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Domestic Abuse Reports Fueled by More Remote Workers

A woman is sitting in front of a window with her hands on her chin.

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

The separation of work and personal life has always been tenuous. Employees take work home with them, and their personal challenges follow them to work every day. Sometimes these challenges are innocuous—an employee's child got a bad report card, and the employee is distracted thinking about it all day. But sometimes these challenges have more serious implications—an employee's ex-spouse has been making threatening calls to the organization, stalking her to work and posing a security risk to the employee, her coworkers and the organization.

In the past, "There was a real belief in the world of business that domestic violence was a personal matter," says James Cawood, president of Factor One, a threat assessment and management organization in San Leandro, Calif. "That was something that the individual had to deal with. There was no responsibility on the part of the business. And that was something that needed to evolve and change."

As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes workforces to stay home under shelter-in-place orders and lockdowns, employees who are working remotely are increasingly at risk for abuse—especially from intimate partners quarantined with them.

"When you designate a workplace, that becomes something the organization is required to take into consideration for the health and safety of the individual," Cawood says.  "If I allow an employee to work from home one or two days a week with flex scheduling—or in the case of the pandemic, I'm assigning them to work from home—that becomes their designated workplace. The minute that becomes their designated workplace, all the safety provisions come into play. That's always been true. But in the case of domestic violence… if we're assigning them to work from home, we're in essence responsible for their safety to a certain degree when they're at home, and that includes safety from their own spouse during work time."

"The fact is: domestic abusers are all about control," Cawood adds. "Male or female, they are exerting control over people they perceive they have the right to control." However, the coronavirus pandemic may be exacerbating abusers' cravings for control, especially as their situations—including jobs, health, routines and outside social connections—may be in flux, leading them to potentially take their frustration out on a spouse or intimate partner.

"It's an overall bad multiplication of risk factors, which is why we're seeing increased calls and increased reports of domestic abuse," he says.

"Domestic abuse is a little bit of a different creature, legally, than workplace violence in a robbery," says labor and employment lawyer James Curtis, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw. "There are different tools that employers should be thinking about and using to assist in their employees' situations." Curtis recommends making domestic abuse part of the organization's overall workplace violence prevention program and surveying employees to identify different areas that could pose significant hazards—unsecured entrances, unlit parking lots and public-facing jobs that make access to employees easy.

In addition, organizations should provide a confidential conduit for employees to disclose concerns or abuse. "It's a very sensitive topic, and people are very reluctant to share that there is an issue," says Curtis. The organization can't help employees unless it knows about a problem. "So you need to make sure there is a system in place to notify either HR, their supervisor or a hotline so that they can do so confidentially with the comfort that they know it's not going to become the subject of workplace gossip," he continues.

A Widespread Problem

The United Nations (UN) estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner, and some studies show that up to 70 percent of women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. In the majority of countries with available data, the UN reports, less than 50 percent of women who experience violence seek help; less than 10 percent seek help from law enforcement.

Recent estimates from the United Nations Population Fund released in April suggest that the first three months of the coronavirus-related quarantine will result in a 20 percent rise in intimate partner violence worldwide—approximately 15 million additional cases.

In the first 11 days of lockdown in France, reports of domestic violence across the country jumped by more than 30 percent, and in Paris alone, cases were up by 36 percent, according to France's interior minister. In the city of Jingzhou, China, police received three times as many domestic violence calls in February 2020 than in February 2019, according to a Council on Foreign Relations brief.

"If the lockdown continues for six months, 31 million additional gender-based violence cases can be expected," the UN report noted.

In the United States, more than 10 million women and men are physically abused by an intimate partner each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). IPV encompasses physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression perpetrated by a current or former spouse or dating partner. U.S. crime reports suggest that 16 percent of homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

On the job, 40 percent of women who died as a result of workplace violence in 2016 were killed by domestic partners or relatives, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to a 2006 study from the BLS, nearly one in four large private industry organizations had reported at least one incident of domestic violence—including threats and assaults—in the previous year.

Domestic violence affects men as well. A 2018 study in the United Kingdom found that 9 percent of British men (1.4 million people) had experienced some form of partner abuse. A 2014 survey in Canada found that 4 percent of men and women reported being victims of spousal violence in the previous five years. However, less than 20 percent of male victims will tell the police or a health professional about the abuse. According to BLS statistics, only 2 percent of men who died of workplace violence in 2016 were killed by a domestic partner or relative. That is not to say, however, that men are less likely to be victims of intimate partner violence, Cawood says.

