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Mission Possible Protecting Employees Abroad

August 1, 1997
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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It was any expatriate's worst nightmare. When Mamoru Konno drove away from a Tijuana, Mexico, baseball stadium after a game last August, a group of armed men blocked his luxury automobile and pulled him from the driver's seat. With the cold metal of a gun pushing against his temple and his abductors holding him by the elbows, Konno's face displayed an unmistakable combination of surprise, utter fear and powerlessness. The men shoved the senior executive into their car and sped away -- all while security officers and witnesses pretended not to see anything. Hours later, the gunmen finally made their demands known: Sanyo Video Components could pay a U.S. $2 million ransom or they would kill the 56-year-old president of the company. For nine days last August, Konno's life hung in the balance. Finally, Sanyo forked over the money, and Konno was released. Remarkably, the entire incident might've been avoided if Konno had used more stringent security measures and had been less predictable in his actions, particularly when attending ballgames.

Kidnapping, murder, terrorism and street crime; demonstrations, carjackings and home-invasion robberies -- they're words that can strike fear into the heart of anyone, let alone a person working or traveling abroad. Every year, all over the globe, expatriates find themselves confronted with the very real possibility that they could become the next statistic on a foreign country's crime blotter. Nobody knows exactly how many incidents take place, though security analysts estimate the number runs into the tens of thousands. In 1994, the U.S. State Department recorded 73 violent attacks against American businessmen abroad -- the highest ever. Thousands of other crimes go undetected by government authorities -- burglaries, pickpocketing, street muggings and car theft. In some cases, they simply aren't reported. But there's also no international database for tracking crime. Yet the economic fallout associated with an incident in terms of morale, productivity and legal expenses can be enormous. Moreover, the resulting fear can steer workers away from accepting an assignment, while severely inhibiting the ability of those overseas to do their jobs effectively.

Although newspaper headlines, as always, tend to magnify the odds of a serious incident taking place, it's an issue that human resources and corporate security can't ignore. "Today, workers must take precautions everywhere in the world," says Frank Johns, managing director of Arlington, Virginia-based Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services. "Criminals have become more aggressive and sophisticated. They're willing to go to greater lengths to achieve their objectives," Johns emphasizes. Adds Bruce R. Goslin, a director at Kroll Associates, a Miami-based firm that specializes in advising companies on how to protect workers abroad, "It's essential that a company have a program in place before anyone sets foot on foreign soil."

Evaluate country-specific risks.
No country is without its problems. And although just about any type of crime can occur anywhere, it's important to understand that all places aren't equal in their level of risk. For example, an employee who's assigned to work in Colombia needs to know that a Jeep Cherokee is a high-profile vehicle and that those who drive one are considered wealthy, notes Goslin. That visibility invites carjackings, robberies and other crimes. However, in neighboring Venezuela where residents enjoy a higher standard of living, criminals probably wouldn't pay close attention to anyone driving a Cherokee.

In Mexico, kidnappings have become a way of life. Sanyo executive Konno certainly isn't alone -- although it's also important to note that the crimes usually take place against Mexican businessmen. In many instances, abductors capture a targeted individual, drive the abductee around to ATM machines for several hours while draining his or her bank accounts, and then release the individual alongside a road. Sometimes, as with Konno, kidnappers demand a ransom and routinely release the prisoner once they obtain the money.

And in many places -- Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia and New Guinea, to name a few -- street crime is epidemic, although tourists and business people are rarely kidnapped or assassinated. Such a scenario requires a far different mindset and preparation than dealing with the Islamic extremist violence of Algeria or the political terrorism that routinely occurs in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. Of course, the threat varies depending on who someone is and what he or she represents. As Richard J. Heffernan, a Branford, Connecticut-based security consultant puts it, "A senior executive at an oil company is far more likely to become a political target than a greeting-card salesman." Adds Goslin, "It's crucial for a company to understand the local environment, local conditions and what threat exists."

Safety concerns also affect how people live, work and commute. Is it safe to take the subway to work every day? Does one need an armed driver? What kind of security system and protection does one need at home? There are no simple answers, although without adequate planning and preparation, the end result can become a nightmare for both an employee and the company. "The cost of an incident -- emotionally, financially and strategically -- can be devastating. In a worst-case scenario, it can cripple a company and impact many lives," says Johns.

