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It was 3am on a bleak February morning in central Moscow, and blood from the gaping wound in Charlie’s liver was drenching his white sofa. Stabbed and robbed in the courtyard below, the young Rothschild banker had dragged himself to his apartment before collapsing. But Charlie’s problems had only just begun.
It was 2013, and his housemate, Jack Coleman, had been in Russia long enough to know that calling an ambulance was futile. Even if it arrived, it would require difficult bribes to get the wounded man treated, says Mr Coleman, who says the law firm employing him had the number of a travel security company. A frantic phone call found him speaking to medics in Australia just as Charlie, 26, went into shock.
The company scrambled a special ambulance to take the young banker to a private hospital, but as he was wheeled into theatre the surgeons demanded a fee of €8,000 before they would operate. Charlie, who asked for his full name not to be used, faced a total bill of €30,000 for the saving of his life - money that Mr Coleman managed to borrow that night over the phone.
Charlie’s story illustrates the nightmare for employers who send staff to far-off locations — the problem of managing the real if small risk of serious physical harm to employees with attendant financial or reputational damage to the company.
Most expat business people are not in extremely dangerous places such as Iraq or Libya, but instead face relatively low-level threats of theft, extortion, muggings and requests for payments to hasten bureaucracy in airports or customs. All this creates a web of pitfalls for travellers who suddenly find themselves under pressure to make deals and meet deadlines in alien environments where they do not understand the language.
“Central business districts can seem relatively benign, but you don’t have to walk far to find yourself in a very different situation,” says Mark Whyte, director of crisis and security at Control Risks, a consultancy.
Approaches to travel security have become much more sophisticated over the past 10 years, he says, partly driven by legislation such as the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which can discourage exposure to sticky situations. Even more important is greater awareness of companies’ duty of care and the ability to communicate regularly with staff thanks to mobile communications technology.
“It has moved to a broader range of issues, involving human resources and health and safety rather than just ‘security men in mirror shades’ who provide armed protection. It is seen as a business risk,” Mr Whyte says.
But, however much you prepare your staff to spot the signs of potential danger and respond accordingly, unexpected things can still happen that demand a C-suite response, as boards will be held to account when things go wrong. If a company has insufficient planning or ineffective crisis management, and an employee is injured, disabled, kidnapped or killed, unwanted media attention and litigation can follow.
Some risks are less obvious. One of the largest threats is driving, says Nick Doyle, head of security risk management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Kroll, a consultancy. In some emerging market countries, infrastructure is poor, roads are in a dangerous condition, and drivers are unqualified and unsafe, especially at night.
Cyber crime is also a problem that many companies should be more aware of, he says, with criminals mimicking legitimate WiFi networks to persuade travelling employees to hand over security details.
“Everyone’s been there,” Mr Doyle says. “You are trying to get internet access and you might end up using your personal email because can’t log on to the company network, using systems that aren’t secure and opening yourself up to significant risk.”
The type of business you are engaged in is also a factor, such as litigation or a merger. When talks over litigation in one west African country collapsed at the eleventh hour, a covert protection service had to fly western executives out immediately to avoid a potentially threatening situation with angry locals, Mr Doyle says.
Threats change on almost a daily basis in some locations, and risk managers recommend the use of specialist travel advisory services that monitor risks and can integrate their services with a company’s travel management plans. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, for example, and increased activity of armed militias in north Africa and the Middle East are forcing companies to reassess risks more frequently.
For the next level of risk, particularly for extractive industries such as mining, there is hostile environment training, where executives are exposed to simulations of the sorts of worst case scenarios that can occur. One such real life example for the oil and gas sector was the January 2013 terror attack which killed 39 foreign workers at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, which involved BP and Statoil.
Companies naturally keep their security policies close to their chests. Banks and oil companies approached for this article declined to comment. But after his brush with death in Moscow, Charlie says there were several steps he could have taken to minimise the risk, such as keeping a cheap emergency mobile phone at hand containing essential numbers, using a more responsive and accessible medical insurer, and avoiding wandering around alone in the middle of the night.
He was lucky to have flatmates nearby and a good employer. “You need a framework or structure in place to react quickly if things go wrong,” he says, adding: “But, as a young man going to these places, you’re not always going to make sure you are paired up with someone else when you go out. Life like that could get pretty dull.”