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Domestic Violence Still Seen in Workplace, Despite Supreme Court Ruling

A distraught worker with hands to her head at her computer

A U.S. Supreme Court decision has affirmed that it is unlawful for a person subject to a domestic violence restraining order to have firearms, but preventing domestic abuse from spreading into the workplace remains a challenge for HR professionals.

In the case before the court, a domestic violence restraining order was issued against the respondent in this lawsuit. He later was indicted on one count of possessing a firearm while subject to the order in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(8). At the time, such a violation was punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment—the maximum sentence has since been amended to 15 years. The respondent moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that Section 922(g)(8) violated his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

In United States v. Rahimi, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 922(g)(8). “Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” the court stated. “As applied to the facts of this case, Section 922(g)(8) fits comfortably within this tradition.”

When an individual poses a clear threat of physical violence to another, the threatening individual may be disarmed, the court ruled. The right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited, the court stated.

Domestic Violence Affects Many Workers

Domestic violence is a full-blown epidemic in the U.S. The impact on those targeted often extends far beyond their homes—including into the workplace.

“It’s a common misconception that domestic violence only occurs inside the home,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline in a statement to SHRM Online. “In reality, domestic violence happens outside the home all the time, but people do not recognize more subtle forms of abuse that don’t involve physical violence, like emotional, financial and/or digital abuse. When domestic violence does occur in the workplace, it may look like harassment, intimidation or manipulation by an abusive partner.”

If an employee discloses that they are the target of domestic violence, HR should ask whether they feel safe in the workplace, said Rachel Ziolkowski Ullrich, an attorney with FordHarrison in Dallas.

“If there is an immediate concern for the safety of the workplace, call 911,” Ullrich said.

HR can ask questions to understand if there is a likelihood of the perpetrator carrying out threats or violence in the workplace, said Karen Tynan, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Sacramento, Calif.

“Asking questions and looking to understand threats, behaviors, and risks is critical,” she said. “HR professionals have this skill set to investigate and understand the risks and any actions to take. Alerting security and preventing a person from coming on to the premises while an investigation is carried out or while HR is developing a plan is a great first step, too.”

Employers can provide a photo of the perpetrator of domestic violence to relevant onsite staff to raise awareness in case the individual shows up at the worksite, said Daniel Birnbaum, an attorney with Seyfarth in Chicago.

But at the same time, keep information about the domestic violence as confidential as possible, said Elissa Rossi, vice president of compliance services at Traliant in New York City. “Let the employee know that the organization may need to disclose the circumstances to a limited group,” she said.

Consider upgrading door locks if there is a concern that security may be compromised, Birnbaum said. Employers also should consider adopting a workplace violence prevention plan, which is now a requirement in California.

The employer can discuss with the employee possible accommodations to improve workplace safety. “It could mean having someone walk the employee to their car, increasing security, changing the employee’s work [phone] number or email address, or locking doors during the workday,” Ullrich said.

If the employee discloses that they feel unsafe at home, put them in contact with your employee assistance program or your local domestic violence shelter, Ullrich recommended. If they need time off to move or attend court appearances, determine if there are any company policies or state or local laws that would allow for this leave—paid or unpaid, she added.

At least 25 states require employers to provide unpaid or paid leave as an accommodation to employees who have experienced domestic violence, Rossi said.

When the Perpetrator and Survivor Work for the Same Employer

If the abusive partner and survivor are employees in the same workplace, there are actions an employer can take.

When there are criminal charges pending or a restraining order between two partners, employers should refer to internal policies and consult with legal counsel, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline in a statement.

If there are allegations of abuse but no criminal charges or restraining orders, consider the following actions recommended by the hotline:

  • Schedule the survivor and abusive partner for different shifts so they do not work at the same time.
  • Do not schedule the survivor to work at times when there are not many people around, such as early mornings or late nights.
  • Make sure the survivor’s schedule is private.
  • If all-staff meetings are held, offer multiple sessions with the same information so the survivor and abusive partner can attend at different times.
  • Ensure the abusive partner does not have access to files that would reveal if the survivor changed their phone number or physical address.

If the perpetrator violates employer policies, the employer should pursue appropriate disciplinary measures, Rossi said.

“The safety and well-being of your employees is tantamount,” Ullrich said. “Treat employees who come to you saying they are victims of domestic violence with dignity and respect, and keep the information they provide to you confidential, disclosing only to those who need to know.”

Follow applicable laws and “remember that you are their employer, not their family, friend, or therapist,” she said.


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