Best practice in family support

Organisations experiencing a crisis will work closely with the employee’s family to keep them involved and up to date, offer them support and access to services, such as counselling, and offer help with some of the practical challenges that arise. Fulfilling this role can be difficult without prior understanding of what to expect and what families need.

You can learn more about organisational responsibilities, family liaison and the experiences of hostages and their families through our training and education programme. 

Organisational preparation


Maintaining personnel data: Your HR department should hold up-to-date information on all of your employees and the next of kin or other person who should be contacted in a crisis. This information should be regularly reviewed (and in line with new EU GDPR guidelines if you are based anywhere in the European Union or equivalent data protection laws anywhere else).

Legal responsibilities and organisation policies: You must be clear about what legal/contractual obligations you have towards your employees and their families, but equally, you need to establish clear policy guidelines around how you wish to support families. Your policy will depend on your organisational culture. Does your family support include financial assistance, for example, or access to legal support?

Being a family liaison officer is not an easy job and it is essential that your organisation also provides support for your family supporters. You should have clear protocols for your family liaison officers to follow, provide them with an opportunity to debrief after a family meeting and ensure they have back-up when they need it.

Selecting Family Support Officers 

It is important that you have identified individuals within your organisation who will take on the role of family liaison in a crisis. These individuals will need to have preparation and training for the role and must be comfortable with the challenges it presents. Not everyone will make a natural family liaison officer.

The qualities you should look out for are:

• Patience

• Empathy

• Active listener

• Comfortable dealing with emotionally stressful situations and delivering bad news clearly and without evasion

.• Adept at gathering information effectively and sensitively.

It is important that anyone acting in this role is not suffering from a personal crisis.

First contact

It is essential to get first contact right – you only get one chance to make a first impression.It is important to demonstrate to the family that you are prioritising the time and resources of your organisation to secure the return of their loved one, but don’t set expectations you can’t deliver. Ensure that a senior manager is present to represent the organisation, but have the day-to-day contact lead the conversation.Ensure the tone and language of communication is appropriate. Do not say ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘It will be okay’. Ensure you have correct information about your employee and get names and roles right.Try to provide as much information as you can and be honest about information you cannot share or do not have, and explain the reasons.Be an active and empathetic listener: let the family speak and express their concerns, anger or grief. Do not interrupt them. Acknowledge their feelings and show that you have understood what they are saying.At your first meeting, ask the family how they want to handle communications with you. How often would they like contact? Would they prefer that in person, over the phone or via Skype? Who should be included in communication? Each family is different so you need to be flexible and work around what is best for the family. Bear in mind that their preferences might change over time.Wherever possible, follow up conversations and meetings with a written record as stress and trauma negatively affect our ability to concentrate and retain information.

Ongoing family support

Ensure you contact the family in the timeframe agreed, even if you do not have anything new to report.Where possible, provide as much reassurance as you can about what is being done to resolve the crisis. Explain the various tasks that your organisation is undertaking and what specialist help you may be using. Be clear in your mind about what you can share and what must remain confidential. You can tell a family that you have the benefit of specialist kidnap response consultants, for example, if this is the case, but the existence of any confidential K&R insurance should not be revealed as this may invalidate the policy to the detriment of all concerned.

Bear in mind that families are likely to have recurring questions throughout the crisis– both because they are struggling to come to terms with a particular decision or because they are having difficulty remembering information. Be patient with them and be ready to have conversations over and over.

Families may need your help to resolve practical problems they are facing, such as filling in forms, accessing their loved one’s bank account to pay the household bills or renewing policies. Helping a family to address these practical challenges can make a real difference to them.

Have a good understanding of what specialist services your organisation can access to help support the family (e.g. counselling, bereavement, medical, legal etc). You will then be ready to respond to questions or offer help at the appropriate time.

Family needs may change over time, so you may want to re-visit offers of help (practical or specialist) at appropriate junctures. But do not persist; it is the family’s choice to accept an offer of help or not.

Be consistent and follow through on your promises. Do not make promises you are not confident of keeping.

Wherever possible, warn the family about any news that might be about to appear in the media about the crisis or about their loved one before it actually does. If you are unable to do this, explain why.

Understanding the family

Families can be complicated, and therefore understanding and working with family dynamics can be challenging. There may be separations and stepchildren. There may be family feuds which mean that some members will not communicate directly with others. There may also be disagreements within the family about how the case should be handled and how you as an organisation should communicate with them. Tread carefully, create a mental map of family members and any dynamics that you need to be aware of, and do not make assumptions about family relationships.