Reducing the odds of an incident is the goal at Intel Corp. The Santa Clara, California, microprocessor and semiconductor manufacturer typically has 400 to 500 employees working abroad at any given moment. These expatriates might live in Malaysia, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Japan, the Philippines or the People's Republic of China, and the stint might last anywhere from three months to three or four years. "Getting people ready to deal with the entire spectrum of issues and problems is important. You can't possibly prepare employees for every possibility, and you don't want to step over a line and have them worried about everything, but you can ensure that they have the knowledge and support that's needed," says Nancy Kenney, Intel's multicultural training program manager.

At Intel, awareness means participating in a one-on-one or group expatriate briefing prior to stepping on an airplane. Part of the one-day program deals specifically with potential safety and security concerns, including what to do if a crime takes place, how to cope with becoming a hostage or a kidnapping victim, and what to do if there's an uprising or a terrorist incident. But employees, and in some instances entire families, also are briefed on how they can find specific information that suits their needs and whom they should contact in the country once they arrive. In all instances, the sessions are taught by a native of the host country. "They're able to cut through the myths and hype and look at things realistically," explains Kenney. "When workers know how to deal with potential problems, everyone comes out ahead."

Create an information network.
Intel uses its intranet as a way to distribute up-to-the-minute information for those preparing for an overseas assignment as well as those who've already landed on foreign soil. Workers can access State Department warnings and updates via PCs and kiosks, and they can check a database for names of other expatriates who've worked in the same locale and can relate their experiences and knowledge. In addition, expats can pore over detailed country reports that provide information about what precautions are necessary when living and working in a specific country. Intel also subscribes to Kroll Travel Watch, a service that details crime, problems and concerns for 250 cities in more than 100 countries around the world, all monitored on a daily basis. The service, along with Pinkerton's Global Risk Assessment, which covers 220 countries, is available through the Internet or by fax, e-mail or conventional mail. Intel also is building its own database of frequently asked questions (FAQS) so future expatriates will have an additional resource at their fingertips.

Once a family heads overseas, members also can turn to a company representative who is well-versed in the intricacies and practices of a particular country. Says Kenney: "The person can work with family members to address their concerns. He or she can also help them keep things in perspective. If they're going to Israel, for example, they may be concerned about bombings. It's important that they understand that these incidents don't take place everywhere. There are ways to minimize the odds of winding up in the middle of an incident."

When the entire family has a low level of anxiety, the overseas assignment is much easier and more productive.

The federal government is another global employer that takes necessary precautions against terrorism. As director of the Overseas Briefing Center for the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Ray Leki helps prepare federal workers for assignments in some of the most harrowing places on earth. Prior to departure, more than 2,000 federal workers and their families come to Arlington, Virginia, every year to learn how to cope with everything from street crime to terrorism. The FSI's program -- which includes two days of lectures, audiovisual materials, handouts and discussion -- covers personal safety and security, hostage survival, counterterrorism measures and more. The idea, says Leki, is to provide a broad base of general knowledge and to involve spouses and children six years and older. "When the entire family has a low level of anxiety [after training], the overseas assignment is much easier and more productive for everyone."

At the FSI, instructors armed with special curriculum designed for children help guide them through an array of potential problems. There's discussion about whom to call in the event of an emergency, what to say and do if a stranger rings the doorbell, and how to handle a variety of situations when away from home. Besides predeparture training, expatriates and families attend a refresher course every five years, as long as they're still living and working abroad. And the course covers an array of subtleties, including how to fit in to the environment. "We tell them to take off the University of Michigan sweatshirt, scrape the America flag decal off the car and buy a Toyota there rather than having their Chevy Suburban shipped over," he says.

But the State Department offers far more than basic instruction. It also provides employees with a set of country-specific resources including booklets, tip sheets and Internet resources, such as its own site on the World Wide Web. The latter is a gold mine of information, featuring crime reports, statistics, travel advisories and more. "A lot of material is available, but a lot of people don't realize it's there or don't understand how to use it as a resource for themselves," Leki says. "The key is to help people use all the resources that are available to them."

