Out of the Shadows

Domestic violence is often treated as a shameful secret. But it threatens employees’ safety and productivity. Here’s how HR professionals fight back.

By Dori Meinert October 1, 2011
October Cover

Yvette Cade excelled at her job with T-Mobile, where she was Maryland's top salesperson of the year for 2004. But her on-the-job achievement was at odds with the dark secret of a violent home life.

During Cade's four-year marriage to Roger Hargrave, her husband repeatedly choked and hit her. After she left him, he stalked her.

She feared for her life. But she feared losing her job more. That's why—even after a night of menacing threats—she went to work as scheduled on Oct. 10, 2005.

"I was afraid to miss work because I wanted to get out of this situation. I didn't want to be without a job," she says.

When Hargrave entered the T-Mobile store in Clinton, Md., that morning, Cade was working with a customer. She tried to ignore him. But he doused her with gasoline carried in a Sprite bottle and set her on fire.

"I felt the fire just ripping at my back," Cade recalls. She remembers seeing what she thought was flesh dripping from her face. It was her hair melting in 1,500-degree flames.

"It hurt really bad. I was thinking I was going to die. I wanted to raise my daughter. She was 11."

Cade, then 31, was burned over 65 percent of her body. She lost parts of her ears. Her lip melted to her chin. She spent three months in intensive care and has endured 33 surgeries so far. Her body bears extensive scars. She has limited use of her hands. She says she'll never be able to work again.

While many employers don't believe domestic violence affects their companies, 21 percent of U.S. working adults say they have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to a 2005 survey by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence in Bloomington, Ill. Of those, 64 percent said the abuse affected their work. When that happens, productivity and morale can suffer. Health care costs go up. And, as the abuse escalates, experts say abuse victims and their co-workers could be at risk for physical harm.

Yet 70 percent of companies don't have formal workplace violence prevention programs. Of the 30 percent that do, fewer than half have policies to address domestic violence in the workplace, according to a 2005 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study.

A small but growing number of corporations with domestic violence policies are calling attention to the issue in October, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

"If you are not addressing this issue, you should be. And if you think it's not happening, you're wrong. Nothing is ever solved by pretending it's not a problem," says Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, SPHR, vice president of health and wellness at Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., and a domestic violence specialist.

By providing support for abused employees, chief executive officers and HR professionals may be able to prevent workplace tragedies and improve the bottom line.

"The saddest part is when we get the phone call after somebody has been killed. We want to talk to you before something happens in your workplace, not after someone has died," says Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

Too Personal

Many leaders are reluctant to pry into employees' personal affairs.

In a survey of 200 CEOs commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2007, most agreed that domestic violence was a serious issue, but 71 percent said it was not a problem at their companies. Only 13 percent said companies should play a major role in addressing such abuse.

"It's a problem that people don't like to admit because it feels ugly," says Jane Randel, senior vice president of corporate communications, who spearheaded Liz Claiborne's domestic violence program two decades ago. "It's so stigmatized that the victim is embarrassed to come forward, and we're embarrassed to ask about it, to even inquire 'Are you OK?' "

The Toll

When researchers at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas studied domestic violence in the workplace four years ago, they were surprised by what they found. They surveyed three large companies with employees in 39 states.

Of 2,374 respondents, 10 percent said they were currently being abused. That suggests that one in 10 employees in any given company is being abused right now, says Anne O'Leary-Kelly, a management professor who conducted the study. Nineteen percent of the current abuse victims said some abuse was occurring at work, including stalking, threats and physical aggression.

Aside from the human toll, domestic violence has a financial impact on companies. In 2005, University of Georgia researchers surveyed 8,000 women who reported losing an average of 7.2 days of productivity at work due to their most recent incidents of abuse. In addition, professors at The Ohio State University found that physically abused women spend 42 percent more on health care a year compared to women who aren't abused, according to their 2007 study of 3,333 women who belonged to a Pacific Northwest health care system.

All About Control

Education is an integral part of corporate domestic violence prevention programs. Employees are taught that abusers' need for power and control typically drives such violence.

