Security in Office Closure
If your organisation has multiple offices, and sub-offices, in a variety of countries the security manager will need to have carefully considered the security of those offices when they close. Offices close for a variety of reasons. For humanitarian aid organisations it could be because the emergency if over. For others, it could be due to lack of funding, or the completion of the project. No matter the reason, careful planning is necessary when considering shutting down an office or programme. Office closure takes time and this good planning and careful communication can alleviate most, if not all, the security concerns. This article covers the main security elements related to closing an office and gives some advice on what needs to be considered and when.
Planning for the close of an office is the most important element in the closure process. Getting this right can negate most security concerns. If it is done incompletely, however, it can create or increase security concerns. News of an office closure spreads quickly no matter how private senior managers try to keep the information. This means that from the time the issue is first discussed, senior managers have very little time to develop a plan and communicate it to staff before the rumours start about why the office will close and when it will happen. Rumour control is possibly one of the most important aspects of office closure and it starts right at the planning stage. Even before a complete office closure plan is developed managers can help staff feel more comfortable by communicating often with staff about it, letting them know that there is a plan and that they will be included in it. The worst position an employee can be in is one where his/her financial welfare and stability is being thrown into question with no understanding of why or how this will happen – or when. Organisations have an obligation to their staff to communicate accurately and transparently as the process continues. While no one likes to be the bearer of bad news – such as that staff are going to lose their jobs - it is far worse to let the rumour mill and imaginations spin out of control in the absence of any communication from management.
The announcement that an office is closing will likely exacerbate any problems the office already experiences. This is especially true in allegations of favouritism. As the office’s operations wind down and gets closer to closing it likely that not all staff will be made redundant at the same time. Fewer and fewer will need to be employed until the final close. Who is kept on and why can lead divisions – especially in locations where a careful ethnic diversity in hiring has been maintained due to security concerns.
"There have been incidences where the mishandling of office closure has resulted in the death and injury of humanitarian workers."
Included in this is planning should also be consideration for the personal safety and security of managers who will be responsible for closing the office. There have been incidences where the mishandling of office closure has resulted in the death and injury of humanitarian workers. In 2008, for example, the head of the World Food Program’s (WFP) sub-office in Lokichoggio, Kenya was shot dead by gunmen on his way to work in a clearly marked WFP vehicle reportedly due to enmity with some local contractors and/or staff who were unhappy with how the closure was being handled. When an office closes a lot of responsibility, as well as pressure, can be put on a few remaining staff and they need good support and to know what decisions they are able to take independently and what the limit of their authority is during that time.
An organisation should be aware that during an office closure the balance of power within an organisation can also shift. While previously, the most important person to the staff and the local community might have been head of office, who made decisions about how the office would operate, or the HR manager, who made decisions about hiring, during office closure this power can shift to the Finance and Administration department who are now responsible for receiving and giving out payments or the Logistics staff who are the ‘gatekeepers’ for the disposal of assets. This can put finance, admin, and logistics staff in positions where they are being pressured to commit theft or fraud by other staff or the local community and they should be given specific advice on how to handle and report such pressure.
Of course, it is not enough to have a good plan for closing an office. That plan must be communicated to staff and there needs to be a way to continually dialogue with staff about any issues which arise during the period of office closure. An excellent resource tool to help organisations consider the different risks in office closure has been created by the European Inter-Agency Security Forum (EISF) and can be found online here.
Informing partners and the community
Some of the first people who need to be informed that the office is closing, after their own staff, are the members of the community, local officials with whom the organisation maintains close liaison. Spending some time making sure they understand why the organisation is shutting down in that location will help avoid misunderstanding throughout the closure or as misinformation and rumours spread. If the communities or local authorities are not informed in good time it is possible that they will begin to assume the worst about the organisation.
If the organisation works with any local partners, or local suppliers, they should also be told in detail about how/when the organisation is leaving and discussion had about the impact this will have on them. This is especially true if those local partner is solely reliant on your organisation for funding or you have worked with them for a long time. The closure of an office can have a massive impact on their operating budget, their ability to employ staff, and possibly fulfil other projects.
To avoid theft and fraud, the organisation should be very clear with local partners, local communities, and vendors that they have processes and procedures for winding up operations - especially related to the sale and disbursement of assets. This can help to prevent people from assuming that since the your organisation ‘doesn’t need this anymore’ that they are welcome to keep/take it. Local communities and authorities can be very sensitive about the transfer of assets to other areas and some organisations have experienced protests against them because of this. If you are planning to transfer the vehicle, staff, or projects from one area to another – especially if the other area is a different ethnicity/part of the country – this can contribute to dissatisfaction and needs to be handled carefully. Local communities do not always understand the nuances of donor/organisation requirements so simply saying that items, or programming, is being moved due to donor wishes is not always welcome.
