Global Risk Society and Duty of Care
Part I: Global Risk Society and Duty of Care
This first article will deal with the origins of the duty of care concept. I will use sociological risk theory to analyse its emergence during the era of economic globalisation.
Lego manufactures bricks in China, Arla sells milk in Saudi Arabia, Mærsk sails ships through the Suez Canal, passing the Horn of Africa on the way. Danish organisations are getting progressively bigger, taking part in and shaping globalisation. While the phenomenon of globalisation is not new, it can be hard to define for most people. The transnational movement of people, ideas, and goods has been occurring for centuries, however an exponential leap within globalisation has been occurring since the 1980s. Rapid advances in transportation, and not least the emergence of online networks, has compressed the world and in a sense brought people closer. Geographer David Harvey has famously termed this ‘time-space compression’.
The pursuit of competitive advantages and increased profits are the most fundamental reasons why organisations cross borders and seek new markets. This creates a hyper-competitive arena, in which organisations no longer only compete with national rivals, but with organisations from all over the world in an extremely dynamic environment where opportunities and risks rapidly emerge and transform. This means that organisations must be prepared to adapt and seek new markets in which the operating procedures are perhaps not as straightforward or apparent as expected.
The rapidly changing operational environment has brought positive as well as negative consequences, with the optimism surrounding globalisation partly being replaced by apprehension, uncertainty, and a feeling of loss of control. Globalisation has led to an array of new risks and uncertainties. Climate change, terrorism, mass displacement, and crime are risks that the global citizen needs to navigate, but which can seem abstract and unfamiliar.
In his theory of risk society, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1986) highlights how society has become more aware of risks. Beck associates globalisation with a new and more reflexive modernity that replaces the industrial society with a risk society that is governed by uncertainty. Where many risks are real, others are not. Some risks have visible consequences in the present – incidents that we can observe – and other risks arise from socially constructed conceptions about what can become dangerous in the future.
While Beck concedes that globalisation is not the only reason for this change, he points out that the perception of risk has been particularly affected by globalisation. Though risk can be defined as a mixture of probability and consequence, this equation is not always easy to solve and is nearly impossible to estimate objectively. The perception of risk is continually affected by different factors, particularly the development of the media’s capability to rapidly disseminate information across the world. The media’s portrayal of threats, crises, and catastrophes across borders affects the public perception of risks and the global environment more broadly. This may have an impact when organisations send employees abroad on business.
The socially constructed nature of risks leads to questions of how risk levels are defined and who defines the risk appetite. There have been more than 2,000 deaths due to traffic accidents in London in recent years, a number that far exceeds the amount of casualties from terror attacks. However, a bomb in a public space could have a far greater impact on one’s willingness to visit London than mortality statistics from traffic accidents. Dramatic events receive more attention and greatly affect our risk perception, sometimes in defiance of rational calculations of probability. In this way, risks are both real and imagined at the same time.
The German cybernetics and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann, reflects upon how modernity has changed risk perception, stating that people nowadays operate under the expectation that something bad will occur. This general uncertainty is contributing to an increase in the complexity of society, and consequently, we find ourselves in a time where awareness of risks and risk assessments are becoming indispensable parts of our everyday lives.
With regard to risk, the central perspective in Luhmann’s theory is not how unexpected and distressing incidents occur, but rather an observation of how these incidents can be traced back to human actions. Luhmann provides an understanding of how risk is connected to human decision making. Decisions taken in the present become binding actions in the future. This leads us back to globalisation and the increase in international business operations. Organisational decisions about, for example, opening a branch in a new market result in a string of risks. Despite the fact that some 3
of these risks might be known in advance, unknown dangers and risks follow as unanticipated consequences derived from decisions made in the past. It is only possible to observe the output of these decisions in the future, which by then will be the present. This leads to an acknowledgement that “risk cannot be avoided, no matter when something is decided, nor if it is decided not to decide anything”.
Hence, attempting to create security implicitly creates risks at the same time. An organisation can attempt to protect its employees when they travel around the world, but risks will regardless be associated to that decision. An organisation’s attempt to secure its employees should, in the best case, be done based on a thorough analysis in which most risk scenarios are projected. However, as we cannot possibly predict all future consequences of the decisions we make, organisations must build resilience and robustness against unforeseen events.
A security manager can impose rules and regulations, but if the employee does not follow these rules or if an unpredicted incident arises, it will be uncertain whether the risk mitigating measures will be sufficient. Furthermore, it is unknown whether the information on which the security manager builds his assessment is adequate. Globalisation plays a significant role here; an increase in dynamism and the interplay of unknown factors adds significant vulnerability. It is only in the future that it can be determined whether the implemented measures will be sufficient and appropriate. Therefore, the only concrete thing an organisation can do is to act in the best interest of its employees. This is where duty of care comes into the picture.