An Employer’s Role in Preventing Partner Abuse

By Sara Mosqueda March 5, 2021
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An Employer’s Role in Preventing Partner Abuse

SHRM has partnered with Security Management Magazine to bring you relevant articles on key workplace topics and strategies. 

For more than a year the world has been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people worked remotely as businesses shut down their offices, hoping to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Internet helped many people maintain or even enhance productivity, as well as keep in touch with friends and family, but remote work further blurred the line between work life and home life. For victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), not having a physical office to escape to heightened their risk and created potential liability for their employers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines IPV as any abuse or aggression in a romantic relationship, including physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and/or psychological aggression. Data indicates that about one in four women and one in 10 men are subjected to IPV at least once in their lives.

Before 2020, if an employee had a violent partner, then that attacker likely knew exactly where the employee would be during working hours. Offices and facilities provided staff with physical security, capable of hampering would-be attackers. But making employees aware of the resources available to anyone subject to IPV was crucial even then.

In September 2018 in the United Kingdom, Cristina Magda-Calancea was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Gediminas Jasinskas. He worked at the same factory as Magda-Calancea, attacked her when he knew she would be home from work, brutally and gratuitously stabbing her. Magda-Calancea later died in the hospital.

Tasked by the Norfolk County Community Safety Partnership, a Domestic Homicide Review Panel determined roughly one year later that Magda-Calancea and Jasinskas' employer "had previously lacked any detailed information for employees about domestic abuse." During the review into Magda-Calancea's death, the employer began working more closely with advocacy group Employers' Initiative on Domestic Abuse, utilizing a domestic abuse toolkit and establishing policies and training for staff.

As emphasized by the Norfolk panel, knowledge and awareness of a threat to staff or facilities is as vital as other security components, says Michael Crane, Esq., CPP, CEO of Securisks. Crane was a member of the working group that helped create a revised version of the ASIS Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Standard.

According to Crane, no one just snaps and attacks an employee or damages a work site for no apparent reason, adding that "there are always warning signs." And prior to the massive exodus to home offices, couches and kitchen tables because of the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral awareness training could assist in identifying potential attacks, even if the attacker was an employee's partner.

"Victims typically show signs of domestic abuse—that something's going on," Crane says. For example, if someone with a usually sunny, optimistic, or outgoing personality becomes far more reserved or otherwise exhibits behavior incongruous with their typical persona, it likely signals that something is stressing their mental and/or emotional state.

Picking up on these differences is now increasingly difficult with so many people working from home and face-to-face communications occurring largely through video chats. But whether in-person or online, Crane says, "It's a matter of training your staff and supervisors that when they see behavior that's unusual, to question it and see what's going on."

Crane participates in a weekly conference call with all Securisks employees, dedicated to what might seem to some as small talk—what's new and how the weekend went are popular topics. But Crane notes that it is an opportunity for employees to convey if they have any personal problems that could affect their work.

"It's a matter of what kind of impact you have with your staff, how well are you relating to them and determining, based on prior communication, what is going on in their life," Crane says. "That's another dimension that you never had to do before. Certainly, you were friends in the workplace and you would see if there was something going on, but now you have to make a concerted effort to reach out to your employees…and develop working relationships so you know and can tell if something is going on that's not normal."

Previously, employees could be terminated for being victims of domestic violence, reporting the abuse or a similar problem. "Years ago, companies really didn't want to face these problems," Crane says.

In January 2013, a second-grade teacher in San Diego reported to her principal at Holy Trinity School that her ex-husband had been violent, alerting the school to the risk he may pose. When Carie Charlesworth's ex-husband later approached the school, the facility went into lockdown. Additionally, the school placed Charlesworth on indefinite leave, later firing her in April. The school also barred her four children, who were attending the school, from returning.

In a letter to Charlesworth, the school's administration said that, "In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents…we simply cannot allow you to return to work there or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese."

But organizations can no longer react in a similar manner without risking greater repercussions in the courtroom or the court of public opinion.

An increasing number of jurisdictions are addressing domestic violence employment legislation, with the intent of protecting victims of IPV. "The growing state legislation should provide persuasive evidence that employers need to be aware of the potential for litigation based on laws in the states where they operate," the Journal of Management and Marketing Research noted in an October 2014 study.

Now that homes are pulling double duty as offices, awareness and an appropriate follow-up from the employer is a larger factor in determining liability.

Crane offers a worst-case scenario: an employee subject to IPV is killed or grievously injured, making headlines. The company and its supervisors will be questioned on what information they had prior to the incident, what policies were in place and if policies were followed to determine if the company was liable for the harm the employee experienced.

"The whole world will come crashing down on the company, and hindsight is 20/20," Crane says.

While a company is off the hook if it is not notified about an employee subject to domestic violence, Crane notes, that changes once the employee or someone else files a report with human resources or notifies a supervisor about the situation.