Establish a safe home away from home.
Traveling abroad means facing myriad details, and personal safety and security is just one aspect. Getting people to pay attention to security is often a sticky issue, especially when they're more concerned with stocking up on peanut butter and Pampers™. Add to that the lack of language skills most Americans possess, and many are particularly vulnerable, even with adequate predeparture training. That's why many companies offer orientation sessions once an employee's family arrives at the assignment and provide a contact person, someone particularly knowledgeable about the country and its culture, to guide them through the turbulence. Many also establish phone trees and buddy systems, which can prove particularly valuable during a natural disaster, a coup d'état or a terrorist attack.

One of the best things a global human resources manager can do, says Leki, is to ensure that workers register with the consulate or embassy upon arrival. Regional security officers at embassies usually have up-to-the-minute statistics and reports at their fingertips and can provide the most accurate briefing about what to do and what not to do. "They're able to discuss in-depth the array of [local] issues one could never cover in a general training session designed for people heading off to all points of the world," says Leki. Like Intel, many companies also ensure that expatriates and travelers have trained contacts they can discuss issues and concerns with once they arrive. And recent networking technology, including the widespread use of intranets and e-mail, now allows companies to keep employees informed.

Joe Baxter is another executive who thinks about safety precautions every day. As the director of corporate security at Irvine, California-based Fluor Daniel Inc., an engineering and construction services firm with 41,000 employees in more than 80 countries, Baxter must protect workers in just about any situation imaginable. Besides offering predeparture education and training that covers both general and country-specific issues, the company tries to ensure that travelers have all the assistance and protection they need throughout the move and the overseas stay. In many locales, Fluor's HR professionals contract with an outside firm to provide briefings and updates every three to six months.

Knowledge is power.
In some countries, such as Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, where political attacks against foreigners are more common, employees typically live in a closed apartment complex that's protected by armed guards. With virtually all facilities contained within the gated complex, there's little need for workers to venture out. In high-threat countries, Fluor typically arranges for a driver to transport a family from the airport to the complex and also will provide a driver anytime the need arises to travel outside. At other sites in other countries, the housing can range from low-security townhouses to single-family homes in a regular community. "You can't take a cookie-cutter approach. You have to understand the nuances of each place and what the person's role is, and take the necessary steps to reduce the stress level and threat to employees," says Baxter.

That means being particularly aware of the risks that an apartment, office or driving route present. For example, Kroll Associates' Goslin points out that in many developing nations, it's not a good idea to live above the third floor of a building because the fire department doesn't have ladders that can reach that high. Locations on a cul-de-sac or in close proximity to a police station or military installation can spell disaster if political insurgency is a common problem. And a single-family home without an adequate alarm, lighting and solid wood doors can make it easy for intruders to kidnap someone. Those who drive themselves to and from work also have to consider the routes they take, vary the times they come and go, and remain alert for unusual activity. Says Goslin: "The vast majority of kidnappings take place when targets are near their homes and near their offices. Those are the two places they know [targeted people] are going to be. And that's where people let their guard down."

Some organizations, including the U.S. Department of State, have begun to offer highly specialized training to workers stationed in high-threat areas. Evasive driving tactics, weapons use and an array of other hands-on sessions are usually part of the program. In most instances, a mobile security training team is sent to the locale and conducts a series of classes before heading off to another part of the world. And, for some high-profile executives, an entire armed entourage may often be necessary.

What should a company do when an incident takes place? At Fluor, a representative calls or meets in person with the crime victim -- depending on the severity of the situation. Counseling and assistance play a major role in helping the person cope personally and professionally. Most firms, including Intel, take a similar tack. "It's necessary to comfort the person and make sure he or she's able to cope," says Kenney. However, for instances in which an individual is too traumatized to continue with the assignment, the only recourse for many companies is to send the person home and offer ongoing support and counseling.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of expatriates and business travelers enjoy their stays abroad. And most never run into any serious problems. But as Baxter aptly observes: "There's a delicate balance between security and inconvenience. You don't want someone to feel paranoid or wind up becoming a statistic, but you also want him or her to be prepared that something could go wrong. The key, as corporations become more global, is to educate the workforce so that an assignment is productive and enjoyable for everyone."

Workforce, August 1997, Vol. 76, No. 8, pp. 30-36.

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