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Auditing Career: Traveling to Dangerous Places

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So, you’re now sitting pretty working for a big Fortune 500 company with the enviable task of auditing subsidiary divisions in three continents, and you’re only 27 years old.   If your friends back in Mumbai could only see you now!

This is not an unusual situation in many internal audit departments in large organizations where fresh young auditors are recruited with the understanding that they are to travel 50 to 75% of the time to places few of them knew existed on the map.   The natural inquisitiveness of youth, the romantic appeal of traveling the world, the pay, the superman complex, the arrogance and the lack of common sense we all have at that age makes us perfect to accept challenges others with more experience would probably turn down.  And, this sometimes occurs when young auditors  and consultants accept without much thought, assignments in dangerous places.

In America, knowledge about geography, international politics, cultural, ethnic, religious and criminal activities in the rest of the world is weak.   There are many well educated Americans who believe that the power of the US Constitution somehow extends beyond our borders, or in some unknown fashion is respected by most foreign countries.   There is also a belief that the US version of “the rule of law” is accepted everywhere else in the world.   And, that in a worse case scenario, if one is in trouble overseas, a lawyer just like in the USA will save the day.   This is a dangerous misconception.

On December 10, 2008, my cousin Felix Batista, one of the world’s most respected and experienced international security consultants was kidnapped in Mexico while giving a conference on anti-kidnapping strategies.   To this day, Felix’s whereabouts are unknown and many presume him dead.   The plight of his wife and children and our family to bring closure to this ordeal can be understood by visiting the Felix Batista media blog, setup to track coverage of his disappearance.   I shared an interest in Crisis Management with Felix, except I chose the technology route and he the international security one.   I will share with you a few items you should keep in mind when considering a foreign assignment to places you are not familiar with, or if you are a new employee still unfamiliar with your organization.    I hope you do not consider these too radical or old fashioned, especially if you’re relatively new in the field:

1. Understand that your company’s image overseas is likely to be different than what it is in the USA.   You need to research this from various sources and understand that you may be putting yourself at high risk by simply identifying yourself as an employee visiting from the USA.

2. Understand that the behaviors, expectations, values and views of a person who earns a yearly income of less than 20 or 25% of what you make, will be very different than yours.  Be aware that your US based ethics, morals and values come back on the plane with you, and they do not feed that persons’ hungry children who are left behind.

3. Understand that in many countries the “law” and the criminals are the same guys.   And, that includes the lawyers.   You need to research this and determine before hand what to do in case you are the victim of a setup or involved in an accident.  Ending up in a foreign jail is not nice!

4. Understand that in many countries and cultures physical violence is the first step taken in addressing a dispute or misunderstanding.   If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to talk later.

5. Understand that your actions, innocent in the USA, may jeopardize the lives of locals.   Meeting someone in a restaurant for example, may brand them as a spy for the company or worse off, an informer for the CIA.

6. Understand the capabilities and limitations of your company’s security department.   Do not assume that the V.P. or Director of Security, sitting at corporate knows much about the foreign risks you may face.  A good number do not.  Ask around to see if anyone has ever met a V.P. or Director of Security who has admitted to not knowing about important risks to low level employees?

7. Understand that in the USA you may be a miserable Junior Auditor, but in many places your earnings put you at the top of the food chain, and you may be feared the same as if you where a member of the Board of Directors.

8. Understand that its OK to dress like a cool dude, a Southampton beach bum, a ghetto boy or a spoiled Princess in your spare time, in the USA.   Doing so in many places around the world is an invitation to be robbed, sexually molested and even beaten.

With these things in mind, you should also ask the Audit Director or your Manager the questions below.   If you are uncomfortable with anything, say so because in the end you will be the one responsible for your life, not someone in an air conditioned office 3,000 miles away:

  • Are there any World Health Organization (WHO) travel restrictions or vaccine requirements in effect for the country in question.  If so, is the company getting you vaccinated?
  • Is the country or region on any CIA or State Department warning list for US citizens?
  • If your company has been doing business in the country in question for some time, does it have a bi-lingual and/or bi-cultural staff in place to assist you.  If not, why not?
  • Has your project lead managed previous  projects in the country in question and if not, why was he/she selected to lead this project.  Is he/she qualified, someone’s favorite pet or simply the only one available?
  • Is there an official report or area analysis assessing the region’s geography, politics, cultural, ethnic, religious and criminal activities so company personnel can obtain a quick education and know what to expect when they arrive?
  • Have you been, or will you be briefed on how to handle instances of political unrest, terrorism and natural disasters at the places you are expected to work?
  • Is there a properly documented and authorized company policy for foreign travel and work?
  • What is the official company policy in the event an employee is kidnapped and held for ransom, in light of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) restrictions?
  • Is there a Crisis Management Plan in place that can be executed, in the event there is a problem with an employee working overseas.   And, if there is one, who is on the crisis management team and when was the plan last tested or exercised?
  • If you are killed while working overseas, what is the process in place to handle the legal, transportation, funeral, family and financial issues that will have to be dealt with.   Who will pay for your funeral?
  • If you are held hostage for a significant period of time, what is the company’s policy regarding your compensation.  Will they make payments to a family member and for how long?
  • If your company holds an insurance policy on you, (Special Risks) which pays them as beneficiaries in case you die or are injured while working, does it cover your work overseas?   If so, find out the history of this practice and details of any deaths and payouts.   Does the practice indicate anything of concern?
  • Do you have a Will in place that deals with the possibility of dying overseas.  Do you have a Living Will that deals with the possibility of being in a critical condition at a foreign hospital?
  • Do you have a medical and dental “dossier” on record with the company (respecting all HIPPA regulations), or with a close family member, which can be easily referenced by foreign and domestic medical personnel in the event you are hospitalized or your body needs to be identified?
  • If you need medical attention while at the foreign location, has the company provided you with information on obtaining it from local doctors, hospitals or clinics?
  • Have you been given information about the US Embassy and Consulates in the country where you will be working, and who and how to contact in case of an emergency?
  • Will the company let you opt out of a particular trip if you are uncomfortable with the safety conditions at the destination and the type of security provided by the company.   If not, what is the rationale and what are the guarantees provided to ease your concerns?

If you work for a company that has these things in place, and is experienced in sending people to work overseas, you’re in good shape.   But, regardless of your company’s maturity level on this issue, it is your responsibility to make sure you do not put yourself in undue danger.  Assume nothing and do not be shy about asking questions.

Many places around the world do not require excessive planning or precautions for “the worst case scenario,” but you need to be aware of the good places as well as the bad ones.   Experienced international workers do not assume that all foreign engagements will be without challenges, surprises or risks.   And, they do not wait until they are in danger to wonder how their companies will react, or if they can react at all.

Going through this type of exercise may seem unpleasant and uncalled for, especially if you hold the belief that most people are good, that all Americans are loved around the world, that there is no threat of terrorism, that the violence attributed to drug cartels is over rated, and that the disparity between rich and poor is a myth.   If you hold these beliefs, I wish you the best and hope you are able to hold them for as long as possible, without reaching any life threatening situations.

For the young auditors and young consultants out there, excited about the travel and the life of an “expense account junkie,” I say go for it.   Work hard and play hard, but do it with your eyes open and as safely as possible.   And, always give yourself the option of not going if you sense the risks are too high or those tasked with protecting you are clueless, incompetent or irresponsible.

What do you think?   Leave us some “Comments” regarding your views on this matter and perhaps some personal experiences as well.

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  1. Doc
    October 21, 2009 at 10:12 PM | #1

    I am an American citizen, presently living and working in Mexico. However, I have traveled extensively throughout Central and South America as well, including some areas that were considered “extremely high risk”, for foreigners, particularly Americans. Since I work as a consultant, most of the concerns you mention end up being my own problem. (Perhaps that’s why my clients prefer hiring a consultant, rather than sending one of their VPs out in the field.) I NEVER leave town, without knowing the CURRENT political and cultural situation at my destination. I recently turned down an assignment, because nearly 20% of the foreign arrivals in the city of destination had been assaulted or kidnapped within 24 hours of their arrival.

    I have been jailed for defending myself against an armed national, and I have been singled out for police harassment because of my nationality. I have been shot at, leaving my hotel, assaulted at an intersection, and beaten by police officers, after having had my vehicle struck from behind by a hit and run driver.

    The things you warn about DO occur, and only a fool fails to protect himself against them, the best he can. Americans are no longer widely considered the saviors of the world… we are more often seen as warmongering despots, and often, we automatically start out two steps behind in terms of legality. We are often considered guilty, by reason of nationality. On the rare occasions that I have contacted the US Embassy to seek assistance, the best they could offer me was a way out of the country.

    To the young, ambitious and fearless accountants and consultants reading this… I was once the same as you. But I was lucky.

    Can you be sure that YOU will be?

  2. October 22, 2009 at 10:17 AM | #2

    Doc,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, and for visiting the blog. I hope the information we are providing here helps at least a few individuals from getting into hot water overseas.

    I just visited your blog, Small Business 101 and liked it. You have a direct, to the point and utilitarian style of presenting advice on business matters, which is refreshing to see.

    Anyone interested in visiting Doc’s blog, here is the link: http://doccampbell.wordpress.com/

  3. October 28, 2009 at 1:17 AM | #3

    I am a road warrior security consultant from Texas and also have worked in Mexico, Canada, UK and Ireland. The bottom line is that trouble can occur anywhere at anytime. I always keep my eyes open – even when in the US – so its not just when working oversees that one can get in serious trouble. For example, one wrong turn off of a freeway that cuts through the heart of most major US cities can put one in the worst part of town and in danger of becoming an easy target. My rule of survival is that if it doesn’t seem like normal behavior – it probably isn’t. I’m especially aware of who is around me and what they are doing. I always sit where I can see who is coming through the door of a restaurant.

