Imagine the scenario. The office phone rings and down a crackling, international phone line you hear an employee whisper: “I’m trapped in a shopping centre under attack by armed terrorists – what do I do?”
This call really happened. The full story is below among similar experiences recounted by HR professionals. They suggest the world is becoming a more difficult and dangerous place in which to keep staff safe. Be it the increasing threat of terrorism, war, natural disasters, or pandemics – duty of care responsibilities around employees working abroad are increasingly complex.
The testimonies are backed by research published in February by Collinson Group, which found that 73% of HR professionals at larger corporates agree the process of sending workers abroad has become more complicated from a duty of care perspective. With this in mind HR magazine set out to discover what HR teams and global mobility professionals can do to prepare for the worst, and ensure the best outcomes.
As an international development company, Crown Agents specialises in supporting fragile and conflict-affected areas. In December 2013 it had 10 members of staff working in South Sudan’s capital Juba when civil war broke out. They were involved in projects including getting healthcare out to inaccessible parts of the country. Fighting erupted between government and opposition forces and it became apparent that the area was experiencing a serious breakdown in security.
“The situation was deteriorating to the point where we decided to get staff out of the country,” says Ann Saunders, HR director at Crown Agents. “We instructed global risk consultancy Control Risks to arrange an emergency evacuation. It chartered a plane to fly the employees to Kampala in neighbouring Uganda and assembled the project team members, who travelled together to Juba International Airport. Two people opted to remain behind for personal reasons and secured the office.
“Fighting taking place not far from Juba risked reaching the capital, but that didn’t happen,” she adds. “However, since that date tens of thousands of people have been killed in the country.”
“We stepped up safety and emergency procedures in South Sudan by flying out our global security advisor to help put in place an appropriate set of emergency response plans, as well as day-to-day operational security plans,” explains Saunders. “More generally, we have tightened up the requirements for all our projects to assess risks more actively, and have a good set of security plans in place.”
On 25 April 2015 a massive earthquake struck Nepal. WaterAid had 30 locally-engaged staff in the capital Kathmandu. As trained to do, they all telephoned their country director to report they were safe. They continued to do this every few hours, which was vital as the region was hit by several aftershocks. The earthquake badly damaged some of their homes, while others had family members who were affected and needed help. Some ended up sleeping in their cars.
“In London we formed a crisis management team that included senior directors from across the organisation,” says WaterAid’s director of people and organisational development, Rachel Westcott. “Our Nepal staff had emergency personal issues to deal with so we put them on rest and recuperation leave, and provided water purifiers and an emergency kit that included a tent.
“To keep our operations ticking over we flew out staff from the UK and Asia offices to take control of the Kathmandu office. In the meantime we contracted engineers to carry out a building vulnerability assessment of our offices and employees’ homes,” she adds.
“Later we offered affected staff a financial contribution toward house repairs and damaged belongings. We also gave a loan equivalent to six months’ salary for repairs and buying essentials, and supported temporary accommodation costs,” explains Westcott. “We further provided counselling support. The employees had previously completed earthquake preparedness training, which we repeated after the event. We also fitted a satellite phone in the office to be used during emergencies when mobile phone networks can crash.
“Our staff were forced to put their training into action less than a month later, as a second major earthquake struck Nepal on 12 May. Unlike the first quake, which occurred at a weekend, the second happened during working hours. Fortunately, once again everyone survived. We closed the office immediately and sent staff home.”
“We decided to improve the safety of our office in Kathmandu and relocated to premises with just two floors and better evacuation routes,” Westcott says. “We also created an HR checklist of possible procedures for any country facing a similar scenario. This included providing financial support, loans and equipment.”
A mass shooting in Kenya’s Westgate shopping centre on 21 September 2013, which resulted in 67 deaths. Two of Tullow Oil’s employees and one spouse were visiting the mall that Saturday
in the capital Nairobi when extremist Islamic terrorists opened fire. They managed to escape into an underground car park but became trapped. From their hiding place they could see people with guns wearing explosive vests. Fortunately they had mobile phone signal and called the office.
“We had a contract security team in Kenya who immediately sent in trained men to retrieve the group,” explains Gordon Headley, former CHRO at Tullow Oil. “The police operation going on at the same time was extremely confusing – it was everyone for themselves. Our men managed to escort the group to safety but naturally the three were stressed and shaken up. We provided a debrief and counselling and brought them back to the UK, but they did later return to Nairobi.”
“In 2013 we classed Kenya as volatile but not high risk. We certainly did not expect an
attack at a shopping centre,” Headley adds. “We changed our procedures as a result and made certain places in town off-limits. We now work with a security advice firm that provides alerts about potential high-risk areas, which we then pass on to staff.”
Staff in NGO International Alert’s Liberia offices in west Africa had mentioned cases of the Ebola virus in the region from March 2014. But it wasn’t until August that year the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a “public health emergency of international concern”. By April 2016 more than 11,300 people had died of the disease, which is transmitted through bodily contact. Six members of staff were in one of the worst-affected areas – Liberia’s capital Monrovia.
“We had no previous experience of such a situation so worked closely with our country director to decide how to safeguard staff,” says International Alert’s COO, Sue McCready. “Withdrawing employees was not an option as they were locals. We are also a peace-building organisation, and have a reputation for remaining in a country even when challenges arise.
“In the first instance we advised staff to work from home and not move around in public. We sent them regular United Nations and WHO updates about strategies to avoid contamination; such as not shaking hands with people,” she continues. “We covered practicalities with the country manager to make sure the employees could access things like food and money. We also put a ban on any workers travelling to Liberia from other countries.
“After three months, when the situation began to ease, we allowed staff to do some limited networking with partner organisations but not to go into affected communities. We also began to allow people to travel to Liberia from outside if it was necessary,” adds McCready. “We provided them with an induction on how to avoid contamination and spot signs of illness, and they were required to monitor their temperature when they returned to their home country because a fever indicates infection. Thankfully all our staff got through the epidemic.”
“If an epidemic situation were to arise again we plan to take action earlier, even if WHO or other organisations downplay cases,” she concludes.
Top tips for international safety
- Ask staff to research and prepare their own risk assessment before they travel. Then employees ‘own’ the information and are more likely to tailor it to their personal needs.
- When running a practice crisis scenario do it simultaneously with another office in a different country to make it as real as possible.
- Do not stay in the most Western, high-security hotels as these can be more obvious terrorist targets. Seek out lower-profile accommodation that could be safer.
- Triangulate information between countries. Incidents reported in Western media can be upscaled or downplayed, so working closely with staff on the ground is vital.
- Beware the ‘frog in the boiling water’ phenomenon. This suggests if a person is in a situation where security is gradually deteriorating they can fail to notice how serious matters become, until they reach the ‘boiling’ point.