International business travellers are the biggest cause of immigration compliance risk for organisations.

Although they typically make up the largest proportion of an organisation’s global movement, the reality is, this cohort tends to fall under the radar of internal global mobility policies and programmes, meaning their movements are neither measured, nor monitored nor managed for compliance purposes.

Business travel compliance risk

Because business trips tend to last under 60 days, and can be frequent, they don’t trigger organisations’ standard global mobility protocols. The perception among employees can be that it’s just a ‘quick trip’, they’ve been there lots of times before without any issues, so a visa or permit isn’t required.

But this couldn’t be further from the real position, and omits any consideration of the compliance issues involved. The crux is, to ensure compliance with immigration rules (and other areas such as tax), employers need to be made aware by their employees of all business-related travel, in advance of the trip taking place.

The penalties of non-compliance with local immigration requirements vary greatly, from personnel being refused entry into a country by border control (who won’t care less how senior the individual is), to civil and even criminal penalties for employers.

So while in theory, short-term business travel should provide a lower cost and more flexible alternative to formal overseas assignments and transfers, when issues of non-compliance arise, organisations will be faced with financial, operational and reputational consequences.

Ignorance isn’t an acceptable defence, for either the individual traveller(s) or their employer. Organisations have to think about their reputation, and the impact a breach or prosecution can have, for example, on their ability to conduct business in certain countries.

Why international business travellers need immigration advice

With immigration high on the political and economic agenda worldwide, governments, particularly of developed countries, are taking more stringent approaches to business travel to protect their domestic labour markets:

  • Changing local immigration rules and requirements for business travellers to enter and operate legitimately and with appropriate permissions within their borders.
  • More emphasis is being placed on ascertaining from travellers the exact nature and duration of their stay.
  • Increasing their efforts to track travellers and find those who may be misusing work permits or trying to enter without any prior permission.
  • Investing in and utilising technology to provide accurate, real-time monitoring of travellers’ movements, and sharing information with other governments to maximise effectiveness.

As with any area of law, interpretations and obligations relating to local immigration rules frequently change, which can catch business travellers unaware. For example, definitions of what constitutes ‘permissible activity’ under a work visa instead of a business visitor visa differ from country to country, and can change at any time within countries themselves. The same applies to definitions of what constitutes ‘business’, ‘work’ or being ‘productive’.

Also, the increase in business travel to emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil is presenting challenges for employers as the rules can be less certain and ‘tested’ compared with those of developed countries that organisations are used to dealing with.

Improving compliance for international business travel

Organisations can only realistically achieve immigration compliance for business travel by taking a systematic, integrated approach internally, combining expertise from multiple disciplines including global mobility, HR, legal, compliance, travel and tax.

  • Business travel policies

Bespoke business travel policies and protocols that plug the gap with policies for other forms of mobility are essential. These should make clear employees’ obligations to alert the organisation of time, place and activity in advance of any international travel, no matter how fleeting the duration or nature of the visit. The policies should also make clear what support employees can expect in return to ensure compliance.

Demands on employees shouldn’t however be too onerous. There’s a balance between supporting immigration compliance and allowing employees to focus on work rather than immigration requirements.

Also, ensure all the reference material and guidance documentation is easily accessible, for example on the company intranet, and is kept up to date.

  • Education

It’s not just a case of making employees aware of the process of informing the organisation of business travel. Business travellers need to understand the value and fundamental business imperative of taking advice before a trip.

The message to all employees should be that it’s critical for international business travellers get on board with the organisation’s stance on global mobility – and that all employees have a part to play in mitigating immigration compliance risks.

Communicate the wide-reaching organsational impact this will have, which goes beyond immigration compliance and extends to similarly complex and critical areas such as tax liabilities (personal and organisational) and security – in the event of an overseas catastrophe, an organisation should know precisely who they have in the region so as to be able to react accordingly.

The specific benefits of following the protocol should also be made clear. For the organisation, this means compliance. For individual travellers, the likelihood of encountering issues while in transit will be greatly reduced. It can be something as simple as travellers being issued with a formal letter outlining key information about the visit which can be presented if questioned at customs.

This also raises the point of training; preparing business travellers for questioning at customs is extremely useful. These situations can quickly become tense, often for no reason, and knowing how to handle the questions about the nature and duration of the visit can avert escalation or unnecessary delay or complications.

  • Systems and automation

Organisations with active global mobility programmes will in most cases already operate or have access to an immigration management system. Whether it’s this that captures business travel, or other tools are used such as web-based calendars, scope to integrate or share information with other organisational systems should be explored. The aim is to develop effective workflows, ideally in real-time. For example, it could be as rudimentary as travel bookings of certain criteria automatically alerting the global mobility team for further investigation.

Emerging technologies in this area are likely to dramatically change the profile of immigration compliance risk in coming years. GPS and smartphone apps/trackers are replacing existing solutions, but mass adoption seems some way off for the time being while the privacy issues concerned with these technological solutions are overcome.