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The Fundamentals of Alerting Employees About Their Daily Commutes

New York City is crowded, loud, gritty, and, in some cases, can be downright rude. But it’s also the financial capital of the world and one of the richest cities in diversity and culture, truly representing the melting pot ethos of the United States. While it may sometimes be portrayed as crime-ridden thanks to the numerous crime and police movies and procedurals set in the city, New York City is actually one of the safest major cities in the nation.

Nonetheless, the impacts of civil disturbances, homelessness, and mental illness foment the perception that this urban setting is dangerous. With so many corporate headquarters and industrial-commercial operations based here, professionals focused on safety and security operations must be concerned about this perception and shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that colleagues and visitors feel safe.

As security practitioners, we must seek alignment with senior leaders, as well as with our counterparts in corporate communications, human resources, and legal to ensure that our functions and responsibilities are performed in good faith while also exercising due care to ensure the safety and security of others. This all starts with effective communication.

In some instances, employers may have difficulty disseminating security-related information that could be considered as too scary or off-putting. After all, some employers may already be frustrated with employees’ resistance to returning to the office.

An argument can be made that while employees are typically safe and secure within the confines of an office, one of the most dangerous times of any employee’s day occurs during his or her commute. An organization may not be responsible for what occurs while an employee is on a bus, riding in a subway car, or walking on the sidewalk while going to and from work, but it does raise the question: where does an organization’s duty of care start and end?

Although I’m not an attorney, I do believe that as security practitioners we have a moral and legal obligation to do everything we reasonably can to ensure the protection of employees and advance our businesses’ interests.

While employers are not generally liable for their employees during their commutes, there is a recognized common law duty regarding taking reasonable measures to care for the health and safety of employees. This includes effectively communicating any potential hazards or concerns that are reasonably foreseeable.

Although it is understood that many people receive alerts on cell phones or follow news feeds—such as the Citizen app (which provides users with real-time safety and 911 alerts and information) or local news channels—security practitioners cannot assume that information specific to a user’s location is being addressed, received, or read. With these gaps in mind, there are methods and tools that security leaders can use to keep their team and other employees throughout an organization informed and protected.

The How

While it might not explicitly be an organization’s responsibility, consider providing employees with information about potential impact to their commutes, particularly if there is an issue or incident occurring in or near the direct vicinity of the business. Ask yourself: Is the situation likely to impact an employee’s approach, access, or entry to the facility? If so, you will want to communicate with them and provide guidance.

So, how do you determine when to communicate with them and the best medium to do so?

Situations can change at a moment’s notice, and having a reliable and timely method of messaging staff is essential. It can help to have pre-canned messages written well ahead of time, providing an agile and effective method to get the word out.

Some organizations use email or mass communications systems, which send messages or alerts. Other organizations instead choose to post on an internal message board or intranet site. Ensuring that employees have provided current contact information with periodical checks can assist in delivering messages to the appropriate people and minimize the likelihood of undeliverable emails.

For employees already on site, especially if a notification is pressing, organizations may want to consider utilizing speaker systems for delivering timely mass communications messages throughout a facility. These messages do not have to be long but should at least inform staff about the general issue and could include how to find out more information. When these messages are already crafted in advance of anticipated issues or threats, their expediency and succinct ability to deliver information can benefit staff.

One practice that should not be relied upon is reliance on simple word-of-mouth. Alerts passed down from various managers or supervisors are not efficient and do not guarantee accuracy.

The What

When it comes to crafting messages—especially ones scripted in anticipation of incidents, events, and emergencies—establish guidelines on what information needs to be broadcast with other departments, including corporate communications, legal, and human resources.

The frequency of these alerts is also worth considering. Messaging about a protest or environmental hazard in the area resulting in street closures may receive more interest from employees, whereas an alert about inclement weather can be perceived as white noise. You may want to limit inclement weather alerts to imminent situations, such as flooding, tornadoes, ice storms, or other events that can impact the business and employees’ commutes.

Consider having two categories of messages: alerts and bulletins.

