Coronavirus: how to manage employee travel

While it’s more straightforward for employers to ban business trips, can organisations go as far as dictating their workers’ holiday destinations?

Goldman Sachs this week told its employees all non-essential business travel would be stopped, adding its name onto a long list of firms banning travel in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Toyota, Nestlé and JPMorgan are among the other big-name companies that have put a moratorium on business travel. Other employers are advising their workforces to avoid any face-to-face meetings where possible, while some have gone as far as asking employees about their non-work related travel plans over the next three months.

Official advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said travellers coming back from affected areas should self-isolate for 14 days, and call 111 if they have any symptoms of the virus. Travel to any places on the list is advised against, and those returning from the higher-risk ‘category 1’ areas, including Hubei province in China, Iran and parts of South Korea and Italy, have been told to call 111 on their return regardless of whether they have symptoms.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, and the CIPD suggests organisations advise against all travel to affected areas.

For employees who are already travelling, standard best practice still applies. Donna Miller, vice president of global customer operations at Egencia, said it was crucial for HR professionals to stay fully informed about potential travel disruptions and keep their travellers up to date, notifying them of delayed flights or cancelled bookings and providing them with alternatives. “It’s a company’s responsibility to keep track of employees travelling for work by knowing where they currently are at any time,” she said.

Employers also needed to look at their travel policies and adjust them “ASAP to help mitigate risks based on route or destination”, Miller added.

However, the exact rules become less clear when employers try to ascertain details of their workers’ personal travel plans. “We’ve had a lot of employers [that’ve] wanted to dictate where their employees can travel to,” said Tracey Hudson, director at The HR Dept.

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But while businesses should not ask why an employee may choose to travel to a high-risk area, a duty of care still exists, and Hudson said it was fair for an employer to deem anyone choosing to travel for personal reasons to a destination on the Home Office’s high-risk list would be expected to self-isolate for 14 days.

Hudson suggested employers create a centralised reference document setting out how the company would respond to different travel situations. “When particular issues come up, or hypotheticals come up, we’re putting them into a [frequently asked questions] document and sharing that and updating that a couple of times a week so that people can plan ahead,” she said.

“It’s just about being open and honest and transparent... If you think people should be cancelling holiday then put it into a document and just share it with everybody, because actually you’ve got employees who are worrying about what happens if this is still happening in the summer.” 

Employers also need to consider how flexible they want to be if employees want to cancel or change their holidays because of coronavirus. “It’s up to you whether you want to allow people to cancel,” she said.

Hudson added that employers had also raised concerns that a minority of workers were lying to take advantage of self-isolation policies. She advised employers to err on the side of caution, and to trust employees: “If you have evidence to the contrary, then you can take disciplinary action.”