Employers should have in place crisis management plans that can be activated quickly should problems like what is unfolding in Egypt erupt, security and risk management consultants told BNA Feb. 2-3.
Such plans help ensure to the greatest extent possible that employees are protected from harm, they said, whether the threat involves political turmoil, a natural disaster, terrorism, or some other trouble.
“Many companies are striving to put in place plans and processes, but where the rubber meets the road is can they execute the plans and do they have the vendors to support them in that execution,” said Imran Qureshi, the Chicago-based director of Towers Watson's international consulting group.
Human resources practitioners, often working in conjunction with a company's risk management and security teams, are generally responsible for coordinating an employer's crisis management plan, Qureshi said.
Plans, which vary, should include details about how the company tracks the movement of its employees abroad, how communication is coordinated, and what steps will be taken to evacuate workers from a troubled region, various sources said.
“Organizations sometimes don't realize that these things can happen and they can happen to them,” said Raymond T. O'Hara, president of ASIS International, a 37,000-member organization based in Alexandria, Va., of security practitioners worldwide.
O'Hara, who also is executive vice president of international services and the consulting and investigations division of Andrews International, a security services company in Los Angeles, cited as an example of the type of situations employers can face, the recent shutdown of an airport in Ecuador and its impact on people stranded there. Also, he noted, there are thousands of U.S. residents in Mexico, another country where turmoil is an ongoing threat.
“As organizations get larger and expand around the world, they realize there are troubling spots in the world and they need to prepare for that,” O'Hara said. He recommended “having a simple crisis plan to help deal with these issues,” communicating the plan to employees, and educating employees who work or travel abroad.
When the political unrest in Egypt began to escalate, the U.S. State Department Feb. 1 announced that it had ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. government employees and their families from that country.
More than 1,900 U.S. citizens and their family members had been evacuated from Egypt as of Feb. 2, the State Department said.
“I do get the sense that my [employer] clients were relatively prepared for a political evacuation” in Egypt, Qureshi said. Thus far, he said, many companies have been “able to deal with the situation.”
MEDEX Global Solutions helped evacuate more than 500 people from Egypt as of Feb. 2, said Charlie LeBlanc, the Houston-based president of the company's security group. MEDEX, based in Towson, Md., offers risk management, travel, medical, and security assistance services.
LeBlanc said MEDEX's employer clients were prepared for the political unrest that escalated in Egypt. “We were advising and warning them,” LeBlanc said. “It allowed them to get in a mindset of 'we may need to leave.' They had a relative fair amount of time--72 hours--to contemplate these discussions.”
Other major vendors similar to MEDEX that have operations in North America include International SOS and Europ Assistance USA.
“The companies that used to fly you out of a region for medical reasons now have a political risk and political evacuation arm,” said Matthew McKinley, principal of McKinley International Risk Management in Malvern, Pa.
Qureshi said that before employers decide on which vendor to hire they should find out what type of work the vendor has done historically, what processes it uses, and whether it can safeguard the organization's employees.
“Reach out to multiple providers,” he advised. “Develop a 'request for proposal' that outlines questions that reflect the circumstances you are likely to encounter. Many industries have unique situations.”
McKinley said employers should have crisis management plans in place because “once something like this happens, the playbook and rules go out the window.” Also, he said, for companies that were not working with vendors like MEDEX or risk consulting companies, “it will cost 10 times as much” to help secure the safety of their employees in Egypt now.
MEDEX's services include coordinating transportation out of a country by booking commercial airline reservations or arranging charter flights. LeBlanc said the cost of the services the company provides for evacuations can range from “$5,000 to $7,000 and up to six figures.”
“What [employers] decide to do depends on what kind of risks they have,” LeBlanc said. “Are they in countries where something like in Egypt or Haiti could happen? How much risk do they want to take upon themselves financially?”
“These evacuations can get very expensive very fast,” LeBlanc said. “Some companies choose to self-insure that risk. Others hedge that risk with a program that covers some of the benefits.”
Regardless of whether an employer uses a vendor, Bill Daly, senior vice president of Control Risks in New York City, said that employers' crisis management plans should be comprehensive and address a variety of issues that might occur.
“Whether today it's Egypt or Lebanon or a natural disaster, there are a whole host of issues that companies and employers face,” he said. “Human resources and others should be focused on having a program to alternatively respond and spring into action ahead of these incidents.”
Meanwhile, employers that fail to prepare their overseas workers could face lawsuits and damage to their reputation.
Daly said the benchmark for “duty of care” litigation has been raised by employees who sue their employers, contending that they did not receive proper advice about precautions to take when traveling.
Duty of care involves an organization's obligation to protect its employees from risks which can relate to injury, sickness, safety, security, health, and finances, said Michael Frewen, director of assistance operations, South and South East Asia, for International SOS.
Daly noted that in the United Kingdom, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, which took effect in 2008, holds companies, among others, liable for criminal offenses and fines if they are found to have caused an individual's death based on “gross corporate health and safety failures.”
“There's also a brand issue here,” Qureshi at Towers Watson said. “If an employer is unable to protect employees it impacts their brand as an employer who looks out for the interests of their employees. And that has detrimental business impacts.”
Being prepared for any crisis is crucial, Frewen said in an e-mail message.
Unless employers invest in “risk mitigation” and understand the threats faced by employees working overseas, he said, “they will be unprepared to respond effectively to a crisis.”
Employers that are not prepared “often spend many days just trying to understand exactly how many staff and dependents they have that have been affected and require assistance,” Frewen said.
“A common misconception is that staff will be able to get a taxi to the airport and book a seat on the next flight home,” he said. “It is very rarely ever this simple, even in a situation of quite minor unrest.”
By Rhonda Smith
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