Some years ago, a volunteer working for an NGO in Papua New Guinea contracted cerebral malaria and died. When a lawsuit was brought against the NGO, the jury found the organisation guilty of failing to protect its volunteers in not one, but four ways—they failed to inform volunteers of the malarial risk, did not train them to recognise symptoms of prevalent local diseases, didn’t provide them with anti-malarial drugs, and didn’t provide a support helpline for volunteers to use in case of emergencies.
This is an example of an organisation failing its duty of care, with potentially catastrophic results for both its employees’ well-being and its business security.
Business travel is an important part of many employees’ jobs, but it brings risks as well as rewards. It’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. In legal terms, this is called duty of care. In this article, we will walk you through the importance of a fully developed duty of care program, the risks faced by business travellers, and tips for implementing a successful duty of care program.
What is duty of care?
Duty of care is the legal responsibility of an organisation to look after its employees while they are away from office on business. It means doing everything in your power to mitigate risks and ensure the safety, comfort, and well-being of your employees. It is applicable when your employees are on business trips (domestic or international), working remotely, or any other similar scenario.
Why should you focus on duty of care?
Duty of care is an essential part of a corporate travel program. As an employer, your obligations extend to your employees, remote workers, board members, consultants, and contractors.
It is an employee’s legal right to be cared for when they are away on business, and if an employer fails in its obligation to do so, and the employee suffers harm due to lack of care, they have every right to sue the company for negligence.
Many countries are passing laws that impose criminal liability on firms in case of any duty of care breach. For example, in the U.K., under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, a firm and its senior officials can be civilly or criminally charged for gross breach of duty of care.
However, you can avoid breaches and their legal ramifications by establishing a well-defined duty of care program. Obviously, you want to prevent harm to your employees. But if something does happen despite your best efforts, you still need to be able to show that you took all the right precautions. In one example, two employees of an oil and gas firm were killed in Venezuela. When a lawsuit was filed against the firm, it was dismissed by the jury because the firm had done everything proper to prevent such a tragedy—in other words, it fulfilled its duty of care obligations to a T.
Setting aside the legal and moral obligations, duty of care is good for your business in other ways too. Simplifying corporate travel increases your employees’ productivity and makes it easier for them to get their work done, and taking good care of your employees is a time-tested way of retaining them. Taking steps to prevent accidents also keeps your plans moving smoothly. Suppose you are expanding your business into a developing country, and your only employee at a remote work location is taken ill during a sudden disease outbreak without any access to assistance from you. Your employee’s faith in your company is shaken, the work at that site is on hold, and your expansion plan is derailed. A few incidents like this can do some major damage to your company’s plans, finances, and reputation.
What are the risks that business travellers face?
To develop a comprehensive corporate duty of care program, you will need to understand the kinds of risks your employees might face while they are out on business trips, such as:
Health risks: These range from global pandemics like COVID-19 to individual travel-related sicknesses like jet lag, sleep disorders, food poisoning, and the common flu. The level of severity can vary widely depending on the individual traveller’s circumstances.
Political risks: Civil unrest including terrorist attacks, riots, and political conflicts pose extreme security threats to any travellers who are caught up in them.
Cultural risks: Standing out from the local population is a risk by itself. Travel often means that your employees find themselves in unfamiliar environments or amidst unfamiliar customs. Language barriers can complicate everything from daily navigation to emergency responses.
Natural disasters: Depending on location, business travellers can find themselves in the midst of blizzards, hailstorms, earthquakes, tornadoes, or other disasters requiring immediate shelter or evacuation.
Accidents: Airline emergencies (such as air collisions and emergency landings) and road traffic accidents are the two most common risks in this category.
Theft and harassment: This is often all about profiling. Business travellers who are dressed immaculately and carrying high-end mobile devices are going to stand out from the crowd, making them a target for pickpocketing, abuse, and threats. Female travellers face even greater risks while they are on the road, including sexual harassment, assault, theft, and kidnapping.
Being prepared to respond to any possible incident at any time is essential to protect your employees and your company’s reputation. That is why companies need a solid duty of care plan to prepare for these types of risks.
Tips to implement a successful duty of care program
We have put together some helpful tips to help you initiate and develop a solid duty of care program. The tips have been split into pre-trip, during trip, and post-trip for your convenience.
Risk assessment: The first step involves analysing the level of risk involved in every step of the trip. Take into account everything about the location before booking travel and accommodation: road safety, the climate and any adverse weather conditions, the presence of diseases like malaria or respiratory viruses, and political and civil conditions. It’s good to assess your likely business destinations periodically and rate them as low, medium, or high risk. This practice helps you maintain realistic internal travel policies, such as restrictions on travel to highly risky countries.
Know your traveller: The more you know about your traveller, the better you can protect them from conditions that might be harmful. If employment laws in your area allow you to collect information about employees’ physical and mental health, use that information to prepare for any special risks that individual travellers may be facing.
Educate your employees: Ensure that your employees are well-informed about your company’s travel policies. Share helpful tips and tricks about travelling safely, and educate them about the location they are travelling to. Before your employees leave, make sure they have the emergency contact numbers of your travel insurance provider and your travel team.
Prep your team: Create and distribute a travel policy that provides guidance to your employees who are handling travel administration. Make sure your team keeps an eye on the company’s bookings to weed out any high-risk or out-of-policy travel plans. Before a traveller sets out, ensure you have contact information for their next of kin and any clients or business partners they will be meeting during their trip. Finally, set up travel alerts to keep your travellers and travel team informed of any potential disruption.
The main task at hand is to know where your travelling employees are at all times. It’s a good idea to implement a traveller tracking application in partnership with a TMC or a third-party duty of care service provider. These applications will tell you which travellers are at risk, track your employees in real time, communicate with them about active alerts, and identify future bookings that might be affected. Whether you’re using a third-party provider or handling duty of care yourself, always give your travellers 24/7 support in case of emergencies or itinerary changes.
It’s a good practice to survey your travellers once they are back in the office and collect feedback so you can make improvements. You may also want to provide post-trip health checkups. For example, in most organisations, employees who returned from business trips during the spread of COVID-19 were given post-travel checkups to curb any travel-related virus transmission.
Here’s your takeaway!
Some companies are already taking their duty of care seriously, while for others it may appear too daunting to attempt. For the latter, it’s high time to make sure you’ve got this covered. If you need some motivation to get started, remember the big picture: duty of care means taking care of your employees and indirectly boosting their productivity, while saving your business from failed plans and unnecessary lawsuits. Work with your in-house travel team or TMC to put together a comprehensive duty of care program that combines best practices with advanced technology to give you and your travellers the safety you all deserve.
Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center for more guides, webinars, and other resources to help your teams navigate the challenges ahead.