Domestic Violence Takes Toll at Work

By Beth Mirza Aug 2, 2011
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At the next company staff meeting, take a look around the room and consider this fact: One in every four women and one in every nine men are victims of domestic violence.

According to research from the University of Arkansas, the odds are that someone in your workforce is being abused emotionally, mentally or physically. And it is very likely that the abuser is harassing that person at work: 74 percent of women who are victims of domestic violence receive threatening phone calls or visits from their abusers at work.

In a webinar on identifying and protecting employees from domestic violence in the workplace, experts from Allied Barton security services discussed signs that indicate that employees might be suffering at home and precautions that employers can take to safeguard people in the work site.

Ken Bukowski, vice president of health care at Allied Barton, and Bob Chartier, vice president of business development, led the webinar. Domestic violence, they said—whether through physical, emotional or mental abuse—is used to gain and maintain control over the victim. People from all ethnicities, economic statuses, sexual identity and ages can be victims and perpetrators.

Domestic violence leads to increased absenteeism, turnover and health care costs and to decreased productivity. Chartier said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found domestic violence to cost companies $5.4 billion annually.

Often, victims don’t tell HR or safety teams that they are being abused, Chartier said. But if an employer suspects that an employee might be the victim of domestic abuse and that the abuser might attempt to harm the employee or others at the workplace, the employer must take steps to protect the workforce. Under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are required to take “feasible steps to minimize risks” in workplaces where “the risk of violence and significant personal injury are significant enough to be ‘recognized hazards,' ” according to a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration letter of interpretation.

‘Protect the Company’

“If an employer recognizes an issue, then you should take steps to protect the company,” Chartier said. “Take necessary steps to protect the employees. Report incidents to law enforcement if needed. Discuss the problem with the legal department, HR [and] principals at the organization, and then make a collaborative decision on reasonable next steps.”

Managers and supervisors who suspect an employee might be suffering domestic abuse should look for a pattern of the following behaviors, according to the Allied Barton experts:

  • Arrives late or early to work.
  • Takes unplanned time off.
  • Productivity decreases (perhaps from taking repeated, harassing phone calls or visits and inability to concentrate).
  • Avoids windows or doors and main entrances to the building.
  • Wears long sleeves or sunglasses at inappropriate times (to conceal injuries).
  • Shows physical injuries.
  • Has sleep or eating disorders.
  • Shows fear, anxiety or depression.
  • Is fatigued.
  • Startles easily.

Domestic violence can affect others in the workplace, too, Bukowski said. Co-workers might:

  • Fill in for the absent worker.
  • Feel resentment for having to pick up extra work.
  • Fear for their safety.
  • Be distracted from their work.
  • Try to protect the co-worker from calls and visits.
  • Be confused about how or whether to intervene.

Employers might hesitate to approach an employee to discuss abuse, Chartier said, because they don’t know how to help or they want to respect the employee’s privacy. He suggested asking a supervisor or close co-worker to approach the employee and offer support, telling the employee that help is available, that his or her co-workers will believe what he or she has to say, and that no one deserves to be hurt. Be sure not to ask what the employee did that might have instigated the injuries or why the employee doesn't just leave the abuser—those questions can erode trust.

Employers can help by:

  • Offering the services of the employee assistance program. Don’t try to counsel the person on your own.
  • Asking the victim what changes can be made to the work environment that would make him or her feel safer.
  • Save any threatening messages received at the workplace for future legal action.
  • Put barricades—such as plants and partitions—around the employee’s work area so that the perpetrator can’t walk directly to him or her.
  • Give the employee priority parking and an escort to and from the parking area.
  • Change the employee’s office phone number and remove the employee’s name from automated contact lists.
  • Install panic buttons for the employee and receptionist.
  • Ask local police to patrol the parking area.
  • Educate employees companywide on domestic violence, pulling resources from local domestic violence organizations, the police department and the district attorney’s office.

If the employee refuses help or denies that any abuse is going on but the employer still suspects that the employee is being abused and that the abuser might come to the workplace, then the employer still has a responsibility to protect the employee and co-workers on the premises, Chartier and Bukowski said.

“If they don’t want assistance, that’s their prerogative,” said Chartier. “The employer can still take reasonable steps and educate the workforce” about possible threats, including telling security officers to be on the lookout for the abuser. “Ultimately, it is up to that individual to take safe steps themselves. You can’t enable everyone. But you can take prudent steps to help.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at​

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