When the Worst Happens: Dealing With a Crisis While Working Abroad
While leading a research trip to Bali, I sipped my tea and watched the sunrise when the calm morning was interrupted: My colleague ran up to me and said, “We have a serious problem.” Three members of my team couldn’t find their passports, and cash was missing, too. After a quick inspection of the rooms, I noticed that door locks had been tampered with, and someone had broken into the room while they were fast asleep.
After a quick trip to the consulate and a move to a more secure hotel, everything seemed to be in order, but the feeling of being violated lingered among the team, and it took a few days to get our focus back on work.
We tend to highlight the incredible moments when we travel, but sometimes we forget to consider how the difficult moments shape our experience, too. If you are taking a team abroad, you need to know how to manage the unpredictable and make strong decisions when necessary. And it’s not just a matter of holding the right travel insurance or knowing the right people. Knowing how to manage a tough situation can mean the difference between a small hiccup and a full-blown crisis.
Throughout my travels, I’ve dealt with everything from getting dangerously ill to being stuck in country because of political protests to having team members get robbed in the field. But just because these things have happened, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped traveling or am even afraid to. Instead, I’ve become stronger at navigating situations as they happen and have helped teams stay together as they overcome major problems.
So, what do you do when something goes wrong and you are far away from home? Here are the key things to remember when the unpredictable happens.
Have a Plan in Place
I always pack two bags: one suitcase with all my clothes and trip extras, and a carry-on “be there tomorrow bag,” which I could still live out of for a week of meetings and adventure if necessary. That bag has saved me through lost luggage, delays, and in crisis situations when I need to be on the move fast.
The same approach should apply to your trip planning: Prior to your travels, come up with a contingency for plan for several different scenarios. There are a couple big ones to consider: if you lose your documents, if you get stuck in country, if a team member gets ill, if you get robbed or are under some sort of threat, and if there is an accident or disaster. It sounds a bit intimidating, but running through these scenarios beforehand can help you respond efficiently and quickly.
Specifically, make sure you have 2-3 color copies of everyone’s passports, and exchange them with different members of your team so at least one person will have a copy if something goes wrong. You should always get travel and health insurance (the quality ranges, but for a business trip I recommend the top-of-the-line options, including medical evacuation insurance). Have copies of your original insurance cards as well as your travel insurance cards.
It’s also important to know ahead of time where to go in an emergency situation. If you lose your documents, for example, you’ll need to get to your nearest embassy and consulate to replace them, so know exactly where they are.
In case of sickness or accident, know what hospitals are safest and most reputable to go to. Oftentimes, your travel insurance can help with that (and you can get seriously amazing care in many parts of the world—check out Forbes' list of top hospitals in the world. They might surprise you!).
I also advise carrying a “dummy” wallet with a small amount of local cash (maybe $20 worth and some expired credit cards), in case of theft or robbery. People are likely to grab whatever they can access first, so keep your real wallet in a safe place and the dummy wallet easily accessible.
These small actions go a long way in the field, and planning ahead and knowing what to expect can help you keep calm in a difficult situation.
Keep Calm, Act Quickly
While leading a group in India, a day trip to a historic palace in the mountains got off schedule, and the six-hour journey back to the city had to be completed at night. (Think hairpin curve mountain roads with no streetlights, and driving into head-on traffic for most of the ride.) If we stayed, we’d have to miss our meeting with potential funders in the city, and if we made the journey at night, safety would be at risk. People on my team started freaking out and blaming each other for staying on too long.
When things don’t go as planned, its easy to react too quickly and start to point fingers. But try to ensure your team avoids playing the blame game at all costs---it never helps matters, and it almost always makes things worse. And no matter what the situation, don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement. Sometimes being in a new place can make things seem like more work than they are.
As soon as you learn about a potential problem, listen and work to understand what happened and the circumstances surrounding it. Once you have all the details and a clear picture of the situation, stay calm, consult with your team, and then begin making your decisions. If presented with a tough decision—such as whether a sick colleague should stay in country or head home—remember that you don’t have to go at it alone. You’ll want to talk to doctors, the individual, his or her family, and any health or travel insurance companies, and work to gather as much information as possible.
In our case, I decided that safety was most important for the team, and we worked to set up a video conference with our funders and followed up with an in-person dinner later in the trip. It was definitely the right decision—made by being calm and flexible.
Contact the Right People
“Hi Mom, I’m being quarantined in Japan.” Those words are what no parent wants to hear, but the protocol for sick travelers forced me to stay in the country for a solid four days until a doctor signed off that I was well enough to travel. While my reports home made my parents nervous, my travel insurance representative communicated with my family that I was being well taken care of and that everything was going to be OK.
When something happens, you need to know who to inform back home—like your boss, your co-workers, or your travel companions’ family members. These are tough decisions to make, and it becomes a fine balance; use your discretion to inform and advise people back home. In a small snafu, like someone losing a cell phone, it’s probably best to replace it and wait until you get home to let people know. If there is an accident (however small), national crisis, or crime, you should call and let people know what happened (and reassure them that the situation is under control).
When I take students abroad, we often use social media to reach out to friends and family (“Our car got stuck for a bit, but we’re back on the road!”). Or in times where events like political protests or natural disasters were happening in country that made the news back home, keeping friends posted through email and Facebook or proved sufficient.
And don’t just rely on your smartphone for phone numbers—you should still be carrying around a little black book when you travel with everyone’s contact information. Before I head out on any trip, I have everyone compile a list of parents, spouses, and significant others, as well as a list of hotels, the police, embassies, and insurance companies.
You should also know who to contact on the ground in case of an incident. Especially if you’ve experienced crime or harassment, it’s important to know when to file a report with local authorities and when not to. A few guidelines: If you get robbed, or someone tries to hurt you, you should go to the police. If you are dealing with everyday street harassment or were pickpocketed of a few dollars, it’s probably not worth it. Also know that sometimes, especially in countries in conflict zones, the police can be inefficient and often ask for a gift for their work (read: bribe). If you must file a report, its always good to ask a trusted local colleague or friend to come with you so things don’t get lost in translation.
Offer Support and Encouragement
I will never forget a trip in Burma, during an especially clumsy time for me (where I had been shocked by an ungrounded electrical current and sustained a concussion in a matter of days). My colleagues, sensing that it really wasn’t my week, organized a group dinner and all pitched in to get me a first-aid kit as well as some little gifts. Even though these were things we could get so easily in the States, out in the field these items and their support meant the world. And we had a great laugh at my mishaps.
Encourage your colleagues to cultivate activities that keep morale high during a crisis, whether that’s facilitating a group discussion, having a dinner, or celebrating a success that your team has made. It’s hard to be the one to have to focus your team in a time of crisis, especially if they are feeling down or upset about something that happened. Make sure you budget time to debrief with your team and talk about strategies for moving forward and completing the work you set out to do while everything gets sorted.
If it’s a short-term emergency, try not to dwell, make sure you learn from it, then finish your work on the ground. Try to keep morale high, taking comfort in knowing that you are all in this together.
It’s easy to overthink how to respond in an emergency situation, but you need to trust your gut and make the best decision you can at the moment. Being prepared for a crisis doesn’t mean you have to live in fear or always think the worst may happen, it just means knowing what to do and how to respond based on the circumstances and culture you are in. With the right preparation and insight, you can manage any challenge that comes your way in the field.
Photo of woman traveling courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author