"Now it's back on the employer to decide what ramifications and alternatives can be made to alleviate a potential problem," Crane says. The company has a responsibility to investigate the issue, including finding any witnesses, determining what prompted the employee to file a report and what activity is occurring—for example, is the employee still exposed to IPV, have they involved local authorities, or was the relationship terminated but the former partner remains a potential threat actor?

To avoid a costly negligence lawsuit, the company also needs to determine if the employee is safe. Does the abuser live with the employee or can he or she be locked out? Some employers with more resources may be able to offer employees who live with their abuser an alternative office space or other problem-solving solutions—even calling the police.

Beyond ending up on the wrong side of a tort law, an employer can also benefit companywide from the alert about an employee subject to IPV. When an employee notifies a manager or human resources about their partner being violent, they also provide the employer with the opportunity to prepare for an attack on the workplace, either physically or online. According to a U.S. Secret Service report, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces—2019, many attackers had a history of criminal charges, arrests and domestic violence.

On an individual scale, addressing IPV and receiving assistance or support could put the victim on the path to mental, physical and emotional recovery, plus regaining the level of productivity lost due to domestic abuse.

Meredith Moore, founder and CEO of Greylake Training Solutions, says the pandemic has highlighted the impacts of domestic abuse and IPV, especially its potential effect on a workforce. Like natural disasters, health issues and other stressors, IPV can strain employees' mental health and resiliency, making them vulnerable to not only their abuser, but to attackers who might further use their knowledge or access of the victim against the company, too.

Crane suggests that training on IPV should also include reasonable actions that employees can take to make their homes and offices safer environments, such as installing a burglar alarm or security cameras, or making it a habit to keep a cell phone nearby. Some U.S. state and local jurisdictions have enacted legislation that requires employers to make reasonable accommodations or steps to address IPV. For example, Illinois's Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act states that providing a changed telephone number or providing time off for the victim are considered "reasonable" unless they create an "undue hardship to the employer."

If an employee is being stalked, for instance, the perpetrator could try to damage the employee's home as a scare tactic or try to gain entrance for greater access to his or her life. If an employee is in this type of situation—or any scenario where he or she feels threatened—Crane says the employee should be empowered and encouraged to call the police to report it.

According to Fred Burton, an executive director for the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, stalkers use the Internet and social media to learn as much as they can about their targets.

"Today's digital environment, where you are working from home, what I have seen is that more and more people are putting themselves out there in various social media platforms, and therefore, that's the first place that a stalker is going to go," Burton says.

The ability to find people—and a tremendous amount of information about them—in the digital world depends largely on how much is disclosed by the target or those close to the target.

"Names of family members, children, where people go to school, what kind of cars they drive," Burton says. "Your digital footprint today has also expanded with the digital COVID world that we're operating in, making it easier for a threat actor to actually find you and hunt you down."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers resources on how to stay safe on the Internet, as well as resources for employers to lean on. The hotline noted that it is possible for someone's activity on a computer or smart device to be monitored by a stalker or abuser because emails can be intercepted and browsing history is never completely erased from a device.

According to Pixel Privacy, there are some red flags that could alert someone if a stalker is spying on him or her through a cell phone, such as abnormally high data usage, unexpected reboots and if the phone's battery is draining quickly even while idle. WIRED also provides additional information on indicators of stalkerware—monitoring software used to stalk a victim—on a phone or computer.

As noted in Security Management's January 2021 article, "Stalkerware Fuels Technology-Enabled Abuse," efforts to curb the pandemic and the push to remote work correlated with a dramatic increase in bringing technology into homes. Internet of Things (IoT) devices can offer conveniences and the ability to tailor the home to the resident, hacked devices—including cameras, thermostats, speakers—can be used as weapons against both the victim and the employer.

In one of the first recorded incidents of using IoT technology to abuse a partner, Ross Cairns stalked his wife through her smart home and listening to her conversations through an iPad system, according to an article published by the Gender and Internet of Things project at University College London. With the prevalence of remote work and working from home, such devices can also be redirected by a malicious actor to monitor a victim while they work, possibly exposing his or her employer. As noted by project's article, "the sources of tech abuse are steadily increasing. In particular, the emergence of Internet-connected locks, cameras and toys will offer coercion and manipulation opportunities."

One upside to remote work is that many employees and employers have shifted training to virtual modules. For companies with virtual workplace violence, integrity or compliance training, Crane notes that behavior awareness and appropriate reactions to reports of domestic violence can be integrated into these modules, whether during initial onboarding, as an annual refresher, or both.

"You need a workplace violence prevention policy that is explained and distributed to the employees so they know what the rules are," Crane says, regardless of whether a victim is up against a stalker surveilling them online or a spouse 10 feet away. 

Sara Mosqueda is assistant editor at Security Management.

This article is adapted from Security Management Magazine with permission from ASIS © 2021. All rights reserved. 

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