Seven Mistakes to Avoid in Making Your U.S. Program International

Congratulations – you’re ready to roll out your Code of Conduct, policies, or employee handbook. It seems so simple – everything’s already written, right? And you’ve had a lawyer look them over in the States. What could be easier?

Hold on right there. It’s not always obvious that certain words, phrases, or concepts may need to be changed or removed in order to meet with the expectations of your employees in the rest of the world. Here are the top seven things to avoid in globalizing your Code, employee handbook or policies.

1 – Reference to Law:

Referring to “local, state or federal law,” or “state laws” can immediately flag your policy as U.S.-centric. Many countries don’t have states – they may have provinces or nothing at all.

Instead, include references “all applicable laws,” or to other in-scope jurisdictions, such as European Union (EU) law. If your company is only in a few jurisdictions, you can write out the name of each country. If you want to keep references to U.S. federal law in your Code or policies, try “national, state, local, or U.S. federal law.”

Double-check your policies and handbook to ensure that you’re noting both UK and EU law. Even now, many companies still haven’t updated their policies post-Brexit. It’s an easy thing to overlook, and it immediately dates your work.


2 – Reference to U.S. Agencies:

Many handbooks and policies include references to U.S. agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Department of Justice (DOJ), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

References to U.S. bodies can be jarring to non-U.S. employees, especially when referenced in the context of say, the definition of discrimination under the EEOC. Strip references to U.S. agencies wherever possible, and define terms using universal definitions instead of U.S.-centric ones.


3 – References to U.S. Legal Principles:

References to U.S. legal principles or terms of art applicable only in U.S. law run their way though many policies and Codes of Conduct. Phrases like “protected categories” (with respect to harassment), “at-will employment,” and “hostile work environment” should be removed. These words do not contain the same meaning outside the U.S., and frequently do not carry the weight of the law.


4 – Privacy Rights:

Personal privacy rights in Europe, Argentina, Singapore and much of the world are stronger than those afforded to U.S. citizens. Many times, policies, employee handbooks or Codes of Conduct assert the ability to engage in activities which would violate privacy principles or law in many countries.

Privacy law enforcement varies significantly from country to country, so a legal review should be commissioned before a company asserts the ability to monitor emails, search bags, or put up CCTV cameras.

5 –  Contract Rights and Employment Protections:

At-will employment is a U.S. construct that is inapplicable in the EU and many other countries. Many, if not all, employees outside the United States will be under a written contract that spells out their employment rights and benefits. It’s recommended to take out references to at-will employment unless you specifically state that these sections apply to U.S. employees only.


6 – Disciplinary and Termination Rights:

Because at-will employment does not exist in much of the world, termination of employment can only occur under certain circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances are laid out in the law, and other times they are included in employment contracts, or negotiated by works council agreements.

Adding the phrase “as allowed by law” anywhere that the right to terminate employment has been asserted can make the policy or Code more accepted. Employers frequently do not have free reign to determine when termination can occur, so the phrase “as allowed by law” or “where allowed” should cover you.


7 – U.S. Employee Designations:

Many policies, handbooks and Codes of Conduct refer to employees that are “exempt” and “non-exempt.” Non-exempt is a U.S. construct, and although it has similarities to concepts within the country laws of other places, the term “non-exempt” is a legal term of art. Work with a locally-based employment lawyer to determine which (if any) of these types of distinctions can be used within your business or leave these types of designations out entirely.


It’s hard to know what you don’t know, so if your program has only previously operated in the U.S., have a friend who works abroad in the business look at your policies and Code, or ask someone in your network to review it. You’ll look much more sophisticated and in control if you avoid these mistakes.

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Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart is the founder and CEO of Spark Compliance.
She's a renowned expert at transforming compliance departments into in-demand business assets.