have accurate expectations, and will understand what you and they need to do in order to ensure a safe, productive and ‘compliant’ time abroad.

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