An acute crisis challenges any business, but for today’s international, interdependent companies, the complexity of responding is greatly multiplied. Intricate supply chains cross national boundaries: a US company might design a product in Japan, manufacture it in India, and distribute it in Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. Doing business in each of these countries is difficult enough. Four of them are also kidnapping hotspots.

The effects of a crisis in one jurisdiction can be felt across a business. A natural disaster in Japan or Thailand derails the global release of the next must-have gadget. One man with a gun and a cause in a Sydney cafe triggers a crisis that consumes a European brand in Australia. The victims are from all over the world. While the loss of life is the greatest tragedy, the collateral damage will include a company’s morale, reputation, operations and finances.
For a multinational business experiencing an acute crisis such as a kidnap or hostage-taking, there is no option to seek resolution in isolation. A multilateral response is the only way out of these complex crises. There will still be significant hurdles. Some of those will come from the very parties being affected.   

Conflict within a crisis

Just as the external business environment becomes more varied, so does a company’s internal landscape. As multinational businesses enter new territories, often via joint ventures, responsibility for risk mitigation and crisis response diffuses among multiple stakeholders. That said, ultimate responsibility and accountability for risk mitigation and crisis management remains with the parent organisation. 

A US company dealing with the kidnap of a French employee in Libya must resolve an acute crisis within the rules and regulations of at least three countries. Making this work requires an elusive level of international collaboration and a deep understanding of the laws, regulations, political landscape, business and national culture, and language of each jurisdiction. 

Potential stakeholders in a kidnap-for-ransom involving three victims of three nationalities employed by two different companies

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Early frustrations and complex dilemmas will arise from conflicting policies and competing priorities. Multiple cultures and languages will create communication barriers. If a company and its joint-venture partner have differing policies on acceding to varied types of demands, the victim’s peril endures and increases until a compromise is reached. Alternatively, commercial stakeholders may be in agreement, but disagree with the advice given by government entities. And what if the governments involved offer conflicting advice? Add this to the more traditional issues a kidnap provokes: a divided family, company conflicts between legal and HR functions, and consular advice that conflicts with the message from home.  

Organisations behave differently in these high-pressure crises. Companies, for example, will often share information more openly among stakeholders. Governments, which consider issues of national security to be paramount, often prohibit open dialogue in sensitive cases. Governments may act unilaterally in exercising their sovereign rights to protect their citizens at home or abroad. 

The option of unilateral intervention is a notoriously difficult dilemma for governments and the results of this kind of action are mixed; many end in tragedy despite the best intentions. An attempt in Yemen in December 2014 ended in the death of a US kidnap victim and also of a South African national who may have been hours away from a long-awaited freedom. Algerian forces resolved a much larger incident in January 2013 by taking unilateral action at the In Amenas siege, but with a significant number of hostage fatalities. The victims who lost their lives represented a range of nationalities from an array of employers, all with a vested interest in their safe and timely release.

A problem shared

The threats we face from kidnapping constantly evolve, but never recede. Kidnappers, driven to achieve ever greater ideological and financial success, relentlessly innovate. They learn to apply extreme pressure more efficiently, and to leverage social tools to disseminate their message to the world. External political or economic changes can quickly see dormant trends resurface. Within this maelstrom of change, one constant remains: the duty of care for an employee rests with the employer, without regard for governments and other stakeholders. These issues will only become more complex as we weave our international businesses more tightly together.