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Ebola: How are you managing expatriate staff in Africa?

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Over the past month, we've watched and listened as the world's deadliest Ebola outbreak to date continues to worsen in West Africa.

The latest statistics put the numbers at around 8,400 cases and more than 4,000 deaths, and some experts predict there could be somewhere around 1.4 million cases by January.

Since the 2014 outbreak, we've also watched as numerous companies evacuate assigned employees from West Africa - Liberia, specifically - including organisations like heavy equipment manufacturers Caterpillar and one of Liberia's biggest employers, Firestone.

Other companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil have been hanging tight and taking precautions such as restricting non-essential travel and strictly monitoring the health of their staff.

What is making all this uncertainty worse, I'm sure, is the fact that around 50% of companies didn't have any sort of crisis management strategy to deal with situations like this prior to it happening. I am certain this will have changed now, but it explains to a certain extent why some companies have been quick to simply shut things down and get assigned employees out.

This gets tricky in some places, where staff might be expected to spend 21 days (the incubation period for Ebola) elsewhere before returning back home so as not to risk other people's health.

It also gets incredibly difficult, when management and colleagues based out of West Africa are reporting back deaths of employees, as Ed Garcia, managing director and president of Firestone Liberia, told Fortune:

"As of late last week, there had been 74 cases of Ebola at Firestone Liberia—about 60% of which involved individuals directly associated with company. Of those who contracted the disease, 54 are dead. Thirty-two of the deceased are Firestone employees or their dependents. On several occasions over the last two months, the company’s new, 23-bed Ebola facility has neared full capacity."

These are the tough issues management have to face when dealing with a situation like Ebola - but it can get even trickier.

You might see fit to evacuate or re-assign expatriate employees when a disease hits, but what about the other employees? How far does your duty of care extend to local employees on the ground who can't be flown out (before airports close, might I add)?

As an HR professional, how much would something like this change your role to become a crisis manager? As this blog from a global mobility manager says, evacuating employees from Liberia was a relief at first, but now assignees are becoming "restless". They want to know if and when they can return to work (because they worry about their overall performance ratings) while their bosses struggle with the ongoing business risks of not being able to suddenly bill clients for work.

How do you start these conversation with clients, re-assign expatriate employees, manage local staff in the host country and support expatriate staff on the ground who you might not have evacuated so they can help?

These questions aren't rhetorical - I genuinely want to know what global mobility and relocation experts and management out there in charge of the region are doing.

Please share your comments below if you have any experience, or simply an opinion, on these ongoing challenges.

UPDATE: The Ministry of Health (MOH) has announced it will be taking additional precautions to guard against the spread of Ebola virus in Singapore by performing additional screening measures at Changi Airport arrival halls.

This will take effect from today, where travellers from countries with reported Ebola activity will be screened for temperature and exposure to Ebola through a questionnaire. Read more here.

Image: Shutterstock 

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