Most organisation will have a number of contracts with vendors – such as vehicle or guard companies – as well as with landlords – for the use of office and accommodation and warehousing. In preparing for an office closure these should be informed in writing of the organisation’s intent to leave as well as the implications for the current contract. Most often vendors and landlords will seek full payment for the amount/time agreed in contracts if they know the organisation is leaving and this will need to be factored into the budgeting. Having vendors or landlords unhappy with the departure can make continuing operations during the closure very difficult.
Closure and employees
There are several security related issues that can arise from an organisation’s own staff during an office closure. Obviously most of this relates to the termination of employee contracts and cessation of benefits. When employees lose their source of income this can put them in a difficult financial position, especially if it is unexpected, or is in areas where there is high unemployment and jobs are difficult to find. The best advice an organisation can follow is to look at all staff contracts as soon as the decision to close is taken and note what is promised to staff in them. How long the staff person has been with the organisation as well as what the country’s labour law says, will impact the obligations owed by the organisation. In almost all cases it is best to retain a lawyer to provide some advice related to the termination of staff. The cost obligation to terminating staff can also be significant as there will be pensions, outstanding health care requirements, leave, and possibly separation benefits due to the staff.
Some of the staff will be required to work until the last day and the office is officially closed. A lot of times these are the staff who, upon hearing that the office is closing, will be immediately looking for employment elsewhere. Some organisations offer bonuses to staff who are willing to stay until the final day in order to ensure that they have enough assistance to close the office.
Another problem that an organisation might face in office closure is the ‘leak’ of assets. Security managers should be wary of an increase in reports of mobile phones or computers being ‘stolen’ or ‘broken’ in the run-up to office closure. When employees are first informed that the office is closing they should also be informed of what the plan is for the disposal of assets – especially ones that they might possess or use frequently. An attitude of ‘I need this phone, computer, office supply more than they do’ can result in a steady leak of missing items from the office.
Asset disposal & fraud
Planning for asset disposal is perhaps one of the best ways to ensure the security of the organisation’s assets during an office closure. This means having a good inventory and asset list prior to even beginning the planning for office closure. At the time the decision is taken it should be immediately checked and updated. Almost all donors will have rules and requirements for how assets which have been purchased with their funding need to be disposed of. Some items can be given to staff, some will need to be sold, and others can be gifted to local partners.
When operations are functioning normally most organisations have policies and protocols in place to detect and monitor for fraud. When these are changed, such as during an office closure, the likelihood of theft and fraud increases. This is partly due to the movement of a potentially greater number of assets – especially capital items such as vehicles, furniture, etc. – but also due to the financial insecurity that some employees might feel when they know that their previously secure jobs are coming to an end. People who might not have been tempted before to take items could do so now if they feel the organisation’s closure is putting them under financial pressure and the closure also provides some justification in their minds (e.g. “My organisation is closing anyway so they won’t mind / have no more use for x.”) Fraud and theft are not always committed because a person is greedy or malicious. At times, this financial pressure puts them in a position where they feel they have no other choice to provide for themselves and their family – especially as they are about to lose their job.
Benefits fraud is another form which employees may resort to when they know their jobs are ending. This is when an employee submits fraudulent submissions in expectation of a cash reimbursement. This could be a health care claim, or any other purchase which is claimed but does not actually occur. Regular policies and procedures to detect fraud should remain in place throughout the closure of an office but organisations should be especially aware of any costs or requests for reimbursement which seem to rise particularly – such as health reimbursements or a spike in overtime hours.
Despite an office winding down its operations there can still be more financial transactions taking place than normal. This is due to making final payments to staff and vendors as well as dealing with the sale of assets. Wherever possible payments should be given and received in the form of cheques or bank transfers. This will reduce the amount of cash that is being held in the office or transferred between the office and bank. However, when it is necessary to keep unusually large amounts of cash in the office this should be done under tight information security with as few people knowing about it as possible. Movements to/from the bank should not be written on in/out boards and finance and administration staff should be supported so that they are not put in security situations due to their proximity to cash. Read more on this in our blog on cash security by clicking here.
Overall security plan & monitoring
No matter the precautions and planning that an organisation takes things can still go wrong. Assets could still be stolen; staff could still be unhappy to the extent that they try to harm others. Given that the process of office closure increases the risks to the organisation considerably good implementation of the normal security plan and procedures until the very end of operations is important. It is during this time that staff can become lax about implementing security protocols and procedures – especially if they never much liked, or understood, them in the first place. A driver who has only driven under the speed limit and worn a seat belt previously because he was afraid if he didn’t he could lose his job might begin to drive recklessly or not wear seat belts thinking, ‘well, I’m losing my job anyway!’. Senior managers should be vigilant to the impact this attitude could have on increasing organisational risk and make sure that security management is stressed in the communication about the plan for office closure.
Overall, office closure will invariably create new security risks for the organisation as well as exacerbate existing ones. Careful planning will address many of these risks as will careful communication to key people who contribute to the overall security of the organisation.