Extreme HR

Keep employees safe in perilous environments by planning and communicating.

By Aliah D. Wright May 1, 2011
Gary McGillicuddy has been shot at, worked in war zones, witnessed countries emerge and seen violent economic upheavals.

April Cover 

For 25 years, McGillicuddy worked as an HR professional for the United Nations’ development program, where he was responsible for moving employees into and out of difficult situations.

He has been in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Zimbabwe and other countries during tumultuous times.

McGillicuddy knows the challenges HR professionals face when employees vanish, as was the case with Wael Ghonim, Google’s regional marketing manager and an activist. Authorities apprehended him in January during Egypt’s political revolution. McGillicuddy also knows the challenges that arise when employees are assaulted, as was CBS reporter Lara Logan in February during protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Both Logan and Ghonim survived their traumas.

“People are living in horrible conditions or there’s civil violence or warfare around—and it’s not pretty,” McGillicuddy reflects. “People may be injured or killed. It’s not fun to get shot at,” says the founding partner of the Birches Group LLC, an HR consulting company based in New York City.

As violence spread across the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, HR professionals and security experts relayed one core message: To secure employees’ safety, planning and communications are imperative.

That planning should begin before an expatriate steps on a plane. It should extend to local employees and third-country nationals, too.

“You’re still worried about the compensation and the benefits and employee relations,” says Marie McNamee, director of programs-HR for InsideNGO, a nonprofit supporting international development and relief organizations, based in Westport, Conn. But perilous environments add layers of complexity to HR professionals’ jobs.

That complexity includes making sure employees are physically safe and emotionally secure while working under extreme conditions in conflict zones, in areas struck by natural disaster or in countries on the brink of civil war.

Plan for the Worst

“You have a responsibility to look at conceivable risks and manage them,” says Lisbeth Claus, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR, professor of global human resources at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. HR professionals play “a major role—not only in having policies and procedures, but also in enforcing and making sure all the stakeholders are involved.”

There’s no way to guard against every contingency, she acknowledges. You can’t predict the unpredictable. But you can always be better prepared.

Take the time to train employees. “Have a crisis emergency plan available and accessible to avoid confusion and to help operations run as smoothly as possible,” says Fabiola Pascal Thomas, who lives in Haiti, where last year a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck. Thomas works as the operations director for I-Tech, a Seattle-based organization that offers training for health care professionals.

HR experts say emergency plans should go beyond heeding travel warnings on the U.S. State Department’s website. Plans should:

  • Include site visits and security briefings.
  • Assess the need for armed security or for employees to carry weapons.
  • Consider acceptable and unacceptable risks to staff, assets and the organization’s image.
  • Identify the crisis management team.
  • Detail team members’ responsibilities.

High-Risk Trips

U.S. employees took more than 3.5 million international trips in 2008. Twenty-five percent of those were to areas considered high-risk because of illness, natural disaster, civil unrest and other man-made conditions.

Source: International SOS

HR professionals play “a very important role on that team,” says Alex Puig, regional security director for the Americas at International SOS, a company in Trevose, Pa., that provides medical assistance and security services.

A proper security briefing is “one of the most important steps before someone departs their home country,” Puig stresses. Another briefing should occur once they’ve arrived in the new location and should be done by someone who knows what’s going on—and knows the expectations of behavior.

“If someone is traveling to a country, we provide them a travel brief that pertains to the country,” says Manjushree M. Badlani, chief HR and administrative officer with Jhpiego, an international health organization affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “If people are going to conflict zones—for instance, like Afghanistan—we have an elaborate process in place,” including an on-the-ground assessment of security.

Deployed employees should have lists of emergency contacts and the means to reach those contacts outside of business hours, whether via the Internet, mobile phone or landline, Puig says. HR leaders should know how to contact employees’ family members in case of emergency. They should also know the whereabouts of their employees at all times, he adds.

In fact, keeping track of employees is a major responsibility for HR staff members. “We try to get them to check in with us on a daily basis,” sometimes twice a day, Badlani says.

Concern for All

HR professionals’ responsibility extends beyond the security of expats. To preserve your business, “address the concerns and safety of local staff,” advises Warren Heaps, a partner with the Birches Group who has more than 25 years of HR experience, mostly in international HR.

“While it may be true that nationals can adapt to local conditions, know the language and understand the culture, they, too, can be at risk,” he says. Companies should have plans that allow local employees to shelter-in-place during emergencies, as employees were urged to do in Japan following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent explosions at a nuclear power plant in early March.

McNamee agrees, adding that corporate executives should be mindful of where they set up shop overseas. A neighborhood with an embassy might attract protesters who disrupt work, for example. Difficult terrain or a poor infrastructure could hinder rescue following emergencies.

When an emergency arises and expats are evacuated, it may fall to the remaining workers to take charge. “Sometimes you have a blend of third-country nationals and local nationals, and they take ownership of what happens to the facility,” McNamee says.

The Right Stuff

Those who specialize in placing people in overseas assignments and counseling them when they return say it takes a special kind of person to work under extreme conditions.

Expats who thrive have a strong support network, good self-care behaviors—like exercising or hobbies such as photography, art or music—and “a worldview that explains the source of their meaning in life,” says James D. Guy Jr., Ph.D., president and founder of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Headington Institute, a charity that provides training and support to humanitarian organizations. These types tend to be more resilient in the face of tragedy, whereas “loners don’t do so well as a rule over time.”

