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How to protect travelling employees

From flight delays and accommodation mix-ups, to civil unrest, disease and natural disasters, business travel involves exposure to a certain element of risk, and this risk must be managed by employers. Here’s how.

It is widely accepted that employers have a moral and legal responsibility for the health, safety and security of their employees, but with SMBs now accounting for a growing portion of business travellers, many are neglecting to consider that their duty of care now crosses borders.

Advances in technology, an increasingly mobile workforce and engagement with developing markets in Asia Pacific have contributed to a significant change of pace across the Australian business landscape. With a material impact on how companies of all shapes and sizes operate, travel is now a business imperative like never before. For SMBs with travelling employees, duty of care is a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention; its significance is underestimated to an alarming degree.

New opportunities bring new operational challenges and it’s no secret that SMBs are less likely than their larger counterparts to identify or invest in a robust risk management plan. From experience, SMBs approach the booking and management of business travel much like consumers do. Positioning travel as a perk, smaller companies are less likely to proactively manage travel-related risk, or even perceive the risk exists. Unless proper consideration is given to the evolving nature of duty of care in the context of borderless work environments, SMBs risk breaching legal and moral obligations to their employees.

It’s quite apparent that there is a significant knowledge gap in the Australian market, between perceived employer responsibility for the management of employee business travel, and employees’ own expectation that they will be assisted should they so require. Despite an acceptance of the moral and legal responsibility for the health, safety and security of their employees, smaller businesses are less likely to consider this in relation to travel.

Concur’s recent study, Understanding duty of care in relation to business travel, showed the prevalence of complacency within Australian companies when it came to understanding how business travel affects their responsibility to employees. While the study found that 93 percent of business leaders claimed to be comfortable that they were properly managing their company’s liabilities in relation to employee duty of care, in reality only 30 percent of businesses actually had a relevant plan of action in place. Only half were found to actively assess and manage employee risk on a regular basis.

An alarming 54 percent of employees said that their employer does not specify a contingency plan to manage unexpected eventualities while abroad. Some 41 percent of businesses with travelling employees had no specific code of practice that informs staff travelling on business what to do if their health, safety, or security is in jeopardy, 30 percent of travelling workers said that their employers rarely or never provided notification of critical events impacting on travel schedules, and 35 percent of employers had not even provided a work contact number for use in event of a travel-related emergency.

SMBs were far less likely than larger organisations to have a mitigated risk strategy in place – 25 percent of SMBs reported to have a plan of action in case of emergency, but that it was not a written or formalised plan. The study highlights an assumption that a smaller workforce demands greater autonomy of those travelling for business, leading to an overreliance on local hotel or embassy support in the event of a significant problem arising. This means that employees of SMBs have little more on-the-ground support than people who are otherwise holidaying in a foreign country. They are in danger of becoming the ‘accidental tourists’ of the Australian business community.

At a minimum, SMBs need to examine how they inform, locate, alert and assist their employees who are travelling on business. In an age abounding with technological solutions, ignorance is no longer a viable plea. From a legal perspective, judgements of negligence are based on available methods of communication and technology. Despite this legal requirement, there is a widespread misconception that effective risk management involves a major investment of time and money.

Traditionally, risk management solutions have been expensive and complex, targeting larger corporations and often seen as unattainable to SMBs. However with the ubiquity of smartphones and affordable online cloud-based technologies such as iSOS, the cost and infrastructure barrier to SMBs has disappeared. Not having a plan in place is no longer an excuse.

Developing a robust duty of care program for an SMB does not need to cost the earth. A few simple measures can help ensure compliance and protect employees. In line with this, below are five areas for SMBs to consider:

Education: Proactively communicate with employees about the potential risks associated with pending business travel and maintain strong engagement with employees. This can be as simple as mandating pre-approved ground transportation or advising on appropriate vaccinations according to destination.

Continuity: Commit to the regular development and review of risk management plans. Ensure these are as relevant to specific travel circumstances.

Technology: Leverage the mobile and cloud based technologies to make communication and the provision of support easier. Today’s technology allows companies to easily locate their employees while travelling and ensure effective communication in the event of an emergency.

Ownership: Minimise the number of number or parties involved in the management of business travel and centralise travel functions. This also facilitates reduced costs and better management of travel expenses.

Home and Away: Prepare for the implications of a more mobile Australian workforce and the different environments in which your employees will be asked to operate.

As well as protecting employees and helping ensure better compliance, a robust duty of care program has the potential to significantly drive corporate reputation. It can make stronger advocates of employees who recognise the level of focus applied to their wellbeing and build brand reputation as an employer of choice externally.

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Michael Eberhard

Michael Eberhard

Eberhard joined Concur in September 2003 as its Vice President of Large Market Sales, became Executive Vice President, North American Sales in October 2005, and became Executive Vice President, Worldwide Sales and Business Development in September 2007.

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