"This is not the fault of the survivor," says Dolan-Del Vecchio. Domestic violence is "perpetrated by the batterer. It's not invited. It's not solicited. It's not provoked. Those are all myths."

Like most victims, Cade was abused emotionally as well as physically. Her husband belittled her, cut her off from her family and controlled her every move. The only freedom she had was when she was at work. Still, he would call her repeatedly. "He would make me nervous. I would put him on hold and keep working," she says.

Even after she had a protective court order against him, he was allowed into the store to pay his phone bills, she says.

In a written response, T-Mobile officials stated that they don't comment on specific employee workplace issues for privacy reasons, but that T-Mobile conducts annual training on employee safety and has a leadership team available to respond promptly to threats.

After the attack that left her severely burned, Cade's ex-husband was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder.

‘The employer has two jobs: to provide a safe environment for employees and those around them, and then to be a conduit to those who can help.’

Without intervention, abusive relationships aren't likely to get better with time. "If you help a victim get that intervention, you may very well see it get rapidly better. But if you do nothing, it will not cure itself. In most cases, it will escalate,"

Dolan-Del Vecchio says.

For that reason, several times each year Prudential uses e-newsletter articles, workshops, webinars and videos to teach its 20,000 employees that domestic abuse victims who ask for help are to be commended, he says.

The message he wants victims to hear: "We see you as someone who is courageously trying to do your work at the same time that you are trying to handle an extraordinarily difficult situation. We want to help you."

How Domestic Abuse Victims' Work Is Affected

Of 252 employed adults who identified themselves as domestic violence victims, 64 percent indicated that their ability to work was affected. They identified these causes:

Fear of discovery45
Harassment by intimate partner at work, by phone or in person40
Fear of intimate partner's unexpected visits34
Inability to complete assignments on time24
Job loss


Source: Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, 2005 survey of 1,200 full-time employed adults. Multiple responses allowed.

Reaching Out

Yet HR professionals and managers don't have to know all the answers.

"We don't have to know how to counsel people. We just have to know where to refer them. That, to me, is the biggest stumbling block," Randel says. "The employer has two jobs: to provide a safe environment for employees and those around them, and then to be a conduit to those who can help."

Liz Claiborne trains its employees to "recognize, respond and refer." The HR team wants employees to:

  • Recognize warning signs. Does an employee wear long sleeves in the summer? Act distracted? Jump when the phone rings?
  • Respond by reaching out. Ask if there's a problem. Show concern.
  • Refer the employee to experts in an employee assistance program or a local shelter.

Balancing the individual's right to privacy with the company's need for security is another challenge for HR professionals, says Annette Martinez, vice president of operations for human resources at State Farm Insurance Cos. "We're trying to be sensitive to the person being threatened but still make sure we're protecting everyone else," says Martinez, who works with her company's security and legal teams.

If managers suspect abuse, HR professionals advise them to focus on the employee's performance. In that conversation, managers can ask if there's anything else they should know. "You don't want to start right away with 'What's happening in your life?' That's too personal," she says.

Of 863 threats reported by State Farm employees last year, 20 percent were related to domestic problems, says Dan Consalvo, manager of corporate security, who works closely with HR professionals on cases involving intimate partner violence.

Employees can file reports of actual or potential threats electronically or by phone. The threat assessment team talks with the individual to evaluate the seriousness of the threat. In high-risk situations, the team seeks advice from an outside threat assessment company.

The team may add the alleged abuser's name and photo to its "Do Not Admit" list, which is checked by guards at entrances. Victims may be escorted to the parking lot at night. Harassing phone calls can be blocked. Victims may receive time off or use flexible work hours for court appearances and counseling. In some cases, State Farm has agreed to transfer employees to offices in other regions.

HR professionals should be aware that their workforce may include abusers as well as victims. In a survey of 152 male offenders conducted by the state of Maine in 2004, 78 percent said they used workplace resources at least once to express remorse or anger toward, check up on, pressure, or threaten the victims. A prohibition on using equipment and resources to harass others—either as part of a domestic violence policy or other corporate policies—may make it easier for the employer to take action when violations occur.