"Since 1985, the U.S. government and Canadian government have known that the initiation of physical violence in intimate partner relationships is identical by gender," says Cawood. "The number of cases where someone starts a physically violent event is equal by gender, but the harm is not equal. When a female is a target, the odds of her getting hurt physically are significantly higher, but the initiation rate's the same. From a threat assessment perspective, I have to recognize that I can't look at gender and immediately know who the victim is and who the aggressor is. I have to be much more thoughtful about looking at the behavior and seeing what the context is."

Reporting Risk

As with active assailants and other workplace violence incidents, early warning of potential risk is key to deploying an effective, proportionate response.

Like workplace violence in general, domestic abuse bears a variety of warning signs—both for the perpetrator and the victim. These can include aggression, personal crises, sudden shifts in mood or injuries. Someone who is normally bubbly and outgoing becomes quiet, withdrawn and isolated, or begins wearing concealing clothing such as dark sunglasses or long sleeves in the summer.

Think of warning signs as a theme, not a checklist, says Cawood. For example, when employees are required to report verbal or written threats, they may waver on reporting intimidation or other borderline warning signs, thinking they do not meet the threshold.

"When in doubt, just tell us. If you're uncomfortable, tell us. That way we break down those barriers," he adds.

On signs of abuse, the employer can make an effort to reach out in a compassionate, confidential and non-presumptive way, Curtis says.

"It's appropriate to allow the employee to know that you're concerned for their well-being and that you're there to provide assistance if they need assistance," he says. "Oftentimes the employee will begin to open up, and you can see what you can do to help. Sometimes the employee may just deny it outright. In that instance, it's difficult to take very direct measures, but you should still be circling back to the checklist of security items in your workplace violence program to make sure, for example, that the building is secure, that all of the lighting in the parking lot is working, that this employee knows that if he wants an escort to or from his car or whatever the situation may be that those things are available to him. Encourage them to reach out to you. Even if in the first conversation, they're not comfortable disclosing anything, keep that chain of communication open."

To encourage communication and reporting, Curtis adds, organizations can offer more than one means of coming forward with information—employees have different comfort levels with different people, and offering them multiple channels of reporting makes them more likely to do so.

"Make it clear that you are genuinely concerned, and make it clear there will be no retaliation for coming forward," he says.

However, if there is a concern for real violence, safety trumps confidentiality, including in sensitive matters. Even employee assistance programs and psychologists have a responsibility to protect potential victims if people disclose direct threats or pose a serious danger of violence to another, as decided in the United States through the 1976 Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California ruling, says Michael A. Crane, an attorney and security consultant with Securisks. If a manager or other organization official learns about a potential threat and does not respond with appropriate action to mitigate risk and protect potential victims, the organization could be liable if something occurs.

In addition, workplace safety regulations in the U.S., Canada, and some European countries require organizations to respond to realistic expectations of violence as they would to any other hazard, seeking to minimize employee injuries and other collateral harm, he says.

This also extends, in some countries, to remote workers. "In both Canada and the United States, there are now regulations and obligations that talk about the need to protect individuals when their assigned workplace is their home," Cawood says. "So I'm sitting at my kitchen table working, and my spouse comes home and starts hurting me. There's an obligation now for the organization to both assess and decide if there are things we need to do to protect that individual during working hours."

However, the challenge to learn about threats remains: "People are still uncomfortable getting involved in other people's relationships," Cawood adds. "We can't tell people what to do in their personal relationships, and nor should we. But at the same time, how do we balance the obligation we have to help aid in their safety against the idea that they have freedom of choice about who they maintain contact with or how they decide to work out their personal life?"


The first line of workplace violence risk mitigation is reporting, but this will always be a challenge around domestic abuse. "The more personal or private people perceive a problem to be, the more difficult it is to manage within an organization," Cawood notes.

To circumvent cultural challenges around reporting workplace risks stemming from other employees' personal lives, organizations can provide workplace violence training. When giving examples of workplace violence, weave in details about how domestic partners could also cause workplace incidents, not just outsiders, customers or employees.

"Normalize the idea that behavior is the issue, and no matter where it comes from or how the person is connected to the workplace, there's going to be this expectation that people will pay attention and report it," Cawood says.

