Employee safety in global hot spots

Alleviating security concerns in high-risk overseas locations involves preparation, transparency, policy, details and communication
By Sarah Kenning
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/17/2013

For many employees, the possibility of experiencing new challenges and opportunities, both personally and professionally, is what makes relocation so attractive. New adventures, places, sights and languages can appeal to even the most cautious candidate.

While the prospect of embracing a new culture can be exciting, embarking on an overseas assignment can be stressful for assignees and their families. This stress is significantly amplified when the new location is considered high risk.

High-risk locations are identified by a government, company or provider as places that have an increased risk to the personal safety or security of the employee. These are usually determined by a number of factors, including the potential for crime or violence, terrorism, political turmoil, health concerns or natural or environmental disasters.

Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to ensure the safety of employees, as well as any accompanying family members. It is just as important to minimize or, where possible, alleviate the emotional stress and strain a high-risk assignment can place on an assignee. This not only ensures her physical and mental well-being but reduces the potential costs of lost productivity throughout the process, so the assignment is more successful and beneficial for the employer.

Building awareness

Most people know there are certain countries with high rates of violence, political unrest or terrorism. But what about Belize, Costa Rica or Greece — typical vacation-destination countries that currently have elevated travel advisory ratings, according to the federal government?

The challenge for HR professionals is a lack of information can be daunting — but so can too much information — so the following tips should help.

Practise due diligence: If you do not already have a security team in place for high-risk areas, consider developing one. Security teams will evaluate the real and potential risks of each location, provide practical suggestions for mitigating these risks and conduct initial and ongoing security training for assignees. At the very least, conduct a detailed risk assessment prior to moving people into a high-risk location and develop a plan to mitigate the identified issues.

Be transparent: Assignees may be aware that a country is a high risk — or they may know absolutely nothing about the location. One quick Google search will provide a wealth of information from both reliable and unreliable sources.

Being transparent with the assignee about the risks for the region or country will reassure her she will be provided with any information, good or bad, required to be successful on the assignment. This level of transparency will also provide an opportunity to discuss in detail the company policies and processes in place to address any risks.

Be detailed: While providing information during the initial conversation or offer of assignment, it is vital to also provide detailed information, such as links to relevant websites (such as www.travel.gc.ca for the government of Canada), that will allow employees to review and process information on their own, as questions or concerns arise.

Be proactive: Often in high-risk areas, foreign workers are targeted because they are foreign, whether due to a perceived economic potential or a political agenda. Provide employees with the tools to help them blend in with the locals, including language training, which can help them integrate into their community and with their neighbours, as well as cultural training on issues such as appropriate dress and behaviour. Helping assignees and their families become more comfortable with local customs and practices will not only enhance their personal experience but help safeguard them from harm.

Communication in 3 stages

Communication is a key component of a successful assignment in a high-risk location, with processes in place before departure, upon arrival and throughout the assignment:

Pre-departure: Provide general security best practices. In extreme high-risk areas, assignees need to be aware of behaviours they probably wouldn’t think twice about in their home locations. Tips on how to answer the phone or door safely, or what to do if they think they are being followed, will give employees some practical tools to avoid complacency. Where possible, conduct best practices training through a security expert — this will allow the employee to voice concerns and ask clarifying questions.

Upon arrival: Have your local security team conduct a security and safety briefing with the assignee, and any accompanying family members, immediately upon arrival in the host location.

This can include details on recent or potential climate or natural events, political unrest or health concerns. Additional, specific information — such as maps identifying unsafe areas of the city or country (with red zones for a total travel ban or yellow zones for an after-dark travel ban) or approved taxi companies — is also useful. Provide emergency contact information for police, fire, ambulance, hospitals and the Canadian Embassy to further alleviate concerns.

On assignment: Ongoing communication between the security team and assignees throughout the assignment is an excellent way to both mitigate any of the employee’s concerns as he gets used to the new location and ensure he is easily accessible in the event of an emergency situation, such as political upheaval or a natural disaster. Provide assignees with 24-7 emergency contact information for both in-country and corporate contacts.

Policy shows you care

One of the most important ways to alleviate the security concerns of assignees is to have a well-developed policy. This will not only demonstrate the employer has prioritized the employee’s safety, it will also ensure it is well-prepared in the event of an emergency.

Housing: Provide guidelines for selecting secure housing. These can be high-level guidelines, such as how to choose a safe neighbourhood, through to very detailed guidelines, such as local minimum security requirements (such as recommended alarm system features or inner and outer perimeters). For extremely high-risk locations, consider providing pre-screened, approved residence locations, such as an expatriate compound or condo.

Driving: Assignees and their families are particularly vulnerable when travelling within high-risk locations and security concerns tend to fall into three areas: driving, parking and what to do if followed or stopped. While practical tips can address these concerns, many companies employ corporate drivers and company cars. At the very least, consider having a driver meet the employee and his family at the airport upon arrival, with a sign and a smile. This allows them to acclimate to their surroundings and receive a security briefing before trying to navigate public transportation.

Emergency and evacuation planning: No matter how proactive an employer is with the planning, emergency situations can occur.

Have a detailed emergency plan in place, including evacuation processes, and emergency contacts both on-the-ground and corporately. Having a detailed policy will also allow internal teams or provider partners (such as a relocation management company or travel agent) to act quickly and decisively to evacuate employees, should the need arise.

A comprehensive security, emergency and evacuation policy is, without a doubt, the most important component of sending assignees to high-risk locations.

Advanced preparation — encompassing security assessments, training and education for assignees and their families, and an established and tested emergency procedure — will alleviate many of the employee’s personal security concerns.

Sarah Kenning is team leader, proposals and web management, at TheMIGroup in Toronto, a corporate relocation provider delivering a range of domestic and international mobility services. For more information, visit www.themigroup.com.

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