How to Handle a Hostage Situation at Work

Bruce Willis

I will not try to make jokes with this article, as this is a very grave matter. I would also like say that these are recommendations and testimonies from experts in the field of security, law enforcement and military. Anyway, these are a few examples of how to handle a hostage situation in real life that might give you some inspiration for the workplace.

As a vicitim

If you find yourself in a hostage situation, first and foremost try to find your composure. You will most likely be in shock, full of adrenaline and have an elevated heart rate. The more level headed you are, the better control you’ll have of yourself in a very crazy and random situation. Try to be as accommodating as possible with your captors, do not antagonize them or make them feel on edge.

After six and half years of being held by the FARC (a rebel group based in Colombia) Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian presidential candidate, spoke about the experience. She attempted to escape a total of four times but was caught on each attempt. Under most circumstances, she wouldn’t have live past her first escape attempt. On her fourth and final attempt, she managed to hide in a hollow mangrove tree but was apprehended by a female guard. Ingrid was compliant but spoke to her captor, Yiseth, about her two children and Yiseth tearfully spoke about her own infant son that was living with her mother.

Inadvertently, Ingrid implemented a strategy which increases hostage survivability if it can be used, connecting with a captor will make them see you as a human-being and less likely to hurt or kill you. Ingrid did something just as polarizing though, which was to ask Yiseth to leave with her. Although her captor didn’t act violently her disposition towards Ingrid changed abruptly, she told her that if she was seen speaking with her captive they would both be killed. The guard informed Ingrid she would be taken by the male guards and “punished”.  She told her not to react and take it, as it would make the process quicker and less painful.

During this story, she unconsciously implemented another hostage victim technique, which was keeping her dignity even though she knew with almost certainty that she was going to be assaulted. If you act like a victim by begging, groveling and pleading it could lead to your captives mentally dehumanizing you, resulting in a higher risk of injury or worse, death. She stood high but without arrogance and awaited her punishment. After being hit multiple times with a heavy chain she was put back into her cage.

In the summer of 2008 Ingrid and 14 other hostages were rescued in a plot that would be appropriate for a Hollywood movie. For months, members of the Colombian Army’s Special Forces were posing as FARC commanders via radio communication with the rebels that held Ingrid and the other captives. Once the rebels were convinced of their authenticity, they were ordered to move the hostages to another location. When the helicopter with the hostages landed, they were saved by the Special Forces Operatives and returned home.

The psychology of a hostage situation

According to Dr. Laurence Miller forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer, hostage negotiations are all about psychology. As indicated by the story above it is key to gain the sympathy of your captors, connect with them (without seeming like you’re manipulating them, which is dangerous, especially if the individual you are being held by has paranoid delusions) and try your best not to be dehumanized. The first 15-45 minutes of a hostage situation are the most dangerous, so it is crucial at this time to be calm, collective and compliant.

Another case

Jessica Buchanan was a NGO teacher in Somalia educating people there on how to avoid landmines. Jessica generally taught in the government controlled area, but then she was sent to teach in a terrorist controlled area beyond a buffer zone. One day as they were returning home their car was stopped by AK-47 wielding Somalis and both Jessica and her Danish co-worker Poul Thisted were taken hostage.

Jessica’s concise training kicked in that told her to hide anger, contempt and to avoid conflict especially when the attackers are excitable and could kill them even if they had no intention to do so. At some point Jessica became defiant and even resistant, losing her composure, but Poul urged her to keep her calm and to listen to their captors’ orders.

After many days of back and forth between the NGO’s main negotiator and the terrorists, no agreement was made. This was primarily because Poul and Jessica were aid workers thus not as valuable as the terrorists wanted. They were asking for the exorbitant amount of $18 million.

Eventually the couple of aid workers were rescued by Navy Seal Special Operatives that had parachuted into Somalia, killed the captors and returned both Poul and Jessica to their homes. Now Jessica lives with her husband and child in Virginia.

The (not so) good life

Nancy Tyler met a well respected media executive and thought that she had finally achieved a perfect quaint life. They lived in a beachside house in a sleepy little town and had a happy marriage. Of course, the Media Exec wasn’t exactly Mr. Nice-Guy. A few years into the marriage Nancy realized that Richard Shenkman had a bit of an angry streak, and when I say angry streak I mean borderline psychotic. He had increasingly violent outbursts that involved yelling, screaming, throwing things and emotional abuse.

Things escalated when Richard burned down their beach house that held many of Nancy’s possessions. Escalation though generally doesn’t just happen once, it escalates further, and on July 7th, 2009 Richard took Nancy hostage at gun-point from outside her law firm. She was taken to his home and in a shocking turn of events, tear gas cannisters that were deployed by the police started a fire. When the fire department attempted to enter the house Richard shot at them, so the fire continued to burn. Shortly before this Nancy had luckily escaped from the basement where she was being held.

Do you have any other advice you’d like to add let me know below!