The warning signs are similar, so training sessions—both for new hires and refresher courses—can echo many of the same themes. For aggressors, is the person experiencing a financial or health crisis or a substance abuse issue? Do they have a personality disorder, or act domineering or controlling? Do they make threats or intimidate others to get their way?

"These are the warning signs for any type of person on a pathway from thought to action for violence, but what you want to do in your training is weave in the idea that this could happen from a domestic partner, a former or current boyfriend or girlfriend, or a casual encounter," he says.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment for domestic abuse differs slightly from violence risk assessment, says Cawood. In a threat assessment, a multidisciplinary team consisting of security, HR, legal and other stakeholders makes determinations about victim safety based on behavioral context, instead of making judicial or punitive decisions.

"It's about looking forward: what could happen, and how do we begin to prevent it?" he says. It's also a matter of advising without dictating.

For example, Cawood says that when advising an employee about restraining orders, the threat assessment team should explain the process, hearings, time delays and enforcement to give the victim a realistic understanding of the system. Afterward, the employee is free to make his or her own determination of whether or not to proceed.

"Educate them in a very neutral way," he adds. "There are significant numbers of cases in intimate partner violence where seeking a restraining order can be very helpful. But there are also a significant number of cases where—at that moment—seeking a restraining order does nothing but accelerate the risk."

Threat assessors should understand that domestic violence, especially when it includes a spouse or long-term partner, involves many other connections and complications: family, children, finances, shelter and emotions.

"One very positive thing businesses can do other than educating individuals in situations like this is taking responsibility for doing assessments and appropriate interventions," Cawood says. For example, an employee at risk could be moved from an outward-facing customer service position that makes them accessible to individuals walking in off the street to a more secure role. If the intimate partner has been making threatening phone calls to the employee's work phone, consider rerouting telephone calls for that employee through a supervisor or security professional to screen calls and document ongoing threat pattens.

In addition, the organization can put the person in question on notice by issuing them a letter of expectation. These letters communicate that the employee's personal decisions outside of the workplace are their own, but as part of the organization, they have a responsibility to help keep coworkers safe. Therefore, Cawood adds, if a relationship change occurs, police are called to the employee's residence, or if the threat level changes, the employee has an obligation to inform the organization about those changes so the threat can be reassessed and managed.

HR or security professionals can proactively reach out to the potential aggressor, inform him or her about recent reports or concerns, and begin a dialog with that individual. This may even de-escalate the situation because the perpetrator is less interested in pursuing their partner when other people are involved.

If the offender is an employee, Crane advises potentially suspending that person with pay while an investigation is conducted. If the employee's actions or threats violate company policy or codes of conduct, that person can be disciplined up to and including termination.

"When you're talking about a potential threat, you want to create a termination that will not cause more problems," he says. "So you want to see what can be done—whether it's money or continued medical coverage—to create a soft landing. This person has existing problems and you want to get them out of the workforce, but you want to create an environment where they won't come back, because they're happy. HR and security can create a package that will hopefully eliminate risk."

It is helpful to establish standardized security and response protocols in advance, Crane says. "What you do for one person, you then have to do for another person in the same category," he adds. "Companies can have a policy for every employee type, and actions can be taken based on the level of employment that person has." For example, Crane says that a threat against a CEO or chairman of the board might warrant executive protection, while the obligation to protect an administrative assistant outside the workplace may be lower. But consistency and transparency are essential.

Domestic abuse cases are evolving situations, Crane notes, and they can change mid-investigation or even post-investigation. It is not uncommon for threats to be sent in long after initial action has been taken or even after a person has left the company. Continuing to monitor individuals' social media presences for threatening behavior and keeping an archive of communication helps to keep the organization informed.

Even if a perpetrator has been arrested, the threat assessment process continues. In most cases, the individual will be released from custody eventually, and active monitoring of cases is necessary so organizations are not surprised when a threat resurfaces, Cawood says.

Crane adds: "Among threats in the workplace, workplace violence threats are probably the number one category, and the majority of them are domestic-related. It is an issue that spills into the workplace. And the reason to prepare and have programs in place is that the offender—whether it's an employee or an outsider—always knows where the victim is when they're at work."

Claire Meyer is managing editor at Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or contact her at

This article is adapted from Security Management Magazine with permission from ASIS © 2020. All rights reserved. 


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