Remember, the family may also have information that is helpful to you in resolving the crisis effectively; welcome their contributions and involve them. While some families feel unable to manage and will want you to do everything for them, many others will not want to relinquish control over what is happening to their loved one. Accommodate the individual family’s needs as much as you can.

Delivering bad news

In any crisis, it is possible that an employee is seriously injured or killed. You need to be prepared for the worst. This is a difficult job, but an important one. How this news is conveyed can have a significant impact on how the family copes.

This news is best delivered face to face. However, given the speed with which news now travels on social media and the geographic distance of some families, it is possible you will need to deliver the news over the phone or via Skype. In this case, aim to follow up the call with a face to face visit. Be prepared for the conversation. Be clear about the facts and what you do and don’t know. If you are seeing the family face to face, try to have a second person with you, whether to support you or to assist with practical challenges, such as if there are children at home.

Identify yourself, and make sure you are talking to the correct member of the family.

Speak calmly and clearly delivering the news without delay. Give the family time to take in the information and then answer any questions.

Don’t ask the family to fill in forms or make decisions at this stage. Follow up later to do this.

If you are delivering the news in person and there are children present, be conscious of the impact on them and if they are young, that they may need looking after separately as your visit continues.

Release and Repatriation

Whether you are organising the return of an employee released from detention or captivity or the return of the remains/body of an employee, repatriation involves careful planning.

The employee’s family will be keen to be involved in repatriation planning. Many family members want to go out to the country where the incident occurred; this is usually not advisable as it puts the family at risk. However, dissuading the family from making the journey must be communicated sensitively and with the appropriate explanation.

Nonetheless, the family should be consulted and involved in key questions. If it is a returning hostage, ask the family to select the clothes which you will take for your employee to change into. Consult the family on your employee’s diet and what personal items are important to him/her. If the employee has been killed, seek the family’s views on the arrangements being made and ensure that they approve.

Employer and government debriefs

Most hostages undergo a debrief shortly after their release. This is an interview carried out by their employers and/or government representatives (usually the police) to gather information about the kidnap. The debrief is intended to provide those who have been handling the kidnap and its resolution with important information which will help in the handling of future kidnaps and, in the case of police, in the investigation of the current incident and bringing the perpetrators to justice. It is also an opportunity for the released hostage to offload their story. This is often a therapeutic process for them as they begin their journey of recovery. However, it is important that the interviewer is properly trained to carry out debriefs of people emerging from highly traumatic experiences and to approach the debrief with sensitivity and understanding. You should explain to the released hostage why the debrief is being carried out, how long it will likely take and who else will be present. The hostage should be assured that the debrief is confidential. In some cases the former hostage will ask for a family member to be present. This is a very personal choice and should be accommodated if possible. Many former hostages prefer to be debriefed without any family present as they are not yet ready to share the upsetting details of their kidnap with those they love.

You should also explain to the family why the debrief is taking place.

Exit Strategies

Support for a family is rarely a one-off event. It requires ongoing contact over a period of time and the people who act in the role of family liaison officer need to recognise that there will be a time commitment over a period of weeks and maybe months, including after the incident.However, your family liaison officers also have other tasks and they need to manage their responsibilities in a way that allows them to continue with their routine activities. They will also need to tail off support over time, once they have completed the main aspects of their role relative to a particular incident. This change in rapport needs to be done sensitively. Sometimes it happens naturally, but in other cases, it may need to be communicated to the family.The timing will depend on the individual family’s needs and situation, so an exit strategy should remain flexible. It should not necessarily follow a particular timeline.Ending regular support does not necessarily mean you lose contact with the family, it just sets the relationship you have with them onto a different footing, where they are no longer relying on you for support.

Support for employees

While the main focus will be on the hostage and their family, the hostage’s colleagues will be affected by the incident too. They may be harbouring feelings of shock, guilt, and fear. Provide appropriate emotional support for them, and also consider creating a support network for them with the family and friends.

Morale among the hostage’s colleagues and peers may be badly affected. As the employer, you should demonstrate strong leadership of the case and maintain a steady flow of information to staff. By setting a good example, you will retain staff confidence and commitment and ensure a healthy team environment. This will also help the hostage’s integration back into the workplace on their return.

The incident management team will be working under intense pressure and in difficult circumstances. Provide them with appropriate emotional support for them, during and after the kidnap crisis; it is vital that their needs are not forgotten.

You can learn more about organisational responsibilities, family liaison and the experiences of hostages and their families through our training and education programme.