To choose the right talent, many employers find applicant screening essential. Experts with the Headington Institute suggest HR professionals assess candidates for personal resilience and emotional vulnerabilities and determine whether a person is suited for a particular assignment. The institute offers an assessment tool on its website. Candidates can take tests on their own to see if they’re ready to handle an assignment.

“We will score it and talk to them about their profile. We do it confidentially, so the feedback goes to the individual and not the organization,” Guy says.

While many experts recommend potential expats go through behavioral and emotional analyses, others say experience often proves the best predictor. “A lot of organizations are not doing psychological testing or behavioral analyses” before deploying employees overseas, McNamee notes.

At the same time, sending inexperienced people into danger zones has become a rarity. Many HR professionals say only people who are experts in their fields are placed in extreme situations—and not with family members.

“We always hire people with some sort of developing-country experience,” Badlani says.

Not Just Another Day

In extreme conditions, what may seem scary for newcomers may seem normal for residents.

“People who live with conflict on a day-to-day basis become desensitized,” observes Badlani, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Global Special Expertise Panel who went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2006. “The moment you get out of the airport, you know you’re in a war zone because you see military personnel. You see armed people all over the place and you see the destruction, and yet you’re in this very crowded street. So, it’s a little startling. It’s a complete culture shock—even if you’re prepared.

“Then, you hang out with people who work there. There are restaurants that operate in Kabul and the expat community patronizes these places regularly, as do local people. There’s a sense of normalcy amid the destruction,” she says. Expats need to be careful not to become desensitized and complacent about the inherent dangers.

Humanitarian Workers

At any given moment, about 300,000 humanitarian workers are in the field worldwide.

Source: James D. Guy Jr., president and founder of the Headington Institute.

A “critical incident protocol” becomes necessary, according to Guy. Such a security plan includes how to handle kidnappings, shootings, the death of a key staff member and assaults. It “addresses the emotional needs of victims, friends and colleagues over time.” When incidents occur, such as the one involving CBS reporter Logan, Guy adds, protocol should require HR professionals to offer ongoing counseling—whether it is taken or not.

People who choose to work in extreme environments “are drawn to this type of work,” McGillicuddy explains. At the same time, HR professionals have “to prepare people to work in stressful environments,” he advises. “Employees should be told: ‘You’re going to see misery and sometimes quite a bit of violence. Even if you think you can handle it, when you’re in this situation, it has a long-term effect on you.’ ” Leaders of organizations that have people in these situations are going to have to anticipate that impact and provide counseling once their employees return, he says.

Time for a Break?

When Jhpiego sent relief workers to Haiti last year, Badlani says, “They were there for three weeks and they were happy to be there, but we pulled them out.” They weren’t trained for dire living conditions and so much devastation. The agency later sent trained clinicians and doctors. “Sometimes, people get tired or emotionally exhausted. Then, you need to rotate for sure,” Badlani notes.

“People need breaks,” McGillicuddy agrees. Expats should be rotated out of conflict areas every six weeks or two months, depending “on how bad it is.”

Conflict Areas

More than 1 billion people live in conflict and post-conflict countries.

Source: Graciana del Castillo, author of Rebuilding War-Torn States: The Challenge of Post-Conflict Economic Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2008).

But sometimes rotation may hurt the project or the mission and negatively impact the morale of local employees who live and work under those same conditions. “If you’re sending someone to an ongoing danger zone like the Sudan or Pakistan or Afghanistan, you should think about the impact of pulling people out” on those left behind, Badlani notes.

The same holds true when evacuations occur. In the first three months after the unrest began in North Africa and the Middle East in late 2010, International SOS evacuated nearly 3,000 individuals from companies, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations in the region by commercial and charter flights, by road, and by sea.

International SOS alerts customers daily via its website so they can decide when people should be evacuated, Puig says. “Evacuations are not inexpensive events. It costs a bit of money and effort.” Corporate leaders “have to seriously think about the implications of what it means to their businesses,” he explains.

Following rotations or evacuations, succession planning becomes critical. “You want someone to be able to step in immediately,” says international HR consultant Lana G. Thompson, PHR, president of Thompson & Associates, an HR and training consultancy based in Birmingham, Ala. “The work must go on.”

The Work Continues

After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant about 150 miles north of Tokyo, fear of radiation poisoning, a shortage of supplies and rolling blackouts caused many to flee, says Brad Corbet, managing director of Spectrum Consulting, an HR consulting company in Tokyo. “Some of the foreigners that I know and even some Japanese people I know have decided to move further south or leave the country until things blow over with the radiation issue,” Corbet says. “I and others still think business needs to continue. Freaking out is not an option.”

Just a week after the earthquake, many businesses were open. Some managers allowed employees to telecommute, he notes.

“Business will continue as is. There will be a tendency for people to go elsewhere, but as for me and many of my clients and staff, we are sticking it out,” Corbet says.

After disaster struck Haiti last year, Thomas says, many of her employees left for “better job opportunities from other [nongovernmental organizations] that emerged in Haiti after the earthquake. Some migrated overseas for better opportunities for their families.”

Those “that remained with the organization became unmotivated because of financial and familial losses, feelings of helplessness, inability to travel abroad and lack of available options to help them recover,” Thomas adds.

One of her biggest challenges remains motivating those impacted by the tragedy, she says.

“I’m the HR representative, but I was also affected by the situation,” she adds. “I had to overcome as quickly as possible in order to be able to support the employees.”

The author is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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