Are organisations fulfilling their duty of care around global mobility?

Research finds employers are genuinely concerned about workforce wellbeing, which will be even more key to attracting talent post Covid-19, says Dr Benjamin Bader

All employers have a duty of care towards their workforce. In a narrow, legal sense, this means employers are required to take all of the reasonable and necessary steps to protect their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. This, of course, does not end at national borders, and multinational companies who assign expatriates all over the globe are not exempt from this duty when the employee is abroad. In the light of the worldwide pandemic we’re experiencing right now, the topic is more important than ever.

However, while a narrow legal definition is one thing, companies actually have to offer more than simply complying with the law should they want to meet the needs of today’s highly skilled and demanding workforce. In fact, our research indicates that a solid duty of care programme is increasingly becoming an essential differentiator in the ‘war for talent’. And post Covid-19, prospective employees will be looking very closely at this.

We investigated practices of more than 50 global organisations, analysing what they do and how they design their duty of care programmes. While almost all make a great effort to go beyond the minimum legal requirements, our findings highlight that there are important differences. Especially in an increasingly VUCA environment, duty of care plays a crucial role and, in our study, we summarise the current status quo, compare it with future needs and perceived importance by global mobility managers and offer several key action steps.

Since the understanding and definition of duty of care is very diverse, we asked respondents to share what they believe defines an employer's legal and moral obligations. In a nutshell, almost every definition was given with employee wellbeing foremost, even when respondents took an organisational perspective. This clearly shows, while organisations differentiate between safe and hostile environments, at the same time they very much care about both the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees. Striking is that most of the definitions given go far beyond the basic legal requirements, with respondents expressing the importance of taking care of and protecting employees. Such importance is, not least, down to the fact companies are aware that the demands of employees have increased in recent years. 

While our research did not enable us to identify a single ‘best practice’ programme that would work for every company – and it is unlikely that one exists – we found some elements in the design of duty of care programmes are more widely applied than others. We looked at a variety of elements and investigated whether and to what extent they were in place.

The results indicate that only two elements are fully implemented in most companies: adequate medical insurance and assistance (76 per cent); and advice, assistance and evacuation for employees in danger (61 per cent). A long way behind these are employee tracking and information systems (29 per cent) and the development of company-wide duty of care policies (26 per cent). However, if companies who at least partially implemented these elements are added, the numbers rise to 92 per cent, 90 per cent, 68 per cent, and 66 per cent respectively. Among the duty of care elements less widely offered were individual risk assessments for each international assignment. In 37 per cent of companies this does not happen. Similarly, the provision of education and training driven by HR teams for international assignees regarding duty of care is not conducted at all in 32 per cent of companies. 

Of course, the more advanced and extensive a duty of care programme is, the more costly it will be. Therefore, respondents were asked to evaluate, in their own words, the costs versus benefits of their employer’s duty of care provision. Results indicate that while there is some cost/benefit analysis, none of the respondents referred to, for example, a centrally recorded KPI on duty of care. In fact, it appears that while some companies manage costs related to their duty of care obligations, the extent of these costs appears to be irrelevant as long as the purpose of providing support to employees is served. While the notion that companies are willing to provide duty of care ‘at any cost’ may be something positive, it is also far from evidence-based HR. A more data-driven approach could surely help increase both the value of duty of care programmes to employees and, simultaneously, employers by integrating the cost and benefit perspective.

Companies are genuinely concerned about workforce wellbeing and take duty of care seriously. This attitude will surely pay off at such times, with the world in the grasp of Covid-19. However, it also shows there are particular areas of duty of care – for instance regarding (high) risk management – that can still be improved. And our results indicate companies could benefit from addressing duty of care with a more strategic, data-driven approach to get the most for their money.

Dr Benjamin Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser at The RES Forum, and senior lecturer in international human resource management at Newcastle University Business School