International travel comes with risks for the people on the road as well as their employers, who have what's called a "duty of care" – a responsibility to take what the law defines as "reasonable" steps to prevent anything from endangering their charges.
If anything does go wrong, companies can find themselves on the receiving end of civil lawsuits or criminal charges.
"If you go to any trade shows, there's so much buzz about 'duty of care' that it fills the air," says Jacques Thibault, president of MagnaTech, a Montreal firm that's pivoted from helping companies manage their travel budgets, to making sure they've done everything they can to fulfill duty of care responsibilities.
Its two-part software suite starts by providing employees with up-to-the-minute information about any risks they might be facing abroad. The software, SafeToGo, takes employee itineraries – as detailed by a travel agent's computer system – and correlates them with an array of warnings from government foreign-affairs websites, online meteorological updates, and disaster warnings. If civil unrest or a tsunami warning is issued for a country where an employee's itinerary says that person will be, an automatic notification is sent through a smartphone app.
The second half of MagnaTech's offerings, a product called SafeZone, takes the idea one big step further, allowing companies the ability to track employees by their cellphones, then be alerted and check in should they find themselves in unsafe areas.
For instance, employees might be quartered in a protected compound in an area that might otherwise be dangerous for foreigners. The company's security officer would use a portal interface to delineate a safe "green zone" on the map, along with "red zones" where it's dangerous for employees to be.
If an employee's cellphone GPS indicates that someone has ventured into a red zone, the company is alerted, and the software automatically sends out a "proof of life" text message – typically a pre-arranged, seemingly non-chalant secret question, along the lines of "I hear it's you're birthday today!"
The employee then has a short window of time in which to answer the question and prove he or she is alive and intact. Without proof, alarms go off at headquarters: the security officer is awoken by an automatic phone call, and if that fails, a cascading series of calls to others follows. It also enables a direct tracking mode on the phone. Companies normally can see where all their employees are on a world map – but only where their itineraries place them. But employees who seem to be in trouble can now have their locations tracked with full GPS accuracy.
MagnaTech has a background as a supplier to travel-management companies (TMCs), which specialize in not only arranging corporate travel, but in managing the intricacies of corporate travel budgets. The company is primarily working with those TMCs, which in turn are offering SafeToGo and SafeZone to their corporate clients, many of which Mr. Thibault says end up siccing duty-of-care responsibilities on already-overworked HR staffers.
"If something happens and you get sued, it costs a heck of a lot more than putting a system in place."