Pop quiz: Your company just expanded its oil business to West Africa, specifically Mauritania. You need to send a geologist to do testing. The area will be remote, the worker will be isolated with a very small local team and conditions will be harsh. Do you send the brilliant gay guy or the genius lady with the chronic heart condition?
Answer: I have no idea. I’ve honestly never had to think about such things. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Mauritania and much of the country is desert with very few hospitals. In this (admittedly) absurd scenario, there are no good options.
Enter Dr. Lisbeth Claus, professor with the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where she teaches global HR management and is the leading expert on global duty of care. At the start of our interview, I told her this wasn’t really my area, and she kindly offered to give me a quick rundown. She began speaking and before I knew it, we were discussing kidnap and ransom insurance and “repatriation of mortal remains.” This was not the traditional HR safety chat I expected. I fell into the black ops of HR and I never want to leave.
Discovering Duty In Disaster
In November 2008, during the harrowing four days of terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, Claus had a colleague stranded at the Mumbai airport. Already a worldwide expert in global HR and typical issues that arise when employees cross borders (taxation, culture change, legal issues, etc.), this former SHRM Global president was now faced with an atypical issue — getting this employee home safely amidst unimaginable chaos. Once this situation was over and the employee returned home safe and sound, Claus realized there was a big gap in global HR preparation, and her new specialty was born.
Claus took a sabbatical and began researching global duty of care. “There was no literature about health, safety and security for global employees. I took the sabbatical and wrote a white paper on duty of care internationally,” she says. In the years since, she’s become the Michael Corleone of international risk management. She’s tried to further diversify her research but she keeps getting pulled back in.
Why? Because the world of work is changing so rapidly now that duty of care is never fully defined or finished, she says.
Crossing Borders: Remote Workers and Special Populations
Generally, duty of care includes health, safety, security and well-being. “The concept of well-being is expanding to include mental health, stress avoidance, bullying, harassment, etc.,” Claus says. It covers these things for your employees, certainly, but what about contractors? Customers? The brand itself? What if a rideshare driver, a contractor, sexually harasses a customer, Claus asks. What if it happens in a country other than the U.S.? Even though the rideshare company may be based here, there may be different standards and laws that apply depending on where it took place, she says.
“Also, what about special populations in your workforce: LGBTQ employees traveling to countries where homosexuality is illegal, women traveling alone for work, executives of large corporations at risk of kidnapping, older workers with chronic conditions, young people going bungee jumping [in their off time during a work trip.] What are your different responsibilities as an employer?” she asks. What if you have an isolated worker, like an NGO staffer working in Sudan, 200 miles from any urban areas? How will you make sure this employee is taking required breaks, working in a safe manner, or that his or her mental health is not declining from isolation?
Speaking of isolated employees, “in two years, fifty percent of the population will be working remotely,” she says. Remote workers, globally or domestically, bring their own duty of care questions. “Do they have a dedicated workspace? Is it safe? Does the employer have the right to inspect it?,” she asks.
These are all questions that fall under the duty of care scope that employers should consider.
Just as benefits and wellness plans are devoting more resources to mental health, so too are the duty of care programs. “There are different considerations here, though,” says Claus. “What happens if the employees no longer work for the employer?” Consider the first responders to a tragedy such as the Las Vegas shooting. If one is diagnosed a year from now with PTSD, but is no longer working for the police, fire or EMS departments, does this condition fall under their duty of care?
Full disclosure: it’s not all super cool black ops stuff. Most global duty of care incidents arise from automobile accidents or illness in a remote area, not security threats. Even so, you should be thinking about these things and developing full-scale duty of care policies and practices before an incident of any kind spurs you to, Claus says. You owe your staff a safe work environment and you also want to avoid lawsuits. Proper duty of care strategy and plans can help you do both.
Claus' 2018 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition session, Employer Duty of Care: The Next Frontier is at 10:45 on Monday, June 18. Even if I never need to know how to retrieve an employee’s mortal remains from a foreign country, I’m going to this session. Trust me. It’s going to be fascinating and I hope to see you there!