How to keep your people safe working in a danger zone

Opportunity rarely comes without risks.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 04 May 2018

It’s the first rule of capitalism – you have to take risks if you want to gain a reward. But what if those risks are not just financial, but personal too?

It’s a question facing more and more employers – from large corporations to SMEs  - and their staff, as the world gets smaller and firms seek new opportunities in countries where political stability and security can’t be taken as much for granted as they have historically been in Europe and the US.

So, if you are considering doing business for the first time in some of the more ‘exciting’ African or South American countries for example, how do you make sure that your team on the ground stays safe and well whilst they are busily drumming up new trade?

To get some tips, MT talked to Arjan Toor, CEO for international organisations and Africa for health insurance specialist Cigna. He’s responsible for helping some of the largest NGOs around look after their workers in some of the most dangerous spots on earth, coping with wars, floods, famines and earthquakes. Here’s his recipe for operating successfully and safely in challenging environments.

Before you go

‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail,’ as the saying goes – so make sure you do your homework long before anyone steps on a plane. And that means more than just making sure they have got the right visa stamps in their passports. ‘When we partner with NGOs, a very important service is pre-assignment preparation,’ says Toor.

What kinds of risks will they face while on assignment? How politically stable is their destination? Is personal safety or health the major factor? These things can all vary hugely from country to country, and even between urban and rural areas in the same country.

It’s easy to assume that the big league issues such as violent crime, terrorism or natural disasters are the ones to really worry about. ‘The safety and security risk is real for many NGOs because they do send their people to challenging places,’ says Toor.

And while not many businesses will be considering sending teams into active war zones or in the aftermath of natural disasters, in countries such as Nigeria, Mexico and the Philippines the risk of, for example, kidnapping is a genuine threat. You may need to hire security specialists to guard your team in such environments.

But in most developing nations, just as in the developed ones too, the most common risks are rather more quotidian.  Health risks and food safety issues for example, and perhaps above all access to good quality healthcare. ‘People need to understand the situation they are going to be in, before they leave – what diseases are prevalent? What is safe to eat and drink? And how do I access healthcare?

‘If you are used to the NHS and suddenly find yourself in Mali, how do you navigate the healthcare system, and who can you trust for advice?’

So training for staff is important, to get them up to speed on the local set-up they will be spending time in.

You might also want to consider screening for risky medical conditions – although Toor says that A1 health and fitness are not pre-requisites for working in challenging countries, there are some combinations of illness and location that should make you think twice. ‘Someone with bad asthma, for example, could do a great job in Tanzania but you might not want to send them to Beijing.’

While you are there

Once your people are on the ground, keeping in touch is vital, says Toor. Fortunately thanks to modern communication technology this ismuch easier and cheaper than it used to be – mobile phone coverage is commonplace the world over now, and even satellite communication systems are no longer the preserve of military or government personnel.

Making sure they have access to trustworthy and up-to-date information is also key. In countries where political instability is the norm, says Toor, it can be difficult for newcomers to know the difference between day-to-day issues and something that could be more dangerous, like a potential coup.

Health crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, or the Zika virus outbreak in South America a year later, can also arise unexpectedly during an assignment. ‘We were monitoring Zika on an hourly basis, for example, so that we could provide reliable information on who was going to be affected. It’s important to have some balance so that your people don’t have to rely on sensational newspaper headlines, or social media.’

Ultimately you should have a back-up plan so that you can get your teams out quickly if the need arises. ‘Traditionally, medical evacuation has been the number one priority for NGOs. But now we are seeing an increase in demand for political evacuation too.’

After you get back again

An employer’s duty of care towards expats working in challenging regions doesn’t end when they return safely home. ‘Integrating people back into the organisation is really important,’ says Toor. But in a recent Cigna survey, 59% of expats were unsure whether their employer would follow up on how they were doing after they returned.

Rather like the fate of some soldiers returning from combat, many workers who return from challenging overseas assignments are left to fend for themselves, with unhappy consequences.  ‘They end up leaving because the organisation struggles to bring them back in properly, and doesn’t fully leverage their experience.’

But on the plus side, he notes, the opportunity to travel and work in unusual places is increasingly attractive to employees, and can be a useful ally in the war for talent. Both younger people eager for adventure and more seasoned execs wanting to give something back can jump at the chance of a spell in one of the world’s more challenging destinations – provided they know they will be looked after.

‘They will sacrifice a lot of compensation and benefits to do that, but what they are not prepared to sacrifice is their safety and security.’

 Overall, he counsels, seeking opportunity in new and challenging environments is worth doing, and worth doing properly. ‘It comes back to the ROI – as an organisation you are investing a lot of money in this. You want to make sure that you get a good return.’

Image credit: Omnes/Shutterstock

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