HR professionals stand to learn some valuable lessons from the way hostage negotiators work in hijack situations. And the parallels go further than simply defusing situations of confrontation
You probably think you've survived some tough negotiations in your time but can you imagine what it's like trying to negotiate the release of 150 hostages from a plane hijacked by two strangers making threatening noises in a foreign language over the radio? As David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, who has followed these incidents for more than 20 years, says, "The hijackers will insist they're armed and for all you know they've got nothing more threatening than a brown paper bag, but you have to assume they have a gun or a bomb."
In a third of cases, according to a study by Louisville University in Kentucky, the person you are negotiating with will threaten to kill themselves - and, in one in 10 cases, that threat is carried out. The stakes are higher than the richest no-limits Las Vegas poker game and the negotiators are there, with no opportunity to throw in their cards, until the very end. And there always is an end because, unlike many conflicts in business, this is a drama which cannot be deferred or avoided, there has to be a resolution and, for the sake of the members of the public caught in it, the sooner the better.
Most of us think of hostages as airline passengers or captives in Beirut but the tactic of hostage-taking goes back at least as far as the Crusades and, for example, the holding of King Richard I to ransom.
Simon Adamsdale, director of Control Risk, a security consultancy founded in 1975, says thousands of hostages are taken around the world every year. "But in 90 per cent of the cases the motivation is money. You could say it is one of the more unpleasant side-effects of globalisation, with a growing number of expat executives as a target."
While ransoming is common in south America, say, hostage-taking is not unknown in the UK. In 1995, residents in the drought-stricken village of Cefn Hengoed, near Swansea, took two water workers hostage until the water board's "head boyo" turned up. Two years later, a Lambeth man held a gas fitter at knifepoint until he fitted new parts to his central heating system. It sounds almost comic but the fitter in question needed six months of counselling afterwards.