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How do we help an employee we suspect is the victim of domestic violence?

Victims of domestic violence often don’t tell their supervisors or HR professionals that they are being abused out of fear or shame. If abuse is suspected, watch for these warning signs:

  • Wears long sleeves or sunglasses at inappropriate times to conceal injuries.
  • Startles easily.
  • Arrives early or late to work.
  • Appears fatigued.
  • Exhibits fear, anxiety or depression.
  • Has unexplained injuries.
  • Shows a decrease in productivity.
  • Takes more unplanned time off.

Employers can help abuse victims by directing them to experts in the company’s employee assistance program or local shelters. Avoid trying to counsel the person directly.

Other ways in which an employers can help include:

  • Ask the employee what changes in the work environment would make her or him feel safer, such as providing priority parking and escorts from the parking area.
  • Change the employee’s office phone number, and remove the employee’s name from automated contact lists. Install panic buttons for the employee and receptionist.
  • Place plants or partitions around the employee’s work area to serve as barricades to prevent the abuser from walking directly up to the employee. Notify the police.
  • Save any threatening messages received at the workplace for future legal action. Provide time off or flexible work hours for counseling and court appearances.
  • Ask the employee to obtain a restraining order that includes the workplace, and keep a copy on hand.
  • Create policies specifically for domestic abuse situations and provide training to employees. Include guidance on security plans.

If the employee refuses to contact police or to cooperate with your security plan, the employer still has a responsibility to protect the employee and co-workers on the premises. Under the general duty clause of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are required to take “feasible steps to minimize risks” in workplaces where “the risk of violence and significant personal injury are significant enough to be ‘recognized hazards,’ ” according to a letter of interpretation provided by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Some states allow companies whose employees have received threats to obtain their own restraining orders to keep abusive partners off the premises.

Before taking action against an employee suspected of being a domestic violence victim, check state laws. Many states have laws protecting the workplace rights of victims of domestic or sexual violence. Even in states that don’t, employers should establish written policies on leave requests and related issues. For more information and tools see SHRM's Workplace Violence resource page. 


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