Losing a human resource: The worst case scenario

Is your company prepared to react if a worker on assignment goes missing?
By John Proctor
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/25/2013

Imagine if this call came in to your office: “Hi, this is Steve from sales. We’ve been trying to reach Angela, who was sent to make the pitch in India, and we can’t seem to get ahold of her.”

Or perhaps, “Hi, this is Gayle, I’m Kevin’s wife. He said he would call me every evening from Mexico but I haven’t heard from him for two days and I’ve tried his cell and his email.”

In an ideal world, there would be a standard response plan to deal with these situations. It would include a single database with travel details, contact numbers, emergency contact numbers, individual authentication procedures and other personal information that would assist the company or someone else — such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) — locate the missing employee.

But many companies have no plans, which raises questions of liability. For those that already have a plan or need to implement one, numerous questions arise:

• What should be included in the plan?

• What information does the company or DFAIT require?

• Who is going to support and advise the family?

• What training should be provided to the traveller and the management team?

• What is the impact on the continuity of business?

Legislation

A recent request for proposal from the Ontario Pension Board (OPB) summed up recent legislation in the province this way: “Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, OPB has an obligation to provide reasonable protection for its employees travelling on OPB business.”

This statement dovetails with a number of legal opinions that have concluded a company is liable if something reasonable, such as training or another form of preparation, should or could have been provided, especially if failing to offer this preparation contributes to the employee’s risk. There are also a number of legal precedents in other countries where companies have become liable for something that happened to an employee abroad.

One of the great catch-all phrases, with respect to occupational health and safety, is all companies have a legal “duty of care” to employees. The risks faced by employees overseas may come from the intentional actions of a third party but that does not eliminate an employer’s liability. A company should also be taking reasonable steps to warn travellers of the nature and extent of the threats and risks they face, both before and during a trip, as well as training them to avoid and mitigate these threats.

Dealing with an event

When dealing with the loss of a human resource, consider the consequences if either of the hypothetical phone calls above occur and, suddenly, the company is dealing with an incident that may quickly turn toxic. Are these phone calls simply indicative of an employee who lost his BlackBerry or is there a more significant problem and a YouTube video already showing the traveller in trouble?

If it’s the latter, not only could the incident have a significant impact on stock prices but, if the family is not engaged and protected, it may quickly turn the media against the company.

The solution is to have a plan that fits the company and its resources. Is it a one-person HR department or are there multiple resources to call on and a robust, trained crisis management team (CMT)? The CMT could consist of three to four people, all wearing multiple hats, or it could be a broad cross-section of departments such as HR, security, IT, operations and public relations. The more the CMT understands the issues surrounding an event and has run through some “what-ifs,” the greater the likelihood of success.

It’s also helpful if the plan is developed in conjunction with an existing, higher-level company policy. For example, the overarching company policy should outline not only the direction and membership of the CMT but the employee’s responsibilities towards the CMT and the responsibilities of the traveller.

If international travel is identified as part of an employee’s tasks, it can be linked to both the requirement for training and the travelling employee’s responsibility to be prepared with things such as inoculations. Additionally, plans need to be synchronized with Canadian government responders and protocols.

Preparation

There are a number of personnel who need to be prepared:

• the CMT

• the employee

• personnel to support the employee’s family

• personnel to support co-workers (and families of other travellers)

• personnel to deal with DFAIT and the RCMP

• personnel to bring the employee home after the event.

These personnel are all linked — the CMT needs to be conscious of all of these moving parts. Add in the media frenzy, which could include interviews with co-workers, friends and family, and it will be too late to wish the company was prepared.

However, the preparation must be scaled to the actual risk and threat. If company personnel are travelling to Europe or a conference in the United States (not close to the Mexico border), then aside from basic hotel safety and other general topics, little preparation is required. When personnel are visiting specific high-risk countries where the risk of kidnapping, assaults and murder is high, however, the preparation ought to be more extensive.

Generally, for every one million Canadian travellers worldwide, five are assaulted or killed. However, in high-risk destinations, such as India, Jamaica, Russia or South Africa, those numbers can increase dramatically, up to 7.5 per 100,000 visits, according to a CBC News report from Jan. 27, 2011.

Given that part of a company’s responsibility under health and safety laws, such as Ontario’s workplace harassment and violence legislation, is an assessment of the risk of violence in the workplace, it is worth noting if you send personnel overseas, that becomes their workplace.

John Proctor is vice-president of Integrated Human Risk Solutions in Ottawa and a qualified intelligence officer who served with the British and Canadian Armed Forces for more than 20 years. He can be reached at (613) 783-2000 ext. 206, john.proctor@humanrisksolutions.com or visit www.humanrisksolutions.com for more information.

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