Protecting employees in danger zones

High-risk markets offer rich opportunities, but employees must be properly prepared to avoid dangerous situations
By Craig Malcolm
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/20/2007

It can be a scary world out there for employees, especially ones on foreign assignments. While Canadian workplaces and cities are typically considered safe, the same cannot be said for many locations where North American firms are doing business.

Bombings, kidnappings and extortion are far too common in some extreme hot spots. But even nations traditionally considered safe aren’t immune from danger. Since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, there has been a heightened concern about terrorism worldwide. From bombings in Bali, London and Madrid to abductions in South America, Africa and the Middle East, the world can seem like a pretty unstable place to conduct business.

But there are steps employers can take when it comes to protecting employees and their families who are on assignment in dangerous zones. Most HR professionals have the processes for navigating labour laws, compensation plans and relocation arrangements for sending employees to work in foreign countries down pat. But they need to be prepared to go to the next level, and help physically protect employees, when the company decides to do business in these so-called “hot spots” or “high-risk markets” where danger is a constant, rather than occasional, factor and carelessness or simple mistakes can cost lives.

High-risk, high-reward markets

In certain industries, living and working in dangerous locales has been a given for years. Oil and gas companies, for example, have a long history of functioning in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. They have well-established and tested procedures for keeping employees safe from harm. These often entail keeping them informed and isolated from the general population and surrounding them with total security when they venture beyond their secure, well-protected enclaves. This approach is effective — and expensive.

Globalization is accelerating business opportunities all over the world. Companies are struggling to balance risk against the opportunities that come from entering new markets early and seizing “first mover” advantage against competitors.

The business opportunities emerging in high-risk markets require companies to integrate workers into the physical and cultural environment if they are to be successful. In this situation, the “total security” approach used by oil and gas companies is both prohibitively expensive and ineffective.

HR professionals have long recognized that reality, so companies provide employees with the information and support they need to work internationally, albeit only once they arrive. Those elements are still essential but increasingly risky markets require new levels of detail and sophistication to be effective.

Sending in the first employee

Just as a company develops a comprehensive new business plan before entering a new market, HR needs to have a similar plan in place before the first employee sets foot in the new region. Assembling a comprehensive package of information about the country, its culture and geo-political and socio-economic profiles is an essential first step.

Savvy HR managers also take advantage of the lessons learned by other companies in the new market. What did they experience when getting established? What were the hidden pitfalls and unexpected problems that popped up?

While employers, particularly competitors, won’t likely be willing to share this information, HR should be able to track it down from government and private sources, such as vendors and consultants who help organizations with security.

Training: How not to be a ‘kidnap magnet’

Consultants and vendors can help companies create a comprehensive portrait of the new locale and a training program for employees. There are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account, and they vary widely for individual employees. Not all employees have the same level of experience. Some may have already spent time working abroad, while others may not even know how to apply for a passport.

Training is also a critical component. Telling an employee not to flaunt wealth or affluence is sound advice almost anywhere overseas, or at home for that matter. Less obvious is the knowledge that certain makes and models of vehicles signal wealth or foreign status and can make the employee a “good” target. A vehicle that is a “kidnap magnet” in one country might not attract any attention whatsoever in another.

A friendly gesture in one culture can be exceedingly offensive in another. Placing one’s hand on the neck of a man in Islamic culture is a grievous insult. That sort of detailed and localized knowledge extends to where employees congregate, shop, eat and perform everyday routines.

The long-established advice to vary travel routes to and from home and the office obviously remains important but, in some countries, knowing where and when protesters or political fanatics assemble and demonstrate is essential to avoiding those situations. Being informed and prudent in conduct is key.

Police who don’t help and sleeping snakes

Understanding local customs and issues has never been more essential. A colleague, who is an executive vice-president at a major corporation, was standing in a hotel lobby’s entrance in Peru at 2 p.m. and observed an American tourist being robbed directly across the street.

Noticing several police officers standing outside the hotel, he ran over to alert them to the crime taking place in broad daylight. They ignored him. Horrified, he later learned the police had no jurisdiction on that side of the street.

“How would I know who to go to for help if that were happening to me,” he wondered. It’s a good question, and one that should be answered before the crisis hits.

Those dangers, however threatening, are at least visible. More insidious are the “sleeping snakes,” unscrupulous business types who prey on expatriates’ eagerness to succeed in their new positions. They lure the unsuspecting into deals with lower costs or cheap labour and then ensnare them into illegal conduct, whether it be a secret commission or compromising, imprudent behaviour. Now the victim is at the mercy of his viperous partner and susceptible to any manner of criminal undertakings.

Overt and covert dangers notwithstanding, the process of keeping employees informed with up-to-the-minute information has never been easier or more essential. Company intranets can tap into public and government resources for such things as risk assessments by country, travel advisories and other important news helpful to ensuring the security of employees.

Creating a rich source of information instantly available from any computer anywhere in the world gives them and their families an invaluable resource.

Another recent innovation that some security firms are working on is building a local dimension into these types of networks. Local experts in high-risk markets can provide on-the-ground support, advice and critical emergency services.

These local experts can make the abstract information contained in security reports and other materials real and tangible. They can be the employees’ “tether to reality” in their time of need while abroad.

In a world of terrifying headlines about violence and soaring crime rates, these local experts can provide a realistic understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground and they know the sleeping snakes and ineffectual law enforcement agencies and can both intervene and educate on either a reactive or proactive basis.

That sort of innovation is what HR managers need to bring to the task of keeping employees safe in high-risk markets. The volatility of change in those locations combined with the constantly changing business and economic climate require careful planning, methodical training and testing and continual refinement and adjustment.

People are remarkably resilient and adaptive to change. The HR challenge is to supply the support systems, networks and tools that enable employees in high-risk markets to use those strengths.

Craig Malcolm is managing director of Canadian Consulting and Investigations for Garda. For more information, visit www.gardaglobal.com.

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