Best practice in family support
Having a staff member kidnapped, held hostage, detained, seriously injured or killed presents a huge challenge for any organisation. Not only will you need to deal with the crisis itself, you will be required to support the family and colleagues as well as help the returning employee to reintegrate on their return.
Preparation in good family support
Selecting the right people as family support officers
It is important that you have identified individuals within your organisation who will take on the role of family liaison in a crisis. These individuals will need to have preparation and training for the role and must be comfortable with the challenges it presents. Not everyone will make a natural family liasion officer.
The qualities you should look out for are:
• Active listener
• Comfortable dealing with emotionally stressful situations and delivering bad news clearly and without evasion.
• Adept at gathering information effectively and sensitively.
It is important that anyone acting in this role is not in a personal crisis themselves.
Maintaining personnel data: Your HR department should hold up-to-date information on all of your employees and the next of kin who should be contacted in a crisis. This should be regularly reviewed (and in line with new EU GDPR guidelines if you are based anywhere in the European Union or equivalent data protection laws anywhere else).
Legal responsibilities and organisation policies: You must be clear about what legal/contractual obligations you have towards your employees and their families, but equally, you need to establish clear policy guidelines around how you wish to support families. Your policy will depend on your organisational culture. Does your family support include financial assistance, for example, or access to legal support?
Being a family liaison officer is not an easy job and it is essential that your organisation also provides support for your family supporters. You should have clear protocols for your family liasion officers to follow, provide them with an opportunity to debrief after a family meeting and ensure they have back-up when they need it.
Good family support practice
Organisations experiencing a crisis will work closely with the employee’s family to keep them involved and up to date, offer them support and access to services, such as counselling, and offer help with some of the practical challenges that arise. Fulfilling this role can be difficult without prior understanding of what to expect and what families need.
It is essential to get first contact right – you only get one chance to make a first impression.
It is important to demonstrate to the family that you are prioritising the time and resources of your organisation to secure the return of their loved one, but don’t set expectations you can’t deliver. Ensure that a senior manager is present to represent the organisation, but have the day-to-day contact lead the conversation.
Ensure the tone and language of communication is appropriate. Do not say ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘It will be okay’. Ensure you have correct information about your employee and get names and roles right.
Try to provide as much information as you can and be honest about information you cannot share or do not have, and explain the reasons.
Be an active and empathetic listener: let the family speak and express their concerns, anger or grief. Do not interrupt. Acknowledge their feelings and show that you have understood what they are saying.
At your first meeting, ask the family how they want to handle communications with you. How often would they like contact? Would they prefer that in person, over the phone or via Skype? Who should be included in communication? Each family is different so you need to be flexible and work around what is best for the family. Bear in mind that their preferences might change over time.
Wherever possible, follow up conversations and meetings with a written record. It is widely understood that stress and trauma negatively affect our ability to concentrate and retain information.
Ongoing family support
Ensure you contact the family in the timeframe agreed, even if you do not have anything new to report.
Where possible, provide as much reassurance as you can about what is being done to resolve the crisis. Explain the various tasks that your organisation is undertaking and what specialist help you may be using. Be clear in your mind about what you can share and what must remain confidential. You can tell a family that you have the benefit of specialist kidnap response consultants, for example, if this is the case, but the existence of any confidential K&R insurance should not be revealed as this may invalidate the policy to the detriment of all concerned.
Bear in mind that families are likely to have recurring questions throughout the crisis– both because they are struggling to come to terms with a particular decision or because they are having difficulty remembering information. Be patient with them and be ready to have conversations over and over.
Families may need your help to resolve practical problems they are facing, such as filling in forms, accessing their loved one’s bank account to pay the household bills or renewing policies. Helping a family to address these practical challenges can make a real difference to them.
Have a good understanding of what specialist services your organisation can access to help support the family (e.g. counselling, bereavement, medical, legal etc). You will then be ready to respond to questions or offer help at the appropriate time.
Family needs may change over time, so you may want to re-visit offers of help (practical or specialist) at appropriate junctures. But do not persist; it is the family’s choice to accept an offer of help or not.
Be consistent and follow through on your promises. Do not make promises you are not confident of keeping.
Wherever possible, warn the family about any news that might be about to appear in the media about the crisis or about their loved one before it actually does. If you are unable to do this, explain why.
Families are complicated- understanding and managing family dynamics can be difficult. There may be separations and step children. There may be family feuds which mean that some members will not communicate directly with others. There may also be disagreements within the family about how the case should be handled and how you as an organisation should communicate with them. Tread carefully, create a mental map of family members and any dynamics that you need to be aware of, and do not make assumptions about family relationships.
Remember, the family may also have information that is helpful to you in resolving the crisis effectively; welcome their contributions and make them feel involved. While some families feel unable to manage and will want you to do everything for them, many others will not want to relinquish control over what is happening to their loved one. Accommodate the individual family’s needs as much as you can.
Delivering bad news
In any crisis, it is possible that an employee is seriously injured or killed. You need to be prepared for the worst. This is a difficult job, but an important one. How this news is conveyed can have a significant impact on how the family copes.
This news is best delivered face to face. Only under the most exceptional circumstances should it be delivered over the phone or Skype.
Be prepared for the conversation. Be clear about the facts and what you do and don’t know. Try to have a second person with you, whether to support you or to assist with practical challenges, such as if there are children at home.
When you arrive, identify yourself, and satisfy yourself that you are talking to the correct member of the family. Speak calmly and clearly without delay.
Give the family time to take in the information and then answer any questions.
Don’t ask the family to fill in forms or make decisions at this stage. Come back another time to do this.
If there are children present, be conscious of the impact on them and if they are young, that they may need looking after separately as your visit continues.
Release and Repatriation
Whether you are organising the return of an employee released from detention or captivity or the return of the remains/body of an employee, repatriation involves careful planning.
The employee’s family will be keen to be involved in the repatriation planning. Many family members want to go out to the country where the incident occurred; this is usually not advisable as it puts the family at risk. However, dissuading the family from making the journey must be communicated sensitively and with the appropriate explanation.
Nonetheless, the family should be consulted and involved in key questions. If it is a returning hostage, ask the family to select the clothes which you will take for your employee to change into. Consult the family on your employee’s diet and what personal items are important to him/her. If the employee has been killed, seek the family’s views on the arrangements being made and ensure that they approve.
Support for a family is rarely a one-off event. It requires ongoing contact over a period of time and the people who act in the role of family liaison officers need to recognise that there will be a time commitment over a period of weeks and maybe months.
However, your family liaison officers also have other tasks and they need to manage their responsibilities in a way that allows them to continue with their routine activities. They will also need to tail off support over time, once they have completed the main aspects of their role relative to a particular incident. This change in rapport needs to be done sensitively. Sometimes it happens naturally, but in other cases it may need to be communicated to the family.
The timing will depend on the individual family’s needs and situation, so an exit strategy should remain flexible. It should not necessarily follow a particular timeline.
Ending regular support does not necessarily mean you lose contact with the family, it just sets the relationship you have with them onto a different footing, where they are no longer relying on you for support.
Hostage International is a charity that offers free and independent ongoing support to families of hostages wherever they are and for however long they need it and also to returning hostages. If relevant and appropriate to a crisis your organisation is dealing with, Hostage International’s details can be given to a family or returning hostage as part of your exit strategy.