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Ask HR: Can an Employee Avoid Working with an Abusive Ex-Spouse?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. 

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


My ex-husband just applied for a job with my company. Although I never reported it to the police, he physically abused me during our marriage. Can I stop him from working here? —Kim 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry to hear about your experience. While you may be unable to prevent him from working at your company, you may still have recourse, depending on your circumstances.  

Check your company policies regarding the employment of relatives or family members. Frequently, employers have set guidelines for when relatives (including ex-relatives) can work together at the company. Typically, relatives are not permitted to work for the same supervisor and/or are not allowed to supervise one another. If this is the case, you could advise your HR department of the relationship so they can decide on your ex-husband's application. 

Alternatively, if you have evidence of the abuse or are still dealing with its repercussions, you can still file a police report. Depending on the behavior's severity, frequency and pervasiveness, you may even want to consider getting a restraining order against your ex-husband. Should you obtain one, be sure to share the information with your HR department. Given the circumstances, HR must assess how to comply with the restraining order.  

Even if you don't get a restraining order, you can still go to your HR department to discuss the previous situation with your ex-husband. Convey your reasons for not reporting the situation sooner. Communicate your concerns regarding your ex-husband's access to you at work and the potential danger to your well-being. Provide your company with the documentation, and ask them to consider your concerns as they make their employment decisions. It's possible that if your ex-husband is hired, HR can take steps to ensure there is minimal contact between the two of you. Some states even have mandated protections in the workplace for domestic violence victims, and employers may be required to make reasonable accommodations, such as schedule modification or leave. 

Justifiably, if you separated yourself from an abusive relationship, you should not be forced to relive it. I hope these solutions help protect your physical and mental safety.

I work at a water utility that is a 24/7/365 operation, requiring two people to be stationed at computers all day, every day. These are shared workstations, and our chairs are in disrepair (torn, dirty, smelly) from years of continuous use. My supervisor has tried for several years to get us new chairs. Still, the personnel director has vetoed his request and told him that "we should get up and walk around more," something we literally cannot do, as we monitor complex public water systems via computer. I am not sure why HR (which consists of one person) has any say over whether or not we can have a new chair. How can we get a new chair and remove HR's control over the matter? —Gregory 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: This situation sounds extremely frustrating, especially since your supervisor's requests have been repeatedly rejected. If your organization is on a tight budget, HR may be trying to minimize spending. However, you may want to avoid assuming why the request is denied. If you feel comfortable, request to meet with HR or ask your supervisor to meet with them to review the details of why the request continues to be denied. They may not be fully aware of the condition of the chairs or perhaps of the utility's obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's (OSHA's) General Duty Clause, which requires an employer to provide a safe work environment free of known hazards, including ergonomic hazards. Standing up intermittently throughout the day is a good health practice, but not a reason for an employer to ignore the need to provide proper chairs for the remainder of the time.  

Depending on your organization's structure, this issue may necessitate involvement beyond HR. One avenue for requesting new office furniture is following your internal grievance procedures, which could escalate the issue beyond HR for the required approval. 

Another approach may be to follow your employer's workplace safety guidelines and request an ergonomic study of the workstations. An employer representative responsible for workplace safety often conducts these studies. Alternatively, the utility could assign a workers' compensation insurance provider to conduct the study. A formal review of the workstations and equipment often results in a written report with recommended changes to the workstations intended to reduce potential health hazards, including back or other health issues.  

Ultimately, your workplace and workspace should appropriately support the work performed. If your work environment hinders your ability to perform your job effectively, it should be addressed, especially given your position's critical nature. I hope your employer will understand the need to provide good working equipment, but if not, don't turn this into a stalemate—take care of your health and do what is best for you. If you can't resolve your issue with HR or by escalating your situation, you are free to file a confidential complaint to OSHA about your concern.  


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