Expanding abroad will be a lot more fun if you can avoid cultural faux pas, kidnapping, disease, and accidents
by Tim Mitchell, the global chief executive officer of FrontierMEDEX. A transplanted Canadian, he joined the U.K.-based company in 2007. Mitchell was previously president of Kroll Security Group, a division of Kroll. Tim holds a master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics and a law degree from the University of Toronto.
Last year, Fortune 500 companies experienced greater growth overseas than they did in the U.S. Opportunity for revenue is always accompanied by risk. During my career in risk management, I’ve found that the dangers to employees and businesses expanding into foreign countries fall into five categories.
1. Business Cultural Understanding. Take the time to understand the basics of how business is conducted. A country’s culture should dictate the way you behave and strategize. The rules differ greatly from place to place. In the Middle East, for example, meetings are long and start times extremely flexible, so scheduling a series of meetings on the same day is often impossible. In Japan, it is rude to say “no,” so you need to understand that “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes.” Good resources on culture-specific business behavior include the Culture Shock! book series and the International Business Culture website.
2. Security Environment. Evaluate and understand the security environment, including the risks of crime, political unrest, and kidnap and ransom in a given country. You’ll need to keep employees informed of any changes in security risks. The U.S. State Dept. website is a start, but it’s no substitute for briefings and a subscription to regular security updates from a reputable security-consulting company with a presence in the relevant country.
It’s also crucial to have comprehensive support-and-assistance arrangements in place. Theft, muggings, and other criminal acts are the biggest risks in most places around the world. Traveling employees will need access to 24-hour advice and assistance from an expert. In countries with particularly volatile political environments, they’ll also require access to an evacuation provider. In areas with high rates of kidnapping, such as Latin America, companies need to think about kidnap-and-ransom insurance.
3. Health Risks and Medical Environment. Understanding the profile of a country’s health risks is a prerequisite for business travel or setting up foreign operations. Make sure employees have received all the recommended vaccinations and prophylactic medications prior to departure. Advice is available from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention website, medical websites concerning travel, travel medical clinics in your area, and travel insurance and assistance providers.
Once in-country, make sure employees have access to emergency health and medical support. Employees need telephone access to a 24-hour emergency response center that can direct them to local treatment options, coordinate evacuation if required, and also handle payments. If travel is to developed countries and occurs relatively infrequently, the assistance component of a good travel medical-insurance plan may provide an adequate solution. However, if your employees travel to less-developed countries or remote areas or travel frequently, consider contracting directly with a medical assistance provider to provide a customized solution for your staff. Travel medical insurance is available from several reputable insurers, while customized or fully integrated assistance solutions are available from specialist assistance companies.
4. Safety Environment. Even in the worst days after the Iraq war, road-traffic accidents were the leading cause of death and injury among contractors stationed there. This is the case in almost every working environment, no matter how hostile. Prepare employees well with predeployment training if they are going to be driving in difficult environments, whether that means driving heavy equipment in sand dunes or simply driving home in downtown Cairo.
5. Corruption. Know, understand, and respect the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as well as the U.K. Bribery Act if a company has connections there. In many parts of the world, corruption remains a major problem. Whatever the perceived advantage—no matter how minor the scale, how common the practice, or who is involved—don’t do it. The perceived benefits will never outweigh the risks.