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What to do when workers are held for ransom
An employee is sent on assignment in Bogota, Colombia. One day he simply vanishes. HR later discovers that he has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom.
Mike Blyth, corporate vice president for the location-based risk and strategic management firm RSM Consulting, told attendees during a March 2011 webinar titled Kidnap and Ransom, sponsored by InsideNGO, that employers should have plans to deal with such situations—up to and including how to transport a body should an employee be killed.
Blyth said that contrary to popular belief, 85 percent of kidnappings are of local nationals—not expats. According to the International Statistics on Crime and Criminal Justice, in 2006, police recorded more people kidnapped from Turkey, Canada, Kuwait and Swaziland than any other countries. Castle Rock Global Insurance reports that 80 percent of those kidnapped for ransom go unreported. Experts say employers can minimize the risk of kidnapping by educating employees.
“First, assess your risk,” said Blyth, who has worked in more than 30 countries, including high-risk environments. Then “from that risk assessment, try to reduce the likelihood of a kidnapping occurring,” he said.
In addition to interviewing local staff about their observations and any perceived threats, companies should review conditions by networking with government agencies and commercial entities. They should consult with local authorities and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well to determine if other kidnappings have occurred.
“You probably want to look at direct threats to organizations or nationalities” too, he said because some groups favor Americans as targets.
If there are a lot of NGOs in the environment, create a forum. One such group is the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a division of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
He said employees should be trained to spot potential kidnapping threats before they occur.
Employees should note when they see the same faces in odd places every day, vary the times they leave from home or work, and observe suspicious behaviors of those around them.
“Make it hard for the kidnapper to know what you do every day,” Blyth said.
“People need to know what kinds of kidnappings there are,” he added. In addition to kidnappings where hostages are held in isolated conditions until large sums of money are paid, there are:
“Express kidnappings.” These occur when people are held up at automatic teller machines.
Abductions conducted by the mentally disturbed (as in the Elizabeth Smart case).
“Bride-nappings,” where newlyweds are held captive.
Virtual kidnappings, where someone is told (often erroneously) online that their loved one is being held hostage.
Should a kidnapping occur, Blyth said, hostages should know how to behave in the kidnapper’s presence.
“Avoid discussing religion. Personalize yourself; talk about your family, your children. These are all things to make sure the kidnapper sees you as a person rather than a product to sell.”
Understand how to be rescued, as well. He recounted how an interpreter was shot and killed by military rescuers after the interpreter ran toward them and they mistook him for the culprit.
“Kidnapping and ransom events can have a catastrophic impact on an operation,” he said. Experts say contingency plans should be ready to activate.
Headquarters should provide field managers with specific instructions if an employee is kidnapped. Drills should be conducted regularly so employers can practice what to do in case such a situation occurs.
Having insurance—to pay for ransoms, hostage negotiators or other related experts isn’t a bad idea, either. Yet, less than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have insurance for kidnap or ransom for their employees, according to Castle Rock Global Insurance.
“Most kidnapping events are not reported … because people don’t want to raise their profiles and be seen as an easy target for future kidnappings,” Blyth said.
Managing the Event
Once the call comes in, make sure that the kidnapper knows that they might have to talk to someone authorized to make decisions.
“It is critical that information from all kidnappers … is taken in an accurate manner,” he said. “Find out what their demands are [and] when they’ll call back and if you can speak to the hostage.” Note the ransom demands. Estimate the age of the caller; note if they have an accent or whether or not there are any background noises like trains or traffic or airplanes taking off that could support the hostage’s recovery. Note the caller’s emotional state as well.
“If they’re hyper, it could lead to the victim being in danger. Most kidnappings are purely a commercial transaction, and most result in the victim being returned unharmed.”
He said one person from the company should be designated as the person to speak to and offer support to the victim’s family. Family expenses should be paid while the employee is held hostage as well.
In addition, organizations normally should minimize contact with the news media.
Blyth recalled the story of a Turkish billionaire whose ransom was set at a minimal amount—until the media reported his net worth. Suddenly, the amount skyrocketed.
“Make sure managers proceed down a path that will protect the victim” by not discussing it with the media, he said.
“Determine the negotiation strategy: Are you going to pay the ransom? Are you going to pay it to the family so they can pay the hostage takers? Or are you going to have a no-negotiation strategy?” he said.
Although there are laws against paying ransoms to terrorist organizations, “in the history of paying ransom, people have paid terrorist groups,” he said. “It’s illegal on paper, but no one has ever been convicted of paying terrorists.”
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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