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Keeping Expatriates Safe

October 26, 2001
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Safety abroad always is a top priority. But personal security for American expatriates, international business travelers, and foreign expats working for American firms catapulted to the top of the list for global HR managers on September 11.

Of course, you can hire a security firm to help you create an entire program with complete crisis management planning and evacuation assistance, but if you don't have the budget and need to take steps today, you can still do a lot to protect your international assignees and business travelers.

What you can do today
Find out where all of your expats are right now. This may sound simplistic, but you'd be surprised to discover how many HR managers and security directors don't know exactly where everyone is. Once you know where they are, you need to create a system to continually update that information.

Next, everyone needs to know who they will contact-either a specific person or a dedicated crisis team-to report their whereabouts during times of tension. When an incident triggers an alert (and the organization should establish what those triggering events are), each person also should know who they need to contact to report on their location and safety.

Make sure your assignees know how to conduct themselves. "Give them simple, common-sense advice, says Elaine Carey, senior vice president of Washington DC-based Control Risks Group. "Tell them not to advertise that they're American or from an American company. Don't wear Nike or Reebok or some such symbol emblazoned on everything. Dress down, don't wear a lot of jewelry, and don't look like you have a lot of money."

Employees should take a good look at their routine and use common sense. For example, if they hear some noise or disturbance somewhere, oftentimes expats are curious and want to take a look. But it is wiser to remember that an American in a foreign location these days isn't always safe. Instead, go the other way. Move to a distance away from the disturbance, to a safe place, until it is possible to ask someone who understands the local culture and indicates that it is safe.

Furthermore, tell your employees to be sure that someone knows where they are at all times, especially in locations that are potentially volatile. Be sure that managers know where employees are staying (if in a hotel), what office they're working out of on a particular day, and what clients they're seeing each day.

Use government resources. The United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs issues a variety of warnings and travel information all the time. Be sure your program managers and expats know about the service, and consult it frequently.

Create a phone tree. Unfortunately, this isn't the time to fully rely on the U.S. Embassy. Usually, it is a good source of assistance, but have your assignees create alternatives just in case the governmental agencies cannot perform the kinds of duties they usually do. If you can, try to help them construct a phone tree within the community where everyone has a few people to call in case of an emergency.

Next steps to take
Find out what other companies are doing. New York-based KPMG conducted a Web-based survey of global employers starting September 28, to get an idea of what international companies are doing and thinking. Over 60 organizations participated. "We were getting many nervous calls from our clients asking what other companies were doing…people are conscious of overreacting, but they don't want to under-react either," says Timothy Dwyer, national director of KPMG's International HR Consulting Services.

The most surprising thing, he says, is that companies do not know what they should do in a crisis. In fact, only 12 percent of the participants had specific emergency plans in place for locations where they have expat employees. This is surprising because three years ago, when there was instability in Indonesia, many global HR leaders viewed it as a time when their procedures were shown to be lacking. As now, many then didn't know how many people they had living in the location, nor how many were there on business trips. They expressed a desire to improve their preparedness. But apparently, that desire wasn't carried out.

"If I were a program manager, one of the first things to do would be to contact other companies in the area and figure out what they are doing," says Dwyer. "One of the lessons from Indonesia was to make use of others' networks in the event of an emergency." For example, if a large company has chartered a plane to evacuate their people, a smaller company might buy a seat or two on it for their employees.

How to find which other companies are in your region? Ask the expats. The expat community is very small, and they will know a large percentage of the firms that are operating in the countries where they're located. In addition, you can ask your tax-consulting firm.

Become familiar with places to which you're sending people. Program managers need to be informed about these regions, countries and cities. The more expertise you have, the better off your employees are. It's easy. Use governmental information sources such as the State Department resources listed below, travel and educational Web sites including Lonely Planet and Infoplease, and general media outlets. These can lead you to other expert resources to deepen your knowledge about the countries' cultures.

You can also begin by buying a map. Don't laugh, but many managers don't know where-specifically-the expats live in a given territory or city. For example, what is the proximity of expat community to the American Embassy or consulate? Where are the American schools and clubs? Where is the airport? Are there areas of risk nearby?

One of the anomalies of this current crisis is that normally very safe locations, such as London and Paris, also carry a degree of risk for Americans. Currently, American Embassies or American Cultural Institute are just not very safe places to be hanging out these days. Post the map, and mark the locations of your people, your facilities, and key American institutions with push pins.

Create a crisis team and a crisis plan. "If organizations have expatriates, they should have a crisis team," says Ray O'Hara, VP of the Western Region of Pinkerton Security. "This team becomes the eyes and ears and should be able to make sound business decisions regarding the movement of people." The team consists of senior managers, including HR, legal, security, PR, but not the CEO or president because in a crisis, the team needs to be making decisions about expats and not be distracted by other strategic issues.

The team should meet to create a crisis plan about what to do in the event of a disaster. The team must then discuss scenarios with what-ifs. They should play out the contingencies. For example, what if you need to evacuate people? What airport would you use? What alternatives ways are there to get the people out of the country? Where will they go to be relatively safe if you cannot get them out? What type of communication will you use? What if the telephones don't work?

This team should also be part of the group that is involved in knowing where people are traveling. They will be the first to know if there is trouble brewing and if there is a reason that employees should not be sent to the location.

Take advantage of security information. Currently, Control Risks Group's Web site offers a lot of free information and specific guidelines about high-risk locations. You also can subscribe to information services from Control Risks, Kroll, and Pinkerton that will track activity in a variety of locations. They can update you on which neighborhoods or specific locations to avoid during particular periods. For example, there might be the anniversary of an uprising and that's when there are demonstrations that could turn into riots.

Security firms offer policy development and consulting. They also offer 24-hour-a-day crisis intervention that supplies employees with whatever they need to get to safety.

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