Protecting expat employees in a crisis

Invasion in Ukraine highlights challenges of keeping workers safe in high-risk regions

Protecting expat employees in a crisis

With the fate of Ukraine gripping the world as the Russian invasion rages on, the challenge of protecting expatriate workers in high-risk regions is once again in the spotlight.

Canadian HR Reporter spoke with two academics about how HR professionals should respond when it comes to keeping workers safe.

Having a plan in place before the crisis hits is key and something that can be managed by HR, Anthony Fee, senior lecturer in the management discipline group at the University of Technology in Sydney.

“A humanitarian aid organization empowers expatriates so they train them, prepare them and say, ‘OK, the first week when you arrive, this is where our safe house is and here’s the reason why it’s here. We want you to map out, to walk the way that you will get from your home address to the safe house and then from your office to the safe house,’ and actually had them walking and noting landmarks and literally drawing a map.”

Communication is also an important consideration during an emergency, says Fee, and many different organizations handle this with a variety of tools such as mobile and satellite phones. But there are also apps that can be useful.

“The main communication app is WhatsApp but there are special ones too: one organization I know uses Zello, which is an app on your phone but you can literally press a button and be talking to someone on your phone, like you would be talking to them on a two-way radio, and if they are not there at the other end; if they happen to be away from their phone, it actually records the message and they can play it back when they’re there.”

Read more: Canada has eliminated many visa conditions for Ukrainian citizens who are looking to flee the invasion.

Employers should have two kinds of plans: a duty-of-care strategy to mitigate the risk of employees around the world — thinking about natural disasters and human-made ones like war — and a traditional, strategic plan to protect employees on  day-to-day basis, says Lisbeth Claus, emerita professor of management and global HR at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

 “I don’t see it just as an HR role, I really see it an integrated team that has to plan and then they have to implement. What did Julius Caesar, say? ‘You prepare for the worst, and you hope that you’re never going to have to use it,’” says Claus.

HR’s role

Large multinationals operating in different countries often have various teams in place to deal with emergencies or crises, she says.

“Research has shown that HR is among the top three roles that are playing a role but much more the operational plan than in the crisis-management plan,” she says.

“About a dozen different functional disciplines are required and you could see that security would have a little bigger role at this point than HR, at least in the planning and the tracking of it, but HR has a big role in both of them.”

HR is a crucial member of the team and steps up with responsibilities at different times in the process, says Claus.

“Obviously these companies [in Ukraine] are dealing with refugees. They’re going to have to see what about their benefits; benefits are usually local. What about their health care? What about their children? What about every little detail but that’s why HR is part of the planning team and part of the crisis management team because there is lots to be done.”

When it comes to dealing with expats, it’s important to treat all employees well and equitably because the rest of the workforce will pay attention, she says.

“One of the things that HR has to be really careful about is that your other employees in your company are looking as to the humane treatment that you have done for their coworkers. That brings a lot of engagement and loyalty from your other employees as well: ‘If something happens to us, they didn’t go and help the Ukrainians, will they help the Hungarians? Or will they help us as well?’”

Targeted safety by sector

Deciding how to keep expat employees safe often depends on their sector, according to Fee.

“In the aid sector, one of their starting principles was to protect your safety: we want you to be embedded within the community in which you’re working so not put you in a compound with razor wire and double locks on the door that separates you from the community but have you living with the community and developing relationships and learning the language and so on. For them, that was the strongest support that they could do.”

On the other hand, when it come to the mining sector operating in high-risk and third-world countries, the protection regime is radically different.

“It was just a case of ‘Do this and don’t do that,’ and ‘You need to return to the compound by 9 p.m.’ and you don’t associate with host-country nationals in these sorts of settings,” he says.

“You either build a wall and put razor wire on top of it or you have no wall and you embed the person within the local community and your quote unquote, wall is the people in the community who look out for you and give support to you and give advice to as well.”

Other risks to be considered

Besides big events — such as what is happening in Ukraine — there are other types of things that might pose a great risk to employees, and these must also be taken into consideration when coming up with disaster planning.

“We found this in our studies that there tended to be an emphasis on examining external risks, external threats and not strongly enough considering the risks that are created by the organization and its practices and the expatriates and their actions and how culturally sensitive they are, and considering the way that their own actions can perhaps contribute towards elements of risk in certain settings,” says Fee.

For some countries that are less progressive than Canada, certain employees may find themselves at greater risk, he says.

“One area that’s got a bit of research recently is the LGBT plus community, as expatriates, and the particular risks that they face and the onus being on HR practitioners to make sure that they’re aware of it and the expatriates are aware of it, and risks are managed in parts of the world where their lifestyles may be frowned upon, that may in fact be illegal.”

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