Working in risky locations has been more different from working at home in the UK than he expected, says Alan Ryder, chief executive of environmental consultancy RSK. “The higher the perceived threat, the more preparation is required. In some situations, we work with specialist security teams, travel in armour-plated vehicles and wear body armour. In Iraq, we live in a secure camp and we only travel outside the camp accompanied by armed security.”
Iraq presents more risk than most postings. But, at a time of increased instability, more organisations are considering threats faced by all employees travelling and working abroad, even in supposedly safe countries.
This year’s Global Peace Index report, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, said levels of peacefulness have continued to decline and that “the two indicators with the largest yearly deterioration were the impact of terrorism and political instability.” The report ranks Iceland as the most peaceful and Syria the least. Countries that score “very low” for peace include South Sudan and Iraq; the US is categorised as “medium” and the UK as “high”.
Nicholas Innell is a former head of security for the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the former Yugoslavia and is now a senior manager in PWC’s Enterprise Security team, which advises clients worldwide on safety. At a basic level, he says, companies should assess who is going, where they are going, and exactly what they will be doing. “If you are conducting investigations into fraudulent activity in a company in an unstable country, you are likely to face greater risks than you might if you were handing out food to refugees,” he says.
Rob Walker, of consultancy International SOS, says: “The company needs to provide a framework which allows the individual to understand the preparations they should make and the responsibilities they have before going to work in these places.” This could range from travel advice to providing a car and driver or close protection. In very high risk places, he notes, plans should include potential evacuation.
Sometimes, however, no more is required than a pragmatic assessment: “After [the shooting at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan massacre] in Paris, we reassured some clients that they didn’t need to be escorted at great expense.”
RSK follows certain protocols, says Mr Ryder. “Whenever we travel away from the office, we . . . let the folk ‘back at base’ know we have arrived safely. We try to avoid working alone and in remote locations, but if that is unavoidable we make sure we stay in contact with the office by mobile or satellite phone.”
Although a violent attack is many people’s worst fear, the risks faced by staff are usually more mundane, such as from traffic accidents. Thailand, for instance, while generally considered safe, has the second most dangerous roads in the world after Libya, according to the World Health Organisation.
Countries are not always homogeneously risky. A country may be more dangerous near its borders or during elections. “Some countries, or areas within countries, present unusual or particularly difficult circumstances, which require special planning and procedures by RSK,” notes Mr Ryder.
People change too: long-stay staff who experience no problems may become complacent. In fact, says Mr Innell, an employee based in one place for a long time may be more at risk of kidnap because their presence is well known.
Another factor is the psychological toll of working in a higher-risk environment while far from family and friends.
Perhaps predictably, social media has added a layer of risk. A significant online presence could make staff more likely to be targeted by kidnappers by increasing both their visibility and the details of where they are. Or, if someone moves to a country with a different culture, social media posts from years ago could come back to haunt them.
If a member of staff is involved in an incident — being mugged at a cashpoint, having a hotel room turned over, or a terrorist attack — the company should deal with the after-effects. For the employee this might mean advice or counselling, while the organisation can also learn lessons. “Follow-up can be of huge importance,” says Mr Innell.
Overall, Mr Walker says, with the right preparation, staff can be sent to most locations, except de facto or de jure war zones. “There are very few places we say ‘Just don’t go’.”