The growing threat of terrorist attacks domestically and globally means boards must look to protect their businesses and staff, writes Kath Walters.

    Our first reaction to the tragic attack on the Lindt café in Martin Place, Sydney, last December is to mourn the human loss and suffering. And rightly so.

    In the aftermath, however, much will change, and boards will be among those undertaking a review. The siege has forever changed the landscape for one of the key elements of corporate governance – providing a safe working environment for company employees.

    Before that horrible day, the renowned chocolate company, Lindt & Sprüngli, which is listed on the Swiss Stock Exchange, could justifiably have argued that it was inconceivable a member of the public would come into the café, lock the door behind him, and twist a place of delights into a scene of terror and pointless violence. As of 15 December 2014 the company could never again make such a claim.

    Should such an event ever happen again, the community would be justified to point the finger at the company’s board and say: “You knew this was possible because it happened before.”

    Be prepared

    As is often the case, the decisions facing boards are a balancing act. How much can be spent on preparing for a very unlikely scenario? How much freedom are companies and their staff willing to trade off for their security?

    Banks, insurance companies and large media companies are among those corporations that have made their choice. They protect their staff with security gates,
    security staff and computerised appointment systems. If an appointment is not scheduled on the system, a visitor will not be allowed entry. Staff are trained in what to do, and what to say.

    Security gates and armed guards will not do for cafés and restaurants. But training is possible, and now it is necessary. Attacks on cafés and restaurants involving firearms and hostages are not as rare as we might think.

    Just two months before the Lindt café tragedy, an armed bandit shot and injured a woman in a café in western Melbourne and took her hostage.

    In 2011, men wielding an axe and a tyre iron held up three McDonalds restaurants in three nights.

    Worksafe Victoria even has a one-page safety bulletin on how small businesses can reduce the chances of a robbery.

    Sadly, in the US, the incidence of disgruntled postal workers turning guns on their colleagues is so common that “going postal” is now a euphemism for feeling angry and vengeful.

    Boards need to ask themselves whether recent events have changed the safety risks their staff face.

    Can simple measures be put in place? Should cafés and restaurants ensure that their doors cannot be locked from the inside by anyone other than staff?

    Many petrol station attendants now work behind bulletproof glass at night for their protection, but not during the day. Part of the horror of the Lindt siege was that it happened in broad daylight. Is it time for a review?

    Well-researched information is available on the web as a starting point. In 2000, the Australian Institute of Criminology published:  Violence in the workplace –  preventing armed robbery: a practical handbook.

    Most of its recommendations could apply equally to a siege situation. The report recommends that companies have written armed hold-up and robbery prevention policy and strategy documents.

    It also provides 17 guidelines for staff during an armed hold-up or robbery including:

    • Cooperate with robbers and give them what they want.
    • Listen attentively to robbers and be courteous and patient.
    • Do not risk harm to yourself or others. That is, do not be a hero. 
    • NEVER try to grab a weapon.

    But how far are boards to go? We live in a free society. We neither want, or need, to become obsessive about security.

    In fact, many people believe that increasing security at the expense of freedom is handing victory to the fanatics, as the enormous public marches in France attest in the days following the terrorist attacks on the staff of the French satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hedbo.

    And, if perpetrators are acting as a result of mental illness, surely the solution is to get them help earlier.

    It is this difficult balance that is the board’s role.

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