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What Employers Can Do When Domestic Violence Enters the Workplace

A woman is holding her hands up in front of a dark background.

Two White House staffers stepped down from their jobs in recent weeks after being accused of domestic abuse, and the White House defended both men. The president suggested that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt, noting in a tweet that "lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation."

It's a stance some find troubling. When victims are not believed and their concerns not treated seriously, it's unlikely that action will be taken to protect their safety. This could lead to a potentially dangerous situation in the workplace.

"Domestic violence is a workplace issue, not just a 'personal' issue," said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality for the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. "Even if the violence occurs away from work, it has significant financial and security impacts on the workplace, from lost productivity, lost days from work, and threats to safety."

Experiencing domestic abuse is traumatizing, said Daniel Cox Malyszka, SHRM-CP, CHRO of The SAFE Alliance. It's an organization in Austin, Texas, working to end sexual assault and exploitation, child abuse and domestic violence. He was a victim of partner abuse for nearly two years.

Cox Malyszka had dated his partner a year before he married the man he described as "warm, charismatic … the kindest, most wonderful man I ever met."

That changed horribly after they exchanged vows, he said.

"Almost immediately following the marriage he started trying to isolate me from friends and family," Cox Malyszka said. "If I wanted to go to my mom's, he would complain. If I wanted to go out with my friends, he'd stand in front of the door" to keep him from leaving. His partner would hide Cox Malyszka's phone or try to get him to to hang up on friends.

Initially the attention felt sweet, Cox Malyszka said.

"You make rationalizations: Clearly, he wants to spend time with me."

Then, he said, the physical abuse began.

"The first time he hit me, we were having a slight disagreement. He had been drinking, and he punched me in the face. It was just shocking. I didn't know how to process that," said Cox Malyszka. His own parents had been married for 40 years at that time and never fought in front of their children.

"I closed myself off from other people. … I didn't want to talk about it. I was embarrassed."

He was vice president of HR at Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council in Redlands, Calif., and his work suffered.

"I wasn't on time to meetings. I was very tearful. People started noticing bruises, a difference in my behavior."

And his partner started calling him a lot at work to berate him, Cox Malyszka said. He revealed his personal situation after his company re-opened from being closed between Christmas and New Year's Day 2010.

Cox Malyszka returned to work limping and with cuts along his arms after, he said, his partner pushed him through a plate-glass window on Christmas night. His supervisor approached him and told him she suspected he was being abused. Her words opened the floodgates.

"I just finally broke down. … I [decided I] wasn't going to deal with this anymore. It was the umpteenth time [my partner] promised he wasn't going to do it again. I told him, 'You need to go to rehab. … If you don't do that, I'm leaving.' "  

The Employer's Role  

Fearing for his safety, Cox Malyszka left while his partner was in rehab. He wasn't financially dependent on his partner nor did he have children, which expanded his options.

"I was lucky. The most dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship is when they make the decision to leave."

When the abuser senses that he or she is losing power, that person often will act in dangerous ways to regain control over the victim, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. On average it takes a victim seven attempts to leave before staying away for good, it noted.

[SHRM members-only policy: Workplace Violence Policy]

Cox Malyszka suggested the following tactics for employers handling domestic abuse concerns:

Allow for flexible scheduling. Let the employee take time off during the workday as appropriate. He or she may need time to go to the police, attend court proceedings, see a doctor, find emergency shelter and set up a new bank account.

Victims of intimate partner violence lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year—the equivalent of 32,114 full-time jobs each year, according to the American Psychological Association. They might stay away from work to seek medical help or to avoid raising questions about bruises or black eyes, for example. Ten states and the District of Columbia have added "safe time" to their sick-leave laws, which provide paid or unpaid leave to victims of abuse.

Cox Malyszka's boss gave him time off to deal with his situation and reminded him about resources available through the employee assistance program (EAP).

Be aware, Cox Malyszka advised, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act may apply to job applicants and employees who experience domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers examples on its website of employment decisions that may violate Title VII.

Have emergency protocols in place. Sometimes the abuser shows up at the workplace—that has happened at organizations where Cox Malyszka has worked—and organizations need to be prepared. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that employers demonstrate a commitment to safety by securing access points, establishing visitor sign-in policies and implementing crisis planning.

Jon Decoteau, SHRM-SCP, now SHRM Divisional Director—West, was the director of HR for a manufacturing facility years ago when an employee's marital problem posed a potential threat to her, the organization and her child who attended the company's day care facility.

Decoteau's situational assessment team worked with local law enforcement, which stationed a police unit in front of the building for two weeks, blocked the man's access to the building and alerted the day care staff to the situation. The company also provided counseling to the employee.

The husband never appeared onsite, and the situation de-escalated, Decoteau said.

Cox Malyszka recommended training employees on what to do if someone comes into the workplace and makes threats. Also, establish safety protocols, make exits clearly visible and prominently post the phone number—1-800-799-SAFE—for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Examine the health care coverage the company offers. Does it include good mental health benefits? Is the EAP robust?

Don't ignore evidence of domestic abuse. "If you see somebody with a black eye and bruised arms, ask 'Are you OK?' " Cox Malyszka advised. "HR [walks] a weird line where you don't want to get involved in somebody's personal business, but you really have to" get involved when it appears the employee's safety is at risk.

Show compassion and refrain from judgment. People think that because they have not been abused, they never will be, Cox Malyszka said. He credits his boss for helping him deal with the explosive situation. 

"She was a great support person without being a therapist."

Establish zero tolerance for employees abusing other workers, friends or family. "There definitely needs to be a zero-tolerance policy around abusive behavior inside and outside the [organization]," he said. "Have a very firm conversation with what the expectations are. [Employees] need to be civil, [to] be safe to be around."    

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