None of Our Business: When Domestic Violence Comes to Work When the director of my four-year-old’s preschool called to tell me that a teacher’s battering boyfriend had threatened to shoot up the school, I found myself reacting like many employers I counsel. Yes, I was afraid that an innocent person would be harmed. Of course, I was concerned for the teacher’s welfare, shocked that someone I knew was involved in an abusive relationship, and furious at the abuser. And, I am ashamed to admit, I was angry with the teacher. “What was she thinking?” “Why on earth did she get herself in this mess?” “How when did people start using email could she let her personal problems put my child in danger?” Her personal problems are none of my business, I found myself thinking, understandably but incorrectly. Like it or not, her problem had suddenly become mine. The odds are, you’re going to find yourself having to deal with a domestic violence situation that has spilled over to the office. Domestic violence comprised 24% of the workplace violence incidents reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in their survey of businesses with 1,000 or more employees – more than “criminal incidents” at 17%. If not taken seriously, it can be lethal; homicide by domestic partners accounts for 20% of all deaths among women at work – compared to the 11 percent accounted for by worker-on-worker violence. In this article, we’ll take a look at how employers can navigate their way through one of the most sensitive examples of how personal problems can have devastating effects on work. What It Looks Like In February of 2008, the CDC released the most comprehensive US survey regarding intimate partner violence. CDC researchers asked adult participants in the 2005 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey if they would answer questions about intimate-partner violence. More than 70,000 Americans —
just over half those asked — agreed. The results: o 23.6% of women and 11.5% of men reported at least one lifetime episode of intimate-partner violence. o In households with incomes under $15,000 per year, 35.5% of women and 20.7% of men suffered violence from an intimate partner. o 43% of women and 26% of men in multiracial non-Hispanic households suffered partner violence. o 39% of women and 18.6% of men in American Indian/Alaska Native households suffered partner violence. o 26.8% of women and 15.5% of men in white non-Hispanic households suffered partner violence. o 29.2% of women and 23.3% of men in black non-Hispanic households suffered partner violence. o 20.5% of women and 15.5% of men in Hispanic households suffered partner violence. Beating Up the Bottom Line Domestic violence often follows an employee to work through harassing phone calls and letters, cyber stalking, and visits by the abuser. The workplace may often be only place where the perpetrator can gain access to the victim. In fact, they often deliberately abuse their victims during work hours because they know that victims fear losing their jobs if their employers realize what is happening. Acts of domestic violence in the workplace pose a threat not only to the victim, but also to co-workers and customers. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice recently proclaimed the workplace as the most dangerous place in America, employers have been the last to recognize that domestic abuse doesn’t always stay at home. In fact, the corporate world has traditionally remained mute on the subject. While such silence may imply a lack of compassion, it is more often due to an unawareness of the problem, discomfort with asking probing questions when suspicions do arise, or the mindset that what takes place in someone’s private life is just that. However, the economic toll domestic violence takes on American businesses is finally getting senior management’s attention. For example: 1. Businesses lose an estimated $727.8 million in productivity and more than 7.9 million paid work days annually because of domestic violence, according to March 2003 figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2. Fifty percent of domestic violence victims who are working women miss 3 days of work a month as a result of the violence, and 64 percent were periodically late. 3. Twenty percent of working battered women eventually loses their job because of it. 4. Ninety six percent of battered working women experienced problems at work because of the abuse. 5. Seventy five percent employed battered women used company time to deal with their violence because they could not do so at home. Having senior management’s awareness and support of the need to develop an action plan for domestic violence spillover at work is a critical first step; knowing what actions to take is another. Take Those Blinders Off On September 25, 2007, CAEPV, Liz Claiborne, and Safe Haven released a groundbreaking survey on corporate executives and employee awareness of the impact of domestic violence in the workplace. Surprisingly, the survey shows that a significant majority of corporate executives and their employees from the nation’s largest companies recognize the harmful and extensive impact of domestic violence in the workplace, yet only 13% of corporate executives think their companies should address the problem. The attitudes of executives differ dramatically from an overwhelming majority of employees (84%) who believe that corporations should be a part of the solution to addressing domestic violence. Part of this disconnect may be due to the fact that the birds-eye view available to senior managers prevents them from seeing domestic violence issues in their own workplace; CEOS, for example, estimated that 6% of their workforce had experience with intimate partner violence while 26% of survey employees had actually experienced it. In spite of the fact that workplace violence prevention training can easily be rolled into other topics such as professional conduct, performance management or effective discipline and termination, the majority of employers tend to bury their heads in the sand: Over 70 percent of United States workplaces have no formal program or policy that addresses workplace violence. Of the 30% of workplaces in the US that have some sort of formal workplace violence policy, only 44% have a policy to address domestic violence in the workplace. Only 4 percent of all establishments train employees on domestic violence and its impact on the workplace. Six Steps to a Safe Work Environment Individuals dealing with domestic violence at work can wind up feeling battered themselves by all the competing interests at stake. The employee/victim often looks to the human resource professional as an advocate who provides protection and, if the abuse is interfering with their work, someone who will fight to help them keep the financial independence that is such a critical part of leaving a domestic violence situation. Senior management has difficulty understanding why human resources is involved in what they perceive to be either a social problem or a personal matter, while the victim’s supervisor wants the employee to do her job – period. The key to HR’s emotional survival in these stressful situations is to know where and how to marshal available resources so your actions don’t get clouded by the emotions inherent in these situations or the competing interests of those involved. Here are six ways you can begin to create a culture that promotes safety and respect: Incorporate a specific intimate partner violence clause in your general policies on workplace safety. Make sure your policy addresses performance issues related to victims of domestic violence, provides accountability for employees who use company property (mail, e-mail, letters, phones) to harass a family or household member, and outlines the rights of domestic violence victims as they relate to the use of company time and resources to handle domestic violence and/or resulting legal issues. Educate senior managers on the critical need for workplace violence prevention training. Workplace conflict historically escalates during economic downturns, yet few CEOS recognize just how volatile the workplace can be. Coordinate with your legal and security departments to develop workplace safety response plans and provide reasonable means to assist victimized employees in developing and implementing individualized workplace safety strategies. Get the word out. Post information on domestic violence and available resources in the work site in places where employees can obtain it without having to request it or be seen removing it, such as employee rest rooms, lounge areas, as inserts in employee benefits packages and/or as part of new employee orientation. Train your managers to recognize — to be aware of signs of violence for potential victims and perpetrators. Managers should understand how to respond – to appropriately address changes in behavior that are affecting performance and to stay clear of common pitfalls, such as offering personal advice or attempting to counsel. Finally, managers should learn to whom to refer – whom to call internally and externally if such a situation arises. Make sure all HR staff is trained to deal with workplace violence issues. HR professionals are tasked with dealing with violent employee threats, yet, according to a recent SHRM study, few actually receive such training. Maintain a list of domestic violence services, including: the phone number and description of local domestic violence service providers, employee assistance, if available, and information on how to obtain orders of protection and criminal justice options. A Win-Win The significant impact on business – from safety issues to economic considerations – encourages employers to recognize that violence is not someone else’s problem. Whether employers are acting out of economic self-interest or not, businesses’ recent move toward understanding and dealing with domestic violence spillover at work is a win for everyone. HR professionals can have a strong influence in persuading senior management to give them – and the rest of the workforce – the training and support they need to deal with potentially violent work situations; there’s nothing like the threat of a lawsuit to get employers to shift a backburner issue to the foreground. Whether the motive is genuine concern for employee well-being or protection for the bottom line, the positive impact is the same. Or, as my grandmother used to say, sometimes people do good in spite of themselves.