When I interview candidates for vacant Civil Service positions, at some point in the conversation, the candidate asks, “Will I have the opportunity to travel overseas?”
Traveling internationally for work, whether you are in the public or private sector, can feel like a perk. Yet often the purpose of the trip is integral to your job so it is important to keep in mind some rules of the road.
Is there a need to travel?
One key question your office should ask is whether the purpose of the travel is for professional development or whether there is an issue that needs to be addressed requiring the physical presence of an employee. Some offices may have a policy that does not approve trips overseas that simply support professional development. Your office could also decide that when there is a need to travel, there may be funds available and a benefit of sending an extra person on the trip to support professional development. This makes sense especially if the second person may need to make a similar trip to a different country at a later time.
Who is the best person to travel?
Once your office decides there is a need to travel, the next step is deciding who will go. Each office has a decision maker, and there are best practices that should be taken into consideration. This isn’t always obvious, because although there may be a subject matter expert who is responsible for planning the trip and setting up the meetings, it might be more appropriate to send a more senior person or someone with wider equities.
Alternatively, there may be a situation where it makes sense to send the working level, especially if working level issues need to be resolved before small problems become larger issues.
Carrying water for your colleagues
Once the office decides who’s going, the traveler should reach out to other colleagues who may have equities in the trip. You’ll want to do this early in order to decide whether the traveler should carry someone else’s water. You may need to schedule additional meetings and prepare the traveler with background information and talking points.
Even if you just plan to have the traveler hand over business cards for the person in your office who normally handles the issue, at least someone on the team has made a personal connection with the foreign contact. Depending on the culture, relationship building may occur quickly and easily or it may take a few visits or conversations. Use overseas travel as an opportunity to cross as many bridges as possible.
Getting ready to go
If you’re traveling on official U.S. business as a federal government employee, you’ll need to work with your travel office to ensure you are traveling on the correct passport, have the appropriate travel documents and vaccines, and are booking your travel and accommodations in accordance with the government’s per diem allowances. These allowances are often much lower than you would expect or what you might spend if you were traveling as a tourist, so you need to be prepared to pay out of pocket if you go outside your per diem.
While you might not need a visa to travel to a particular country as a tourist, if you are entering the country to conduct business, whether you are in the public or private sector, you may very well need to obtain a visa. You will also need to obtain country clearance from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the city you plan to visit, which you can do online. Be sure to read the guidance sent to you with your country clearance carefully to make sure you understand and comply with any special, country-specific requirements pertaining to official visitors. You can find more information on obtaining country clearance on the Department’s website.
If you are a U.S. citizen traveling overseas, whether for work or as a tourist, you’ll want to read the specific, candid information on the State Department’s travel website. In addition to finding quick facts about the country, you’ll find information about the location and hours of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate near where you’re going as well as safety and security information and information on local laws and special circumstances or unique issues, such as LGBT rights and accessibility issues.
You can be an ambassador
There may only be one official U.S. ambassador in the country you are visiting, but when you are traveling on U.S. government business, you are essentially an ambassador too.
Regardless of how tired you are or hungry, when your plane touches down on foreign soil, when you’re traveling for work, you should put yourself into the mindset that you represent the United States. Officially or not, especially in the customer service sector – taxis, hotels, restaurants – people will make judgments about the United States based on your behavior.
You’ll also want to pay close attention to your surroundings and the cultural differences you perceive. All of this will have an impact on the work you will be doing over the next few days and when you return to the office.
Seeing the sights
If you can build in time to explore the country after hours, including on the weekend if your trip includes one, you might have a fulfilling personal experience. However, the excursion may also give you something to talk about with your foreign contacts. Talking about the exhibit you saw, or the new food you tried can be an ice breaker just before getting into business, and it shows that you appreciate the cultural life around you.
Your per diem continues to cover your hotel, meals, and incidentals over the weekend, but you are likely responsible for paying for any excursion fees or cultural event tickets, etc. Again, while your time after hours and during weekends is your own back home, when you’re traveling for business, you’re never fully off the job.
Set yourself up for success
If you have a back-up system in your office, you may not face a lot of unfinished business when you return. But if you don’t have access to your work email outside the United States, or if you don’t check it regularly, your inbox might fill up very quickly. Depending on your IT system, you should find out what the capacity is of your inbox. If it gets full you may not be able to send emails and incoming messages might not make it through.
Data roaming charges are steep overseas, so you might need to manage your inbox after logging in from your laptop in your hotel room in the evenings rather than on your smartphone.
Leave helpful notes for your back-up and ensure your out of office messages are up to date.
Home sweet home
If you cross multiple time zones or your travel lasts several days to weeks, you might want to build in annual leave when you return. Resist the temptation to get right back to the office as soon as your plane touches down. Recognize your body might need rest and it is important to spend some quality time your family.
You don’t need to be extravagant, but bringing back chocolates or unique food goods for your colleagues from the country you visited might just sweeten your return and let them know you appreciate their support.
The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.
Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.