Alerts. Alerts are for imminent situations that can impact an employee’s ability to approach, enter, or depart from the business or a facility. These messages should be succinct and easy to understand without being alarmist. These should generally be delivered through a mass communications system to those who might be impacted by the event, such as through text messages.

For example, “A protest is occurring in the area near the Elm Street side of the facility. Please be advised of potential street closures and/or impacts on public transportation in the vicinity. Employees are advised to avoid the protest area and use the Main Street entrance to the building to enter or depart from work.”

Another example: “Building management has reported that ice is falling along the Main Street side of the facility. Please use the facility door on the Elm Street side of the building for entry or exit until further notice.”

Bulletins. Bulletins should be issued in situations or incidents that might be occurring nearby and merit at least an informational output. These messages can include additional details, such as a map to point out particular sites or paths, or other instructions. Bulletins can effectively be issued via emails, internal Web postings, or in newsletters to broader audiences as an organization sees fit.

For example, “Police are reporting that pickpockets have been targeting people carrying purses or bags along Second Avenue, near Park Street. Please exercise care and secure your belongings. You should also avoid using cell phones while walking along the street or riding on the subway. Be alert. Report any suspicious activity to the police or security at XXX.”

Or another example: “Vehicle break-ins have been reported in the areas of First Street and Park Avenue, impacting the parking lots near our facility. Please ensure that your vehicle is secured and do not leave any valuables or personal items—such as backpacks, coats, or phones—visible inside of your car. Be alert and report any suspicious activity to the police or security at XXX.”

With this latter example, it would benefit employees to include a map indicating where this activity is occurring, along with any guidance provided from law enforcement.

The When

Timing is critical, particularly for alerts. Messaging needs to be accurate, streamlined, and updated when necessary. When appropriate, follow-up messages can involve a cancellation or rescission notice, issued through the same format as the original message.

Avoid getting mired in constantly asking for permission. If you need to consult with corporate communications, human resources, leadership, and others to get consensus before sending out every message, then the message’s output is likely to be delayed, diluting the value of the communication. Having to go through layers, waiting for approvals and decisions from several others, will impede progress.

Instead, connect with decision makers in advance about which messages should go out in response to events. Prior to an incident, have templates in place and ready to disseminate through the approved channels. Discuss emergency action plans with unit leaders and be certain that they understand how and what will be communicated, where to go to get additional information, and what steps to take in the event of an emergency or crisis when he or she is in the office or commuting to or from work.

The Why

While these kinds of alerts and bulletins might be perceived as too concerning or even unnerving, I would advocate that it is better to inform employees about threats instead of ignoring them.

When I served a well-known corporation that had locations impacted by crimes in the immediate area or its facilities, we provided messaging and awareness to employees. I can attest to the fact that the positive feedback from employees that received that messaging far exceeded any negative concerns—especially about the messages being alarmist or scary. In fact, in my more than 10 years of corporate security in major cities, I cannot ever recall coming across any such complaint.

New York City has seen some of the most tragic events, notably the 9/11 attacks. But those same attacks were a lesson, showing that determining who was heading for the offices or near the Twin Towers was just as important as accounting for the employees already in the buildings. While we may not have an explicit responsibility for protecting people during their commute, we can certainly contribute to their safety and well-being. Afterall, isn’t that what we are here for?

So, whether you are working in New York City or New Mexico, duty of care is more than just a moral obligation—it is a good business practice. As security practitioners, we must consider the variables involved and make timely decisions on the impacts while seeking to best prevent any issues that could endanger that obligation. And the number one job in duty of care is to communicate. 


Eduardo Jany is a senior executive in global safety and security for a global media organization, providing security management and leadership for more than 10 subsidiary organizations. He is also a consultant and has led award-winning units in physical security, protective operations, travel, crisis management, and event security efforts covering more than 25,000 people at more than 190 offices worldwide. Jany received a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Wisconsin and is a frequent author and lecturer. He is also an active member of ASIS International, ISMA, OSAC, and DSAC.