    • October 28, 2009 at 9:27 AM | #4

      Michael,

      I appreciate your visit and that you took time to share your insights with us. You are correct in pointing out that trouble can occur anywhere and at anytime. One of the keys in avoiding problems is to follow that survival rule you mention: “If it doesn’t seem like normal behavior – it probably isn’t.” It is amazing how many of us do not listen to our instincts!

      I focused the article on working overseas because I’ve found that many companies do not have adequately trained security personnel or management knowledgeable in the risks associated with foreign work. And, I have seen some dangerous situations result from this sort of problem. Low level folks tend to assume that those sending them on overseas projects have all bases covered and know what they are doing. This assumption is dangerous and I want those folks to open their eyes and take some responsibility for their own safety.

      By the way. I just visited the BlackCat Security Consulting website and read about your company’s services. BlackCat has an impressive offering of services and you are clearly well experienced in the security space. I wish you continued success.

      Anyone interested in visiting BlackCat Security, here is the link:
      http://www.blackcat-security.com/services.html

      Joel

  4. Cecile Neuvens
    November 3, 2009 at 7:17 PM | #5

    This is a very good article with a thorough checklist applicable to all international business travellers, whether employees or external consultants and regardless of the purpose of the trip. The comment about the risks being flowed down to external consultants is also very much up to the point. As an international lawyer and for the benefit of all those who travel overseas to audit, negotiate contracts, lead internal fraud investigations, terminate local employees, provide engineering services or technical maintenance, I would like to add just a few points to the list if I may:

    1. Location, location: Consider the location where you will be rendering your services. Are you staying in the capital of the country or in remote less populated areas and how does the company consider that the location can affect your safety and your health? Will you have decent hotel accommodations, e.g. an hotel with security guards and bottled water? Are you expected to rent a car in that foreign country and drive or will you be able to rely on a reliable local staff or contractor?

    2. Is the nature itself of your particular assignment increasing your risk and if so, who in the subsidiary can be considered your allies? Who do you have to watch for? Better know the lay of the land before you land…

    3. Are you travelling alone or are other employees from the HQ travelling with you or joining you? Remember the old motto: Safety in numbers…

    4. Do you speak some words of the country language? If not, before you leave, take some time to learn some basic vocabulary which can carry you a long way: “Good morning/Hello”, “Thanks”, “Please”, “good bye”, “Nice to meet you”, “Excuse me.”

    I hope this helps.

    Best regards

    Cecile Neuvens, Esq.

    • November 4, 2009 at 10:55 AM | #6

      Cecile,

      Thanks for the visit and the contribution. All four points you make are extremely important.

      I have seen important overseas investigations where the lead auditor was thrown to the lions without even letting him know who his allies where, or whom he should watch out for at the subsidiary. This lack of professionalism (or irresponsibility) is what puts many good people unnecessarily, at great risk.

      Regards,

      Joel Font

    • Doc
      November 5, 2009 at 2:39 PM | #7

      Very good points, Cecile. I think it all boils down to common sense. Nobody should go into a situation blind, and everybody should trust their instincts… if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, stay out of higher risk areas/situations, and never proceed without having a decent idea of what you may be getting into. If your client or company have a problem with that, and accuse you of being a “worrywart”, then perhaps it’s best to suggest that THEY make the trip with you. Then, at least, you don’t have to worry about outrunning anyone except them! ;)

  5. David
    November 16, 2009 at 10:42 AM | #8

    Joel,

    Thanks for giving me a great set of questions with which to approach overseas assignments. I am poised for a position with an entity that does much of its work in some places that are unknown to me. I would like to add that it may be helpful to consult with other professionals whom may have visited areas where you are about to be assigned, and read some recent articles about those areas.

    It may also be helpful to know that accounting and auditing standards in some parts of the world are not the same as in the US, and the auditor must work harder to establish a rapport with the individuals in the offices you are visiting, as well as the establishments where you will be accommodated.

  6. Sheryl Love
    November 24, 2009 at 1:01 PM | #9

    Joel,

    Women especially should be aware of their surroundings and what could be lurking around the corner or even in front of their face.

    I am a road warrior and realize that everyday that I need to be aware of my surroundings whether I am in the country or out of the country.

  7. Laura P
    November 17, 2010 at 2:01 PM | #10

    Good topic. Well written and provocative.

    I’ve had the unfortunate experience of working with a mentally unstable person at one of the Big Four. The woman has been with the company for over 10 years, is a director and few can work with her. Those at the top, including HR, ignore the facts and seem to cover it up. I lasted 14 months and hated every minute of it. Many have complained, but it is those who complain that get fired!

    Laura

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