Organisations should not underestimate the immigration compliance risks presented by senior executive business travel.

With global business travel spend set to reach $1.6 trillion by 2020, the scale of globally-mobile senior executive activity makes for a compelling case to manage associated immigration compliance risks.

Not least because the fall-out of immigration non-compliance can be highly disruptive to operations.

How can HR and mobility teams take control and manage the compliance risks of business travelling executives?

Source of compliance risk

There are a number of reasons why travelling senior personnel present risks in respect of immigration compliance:

  • Frequency of travel International travel is par for the course for senior personnel of multinational companies, critical for leading organisations effectively across borders. Simply looking at it as a numbers game, the more executives travel, the more likely that they may encounter immigration compliance problems.
  • Reason for travel Executive travel enables commercial objectives to be met – whether it is checking in on progress with a high profile project, attending a board meeting, or meeting a new local supplier. There will be a degree of importance attached to the visit, not least to justify the cost. Being stranded at border control is not an option!
  • Time pressure For in-demand executives spinning multiple plates, there is no scope for delay. They usually need to be ‘in and out’. Timescales are tight. Issues with gaining entry could result in missed opportunities, compromising the visit objective.
  • Short notice Executives often have to make themselves available at short notice – crises happen, issues arise, that require attendance on the ground with little notice. This demands capability to move quickly, and secure necessary visa or permits to travel.

Senior executives flying under the radar

Fundamentally, problems arise through the omission or failure by senior executives to alert the necessary internal functions of their travel plans. Operating under the radar of organisational mobility policy, however unintentional, creates compliance risk.

If mobility and HR are unaware that personnel are out of the country on business, they are not aware of any immigration compliance support they may need to provide, either in advance of or during the trip.

Administration aside, it is important to consider the bigger picture here.

International business travel is playing out against a global backdrop of highly protectionist local immigration policies, with national security and preservation of domestic labour markets cited as the key drivers. Different countries operate different immigration rules, and these are continually changing.

Looking specifically at business travellers, this is resulting in increasingly sophisticated tracking systems being utilised at country-level. There is little tolerance for incorrect paperwork, leading to entry refusals. Governments are clamping down on ‘overstayers’. Resulting fines for non-compliance are becoming a handsome income stream for local governments.

These are all scenarios to be avoided. And they can be avoided where mobility teams are brought in at the right juncture, early in the travel planning process.

A systematic approach to risk management

There are a number of key areas of focus where HR and mobility teams can exert influence and direction in managing immigration compliance of business travelling senior executives.

1. Internal segmentation and engagement

Problems arise when core internal functions are not made aware of an employee’s travel plans. While this may be oversight on the employee’s part, this is no defence when faced with a live issue in a foreign country.

Tackle this issue head on. For senior executives in particular, they are an identifiable internal cohort. Part of their succession development, or onboarding if they joined at a senior level, should encompass their roles and responsibilities specifically in relation to business travel.

Emphasise the quid pro quo. Following organisational protocol will remove a number of headaches for the individual, and limit the chances of finding themselves in a tricky situation overseas because border officials refuse to approve anything other than crossed t’s and dotted i’s. They can also access fast and effective response to issues when overseas if the central mobility team is armed with all the travel details, travel history, relevant documentation etc.

There is also an element of leading by example here. How can more junior employees be expected to toe the company line if their superiors are flaunting policy and in doing so creating business risk?

Another internal segment for focus are the executive PA’s; those involved in managing diaries and booking travel. If they are trained and aware of organisational mobility policy, they can remove the reliance on the executive and take care of any preparation and administration.

Another useful approach is to operate an internal online resource hub or source of information on latest compliance requirements. What services can they access pre, post and during business travel? What employees need to do when? Who can they ask for help?

2. Be data-driven

Aim for safe ground of dealing in facts.

You will find data relating to your organisation’s business travel is in abundance – travel booking systems, expense accounts, company credit cards, etc etc. You just have to find it, store it, analyse, evaluate and share it. And keep it up to date!

A spreadsheet will no longer cut it.

Immigration management systems offer more sophisticated approaches to mobility operations. However it is important to ensure they remain fit for purpose and that any system you invest in can cater for the mobility needs of your organisation and assist in risk management presented by cohorts such as business travellers.

You are looking to build the full picture of your workforce at any one time. Does your system integrate with other business function systems (tax etc)? Does it update in real time? Have you considered tracking systems?

Risk can be tackled head on a granular and strategic level by understanding where people are going and identifying potential compliance issues.

If you do take a panicked phone from an executive at border control, you will need relevant, up to date information to hand to quickly react and resolve the issue.

The most effective systems pull in data from multiple sources, such as tax, while enabling the data to be sliced and diced to draw out key insights.

The potential for accurate, complete business travel data offers benefit beyond compliance. Cost insights are an obvious area of value, as is the ability to identify trends within organisational mobility to inform future policy and strategy.

Should you find yourself faced with a breach of compliance, evidence that demonstrates systematic approach to managing travelling employees will stand in better stead than a shrug of the shoulders.

3. Fast-track your executives

It may make sense to consider supporting business travellers in applying for trusted traveller status for countries they frequently visit.

The service and application process will depend from country. In the US for example, the Global Entry system is available to British citizens. Apply once and approved holders can benefit from fast track entry at border control as they have already been cleared as part of their approved status.

The UK likewise has a Registered Traveller system for foreign nationals of specified countries.

There will be a cost associated, but for time-pressed executives, value can be recouped in time not wasted at border control.


Crucially with senior executive business travellers, HR and mobility teams may not be aware of travel until something goes wrong. In which case, you need to be in a position to help without delay.

While technology is playing an increasingly role in ensuring mobility teams are up to date with employee whereabouts, it remains best practice to educate and align executives to organisational policy as part of your risk management programme.