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How HR deals with the worst duty of them all

first_img Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article No one likes to think about the death of a colleague but in the wake of thehorrifying death toll caused by last week’s terrorist attack in the US, it isan issue many HR professionals face. Gavin Evans advises on how to deal withthe death of an employee overseasThe human tragedy of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in NewYork has been uppermost in business minds over the past week. But beyond that there is the unfolding and unsavoury challenge of having toreturn bodies of overseas staff killed in the catastrophe to their families inEurope. It is a common problem faced by Michael Weiland, international services andmedical affairs manager of Global Emergency Medical Services. He explained that most companies find it harder to bring home a dead personthan to arrange emergency medical treatment or evacuation for those stillalive. The first difficulty they find is that international medical insurancestops at death. Karen Froud, of the British-based health insurer Bupa International, saidthat in the case of serious illness her company will immediately pull out allthe stops, including emergency evacuation, but if the member dies, the story israther different – in effect, death ends the contract. “We would advise the company to contact the embassy for practicaladvice, but we ourselves offer no special procedures for death, beyondproviding a doctor to sign the death certificate, and we don’t cover forreturning the body home,” she said. This means it is up to the deceased’s company to cut through the red tapeand sort out the mess. Weiland explained, “Deaths in a foreign country canbe a web of bureaucratic compliance, religious rites woven into laws andpay-offs to everyone in the chain of events.” The problems vary according to the circumstances. For a start, it may take awhile for the death to be discovered. “We’ve had situations where abusinessman has died in his hotel and the maid thought he was sleeping, andjust closed the door, and it took another 24 hours to discover he was dead.Even then the hotel had no information about whom to contact,” saidWeiland. This is most likely if the traveller is alone in a foreign city. He willthen be at the “mercy” of locals at the time of death. He may not be carrying his passport or any company document, which couldmean that the foreign hospital or police service has difficulty identifyinghim, and his body remains at the local morgue for several days before he isreported missing and traced. But even if they are quickly identified, there can still be problems. If thepolice suspect there was a crime involved, the body may be part of the evidencein a lengthy trial. If the person was the victim of an accident or a crime, his family mightdecide to pursue legal action. In both cases, his company can expect to cover the costs of an autopsy, andthey may need to retain an independent pathologist. A hospital death is the easiest to deal with because then a doctor routinelysigns the death certificate. But this too can create its own difficulties. Forexample, if it is suspected that the person died from a communicable disease,you can expect a long delay before the body is released, and local healthofficials may demand cremation. If the employee has lived abroad for some time, the authorities may bereluctant to release his body unless all his taxes are paid. They tend to holdthe body as a kind of ransom, because it is their only means of getting themoney. There have been several reported cases of caskets being used to smugglecontraband, particularly drugs, so in some countries it may be prudent to checkfor this before the body is flown home. And finally, the deceased’s family may want to accompany the body home.Weiland recommends taking great care about the logistics of this trip, to thepoint of booking them in business or first-class seats on the left side of theplane. “Cargo is normally loaded from the right, and the first class andbusiness class are forward of the cargo hatches, so family members looking outof the left front windows are less likely to be upset by seeing the casket onthe tarmac or being loaded – and sometimes the airport staff drop it, whichmakes things worse. An outburst of grief may scare the crew and passengers andcause the family to miss the flight,” he said. What it all points to is a hands-on, prepared-for-the-worst approach wellbefore disaster strikes. Some companies have learned through their own hard experience. Three yearsago, the Korean chief executive of Daewoo South Africa was murdered in an armedrobbery. The process of replacing him, bringing the body home to Seoul andhelping his family provided an object lesson for everyone in the industry. And the lessons spread to other motor manufacturers. BMW promptly reviewedits procedures for dealing with tragedies abroad. “If anything goes wrong– for example, a death, car-jacking or serious illness – we take a hands-onapproach from the word go,” said BMW’s HR director Christine Watson. “There is nothing we wouldn’t do to assist the families, even longafter they return home, and that includes counselling.” Guide on handling the death of an employee working overseas– Ensure your HR department is well-versed in how to handle an overseasdeath and is kept informed when anyone is abroad– Retain up-to-date information on how to contact travelling employees atall times. If one of them dies, you should be the first to know– Make sure you can contact his or her spouse, partner or children at home –not just an address and home phone number but also mobile and work numbers. Itis useful to retain details of religious affiliation, including the name of apriest or minister– Be prepared to ask someone in the company who knows the employee’s familyto take on the task of breaking the news. It is best not to inform the next ofkin about the death over the telephone– Include the family in all the preparations for the return of the body, andmake sure you are fully briefed on their wishes and they on your actions– Be prepared to contact the embassy immediately and request theirassistance as soon as you learn of the death. A pre-prepared list of embassy orconsulate numbers in every city where your employees visit is useful– It helps to have a reliable agent or contact in the city where the deathoccurs – someone you can rely on to monitor arrangements– If you have several employees working abroad it may be worth retaining theservices of an international emergency medical service with experience inreturning bodies and bringing families of dead employees home– Alternatively, consider dispatching a company official to the scene. Evenif the employee’s spouse is there, she or he will need someone else to takecharge of the paperwork– Expect emotional volatility from family members, particularly those whoare living abroad with the deceasedThis article originally appeared in Personnel Today’s sister title GlobalHR.  To subscribe call 01444 445566 orvisit www.reedbusiness.com How HR deals with the worst duty of them allOn 18 Sep 2001 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos.last_img read more