The expatriate and safety: turning risk into risk management

7 December 2016

You are more likely to be mugged in Manila than Massachusetts. The chances of an earthquake are higher in Tokyo than Toronto. And diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus and more prevalent in Sao Paolo than they are in Stockholm.

As you might expect, different risks apply in different places around the world – and it is the task of the global mobility professional to ensure that employees are responsibly protected by the company that sends them abroad. Companies want to encourage people to take on overseas roles, so they need to show they will look after them while they’re out there – and of course protect themselves against criticism, or even litigation.

Expats face three types of risk: health risks, security risks, and natural phenomena.

Health risks

The risks that expats face include the following:

  • Increased prevalence of infectious diseases (eg malaria) 
  • Local epidemics
  • Scarcity of quality medical resources
  • Access to medication
  • Unsanitary conditions

What can you do to minimize health risks?

Colourful pills - take with caution | FIDI blog

Private medical health care is typically supplied, especially where state-provided healthcare is deemed to be below the standard expected by the expat (ie what they are used to “back home”). Living conditions for expats are also expected to be stringently checked in advance. All expats should have up-to-date vaccinations and health screening before departure. 

If prevention fails, companies also need to have a plan in place to deal with the problem. Most of the larger employers will offer a guide explaining what to do in certain scenarios, as well as providing real-time communications tools and services to advise the expat, extending to emergency repatriation if necessary.

Security risks

In addition to the health risks, employers also need to consider risks to expats perpetrated by others – collectively known as security risks. They include:

  • Individual crime, physical (murder, violence)
  • Individual crime, financial (theft, fraud)
  • Organized crime (terrorism, piracy, hostage-taking)
  • Other risks (eg risk of political upheaval and violent insurrection)

What can you do to minimize expat security risks?

Police line - do not cross | FIDI blog

Security services are frequently provided to expats in high-crime areas. Expat communities will be, for example, situated in gated, patrolled compounds if necessary. Yet it is more important – and cost-effective – to educate expats about the risks before they go there. An understanding of the threats – the parts of town to avoid, for example – is essential to their safety.

Bear in mind also that some factors will exacerbate the risk. The reputation of the company, and the expat’s country of origin may increase risk. Equally, the expat’s position may make them a target, suggesting that senior executives may be at greater threat than others. The expat’s behavior too may put them in risk – not just where they go, but what they wear, what they say and what they write. Guides are often produced to advise expats of the risks and the steps that they should take in high-risk situations, and services are on hand to support the expat. Once more, education and communication are key.

Natural risks

In addition to these health and security risks, there sometimes are natural risks such as earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons or other types of natural disasters. These are, of course, beyond your control – but expats should have a workplace and domestic accommodation that gives them maximum protection against natural disasters, eg earthquake-resistant buildings. It is crucial to educate expats about the risks, and the steps they should take in the event of a natural disaster, and to establish alternative methods of communication in the event of a natural catastrophe.

Earthquake-prone soil | FIDI blog

Risk management, done professionally

In order to provide the best possible protection for expat staff, companies clearly need a full understanding of the different risk levels as they apply to each assignment. For more information on this, an excellent starting point is this comprehensive report produced by ControlRisk, one of a number of risk consultancies who will gladly help you define and implement an expat safety programme. There are also analysts who provide risk ratings for each country (see this example from the PRS Group). A FAIM-certified relocation expert will also be able to offer broad advice on the risks associated with working and living abroad.

Once the risk levels are understood, the next step is to put a risk management programme in place to help expats on the ground. For some, especially smaller companies, this may simply consist of an education/orientation programme, along with the offer of support and advice from head office when required. Global mobility functions at larger organizations take it a step further, with sophisticated tools to offer real-time assistance to expats: the Mobile Messenger from Amadeus is an excellent example. There are also a number of organizations (eg the Anvil Group) who will support your expats on your behalf, providing not only information and advice services but also emergency security and crisis management services.

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