As an American who has worked in Britain for the past eight years, Scott Clark has never felt that his safety might be in jeopardy because of his nationality. The chief executive of CPR Worldwide, a London-based health-care PR firm, he relishes the expatriate lifestyle, which for him often means weekly business trips to Dublin or Paris. It suits him so well that Clark has no plans to move back to the U.S. anytime soon -- in no small part because he's married to a Brit.
Even so, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- symbols of American economic and military might -- have made him feel, for the first time, like a target. Since September 11, Clark and his employees have reduced their international travel by as much as 70%. Even in London, Clark has now begun to watch where he goes. "You do think twice about things like going down to renew your passport at the American embassy," he says. "These centers of Americana are now targets." And that's likely to be truer than ever in the wake of the bombing attacks the U.S. and Britain launched on military targets in Afghanistan on Oct. 7.
HOT SPOTS. Consultants say the events of the past month have served as a terrifying reminder of potential vulnerability for the 400,000 or more Americans who work abroad. If terrorists can kill thousands of Americans at their desks in New York and Virginia, what's to stop them striking at Yanks working in Seoul or Caracas?
Those concerns have inspired some companies to swiftly evacuate people from some of the world's hot spots, global-security firms say. Singapore-based security company SOS Intl. confirms that it has already helped companies pull staff out of Pakistan, Oman, and Ukraine. And it's poised to do more. "Our security staff is on standby 24 hours a day to assist any members when required," says Andrea Bestul, SOS's marketing communications manager for the Americas region.
In other areas of the world, companies that aren't simply repatriating Americans have begun an unprecedented review of security precautions for their expats. Still other companies are delaying sending employees abroad, consultants say. That most likely means they'll hold off until after the military action against Afghanistan and terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden plays out. "This has less of an impact on assignments in advanced, industrialized nations," says Timothy Dwyer, national director of KPMG's international human resources consulting practice, which works with more than 300 multinationals. "But clearly, assignments to such regions as the Middle East or Southeast Asia are being put on hold."
FLIGHT TO SAFETY. Ultimately, the U.S. war on terrorists may force companies to reconsider the necessity of sending so many Americans abroad. Certainly, posting people to distant shores is expensive. These days, the average assignment lasts 2.7 years. Over its course, the cost to a company is two to three times more than it would have to keep the person home, says Lyndi Cain, vice-president for business and network development at Cooperative Global Solutions, the international assignment unit of relocation firm Cooperative Resource Services. "Companies are going to look very carefully at the type of assignments they're using," adds Cain, who is based in Denver. "They may move to shorter-term assignments or hire more locals."
Employees who once had the urge to globe-trot may now have reservations about moving -- even to places as friendly as Paris or Papeete. "It's probably unlikely that anything is going to happen," says J. Stewart Black, president of the Center for Global Assignments, a global-assignments research firm in Alpine, Utah. "But a number of them are saying: 'I'm not sure now. I don't know if I want to be 6,000 miles away from my elderly parents.'"
This is a significant reversal from the recent trend that saw expatriate assignments become more popular as globalization intensified. Indeed, multinationals have routinely shipped star employees abroad to train foreign staff, spread the corporate culture, and share best practices, says Cain. With experience managing global operations now key, a tour of duty abroad has also become part of grooming execs for top positions.
STAY LOW. In a sign of how great the anxiety is over terrorism, multinationals are tight-lipped about exactly what they're doing with their expatriate contingents. But if global security firms are any guide, hundreds, if not thousands, of employees and their families in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are being moved to safer areas. Before the U.S. retaliated on Oct. 7, London-based Control Risks Group was telling its clients to leave Afghanistan, Somalia, and the border areas of Pakistan, says Matthew Forman, the company's South Asia analyst. And families of key employees, plus nonessential workers, were being advised to get out of Iraq, Yemen, and the rest of Pakistan, Forman says.