Researchers found that 42 percent of the offenders were late to work because of their behavior at home.

At Prudential, suspected abusers are encouraged to contact the employee assistance program for help. But HR may never know if they do so. As with most employee problems, HR professionals must focus on the employee's performance and behavior at work. For example, the HR professional might say, "When you raise your voice and slam the receiver down, that's a disruption in the workplace and that cannot occur anymore.

In drafting a domestic violence policy, HR professionals should be aware that their workforce may include abusers as well as victims.

You can't say things to other people that would scare the average person," explains Dolan-Del Vecchio.

If performance or behavior problems continue, the company terminates the person's employment, Dolan-Del Vecchio says.

Likewise, the employer sometimes may have to take a tough stance with victims. If the abused employee refuses to involve police or cooperate with the company's security plan, she places her co-workers at risk. While offering support, the employer might need to require the victim to notify law enforcement as a condition of employment, adds Jonathan A. Segal, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Duane Morris LLP.

But that should happen only as a last resort, he says. Some states allow companies whose employees have received threats to obtain their own restraining orders to keep an abusive partner off the premises.

Plan and Implement

HR professionals don't have to reinvent the wheel. Model policies are available from the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence and a federal website, www.workplacesrespond.org.

Of course, a policy isn't any good without a plan for implementation. "Be specific enough to have a road map but not so specific that you're locked into steps that may not be feasible, because failure to follow those guidelines may be used against you" in court to show negligence, Segal advises. The company's attorney should review the domestic violence policy and implementation plan before they are finished.

Meghan's Story

No one at Prudential Investment Management suspected that outgoing Meghan Williams, a senior investor operations specialist, was being abused by her fiancé at home. She says she was too ashamed to let anyone know—even her family.

"I was very brainwashed into thinking that everything happening in the relationship was my fault," says Williams, 32.

Her bruises were hidden by clothing, but the late-night arguments would leave her exhausted at work the next day. "It was all about control. He wouldn't want me to sleep."

After a violent incident in 2009, she called the police. "I was terrified for my life," she says. Yet "I didn't think of myself as abused. I still blamed myself."

At that point, she had to ask her supervisor for time off work to go to court for a restraining order. Her supervisor alerted HR professionals and security.

"I had a huge concern that people would judge me," she says. But they quickly demonstrated that they were there to support her. They arranged for her to meet a counselor from the employee assistance program, which she describes as her "lifeline." She met with security officials to help them make a risk assessment.

Her job at Prudential bolstered her confidence. While her fiancé was telling her she was worthless, her boss was praising her work. "That planted a seed for me," Williams says. "When I was here at work, I felt good because my job validated me. It made me feel good about myself, and no one in my life had ever done that."

Desiring to help other abused women, Williams discussed her experience in a video shown to Prudential employees as part of its prevention program.

"Making that choice and getting out is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams says. "But every morning when I wake up, I am so thankful and grateful and happy."

Legal Risks

To minimize legal risks, be proactive: Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, Segal says. If the victim is severely injured, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act may come into play. Untrained managers may run afoul of privacy laws. Widespread posting of an alleged abuser's name or photo may be grounds for a defamation lawsuit.

More than 40 state laws provide some workplace protections for domestic abuse victims, ranging from mandated leave to prohibitions on firing of crime victims simply because they are victims. Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws providing unemployment insurance for abuse victims in certain situations, according to Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum, a women's advocacy group.

"Clearly, prevention is far less costly than responding to an issue once it's happened," Jacobs says.

Six months after her husband set her on fire at her workplace, Cade shared her battle for survival on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to inspire other victims of domestic violence. She still occasionally appears at events drawing attention to domestic violence and ways to prevent it. She wants more employers to train employees to recognize and help workers who are abused at home.

"Just give people the knowledge," she urges.

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

Has your company assisted an employee who is the victim of domestic violence? What lessons have you learned along the way?

How should employers and co-workers respond to an employee who is being abused at home?

What advice can you share on drafting a domestic violence prevention policy or program?



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