"We are asking employees who stay behind to keep a low profile," he adds. "If a protest were to take place in a bazaar, you don't want to be a target." The day after U.S. and British bombers began pounding Afghanistan, the firm issued another alert, including Algeria and Libya, recommending clients avoid travel for 48 hours to nine more countries, where anti-Western sentiment could flare up.
Some companies that have operated for years in the Middle East -- and that already have tight security in place -- say they haven't changed their policies. Ted Hess, manager of international human resources for energy company Apache Corp., which has operations in Egypt, says "our people feel secure. Things here right now seem to be stable." Yet he adds: "It's a good time to look at your position and make sure that you know what you're going to do if the situation warrants."
CATCHING UP. In the Middle East, for instance, many expats live in gated communities with armed guards. They travel to and from work in chauffeur-driven cars. Paul Bly, a consultant who was visiting a multinational client in Saudi Arabia shortly after September 11, says he had to pass through three security checkpoints to get to the company's offices. At the last stop, he checked all of his electronic equipment at the door, and his luggage was scanned. "It was like being on a military base," says Bly, who works for Personnel Decisions Intl., a Minneapolis-based human resources consulting firm.
A lot of companies are playing catch-up, though. Ted Price, managing director of Kroll Crisis Management at security firm Kroll Inc., says he has had to increase the number of his U.S. employees dealing with crisis management to 10 from 3 since September 11 to handle the rise in new business. Companies are rushing to bone up on the basics of what to do when disaster strikes overseas, he says.
Among the issues they're grappling with: Can they communicate quickly with employees in a crisis? Are travel documents prepared if employees need to leave a country in a hurry? Do employees know to have plenty of cash on hand just in case? Must they go to the embassy or some other location to evacuate? Will they travel by air, land, or sea? It may sound melodramatic, but "we've really never seen anything quite as cataclysmic as [September 11]," says Price, former deputy director of operations at the Central Intelligence Agency.
ONLY TEMPORARY? In the short term, companies may use all the communication tools they have -- the phone, the Internet, and videoconferencing -- to avoid moving employees around the globe, says Robert Rosen, author of Global Literacies (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and president of Healthy Companies Intl., a Washington (D.C.) consulting firm. In fact, many companies have clamped down on air travel since September 11. For example, Deutsche Telekom has asked its employees not to fly to the U.S, says an official for the German telephone giant, who declined to be named.
Black says any travel moratorium won't last long, however. Sending employees overseas is the best way to share information, gain knowledge of markets, and learn about your competitors. So companies will probably begin moving people around again in earnest once the world recovers from the atrocities and their aftermath -- how long that turns out to be, however, remains to be seen. "There's only so much you can do through e-mail, voice mail, and teleconferencing," Black adds. "Globalization is irreversible. The need for that knowledge is never going back in the bottle. The genie is out."
Over the longer term, companies may end up scaling back the length of overseas stays, Cain says. A typical stint might be shortened to 12 months, she adds -- just enough time to let an employee pass along skills to a local colleague.
SHOW THEM THE MONEY. Whatever happens, multinationals need a plan to keep their foreign operations going if expats have to abandon ship, says Dwyer. Keeping a factory running for two weeks to a month with a skeleton crew can save a lot of money, he says, compared with a situation in which "you pull out your expats and the factory shuts down."
These days, Dwyer is also advising clients to make sure that their employees live in secure accommodations -- compound-style homes with armed guards, particularly in so-called hardship locations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And, he says, they should verify that employees have taken steps to prepare for the worst, which means keeping up-to-date wills and providing for the custody of children who might be orphaned.
Such talk makes clear that in the wake of September 11, many employers will have to offer greater incentives for employees to leave the relative safety of Winnetka, Ill. or Darien, Conn., for Karachi or Nairobi. More money will help: "Never underestimate the power of the dollar or euro," says Dwyer. "At the same time, though, all the money in the world isn't going to get you out of a life-threatening situation." Companies that expect their employees to travel the world had better find a way to protect them. By Eric Wahlgren in New York