ADDRESSING THE IMPACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE
When most people think about workplace violence, a classic scenario often comes to mind: A disgruntled employee who was fired or is otherwise angry with the company enters the workplace with the aim to take revenge. While this situation is certainly a frightening reality, there is another all-too-common type of workplace violence playing out in organizations across the U.S. It involves the residual effects of domestic violence, or intimate partner violence (IPV), at the victim’s place of employment. Alarmingly, nearly 25% of all workplace violence is related to intimate partner violence.
The Intersection of Domestic and Workplace Violence
In the United States, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner at some point in their lives. The reality is that intimate partner violence does not remain at home when the victim leaves for work. Many victims simply cannot escape its effects. Their abuse follows them, be it psychologically, emotionally, and/or physically—and it permeates their workplace.
Recognizing the Signs
What does it look like when intimate partner violence comes to work? Abuse may result in late arrivals or missed days stemming from injuries, court dates, and/or lack of sleep. Maybe they’ve had their uniform destroyed or their transportation tampered with. When present, victims frequently have trouble concentrating or performing their duties. They often experience obsessive, harassing phone calls from their abusive partner, or they may worry that their partner is waiting for them outside, or perhaps will enter their workplace and cause a disturbance (or worse).
Or maybe a victim has been able to leave an abusive relationship and has worked diligently to make sure her violent ex doesn’t know where she’s living. She might even change grocery stores, banks, gyms. The one factor she can’t as easily change is where and when she works—and that is a vulnerability her ex can take advantage of. He may show up to confront or harm her—and potentially her co-workers and/or customers in the process.
Unfortunately, these examples are not uncommon. A 2005 study of female employees who had experienced domestic violence found that:
- 98% had difficulty concentrating on work tasks
- 96% reported that domestic abuse affected their ability to perform job duties
- 87% received harassing phone calls at work
- 78% reported being late to work due to abuse
- 60% lost their jobs due to domestic abuse
These statistics are nothing short of staggering.
Mary Byron’s Story
In late 1993, 20-year-old Mary Byron was raped and assaulted by her former partner who was subsequently incarcerated for these crimes. Two weeks later, unbeknownst to Mary, her assaulter posted bail, stalked, and murdered her as she sat warming up her car after work at a popular Louisville, KY shopping mall. These tragic events led to the development of VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday), the nation’s leading victim notification system, and the Mary Byron Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the cycle of intimate partner violence.
Many business owners, HR professionals, and security officers know that IPV is a problem in their workplaces. They understand that it translates into workplace safety issues, decreased productivity, missed shifts, increased health insurance costs, business liabilities, and sometimes the loss of the greatest human resource—a life. A 2003 CDC study estimates that the economic cost of IPV totals over $8 billion each year. Additionally, victims of IPV lost almost 8 million paid days of work because of the violence they experienced at the hands of a current or former partner.
Many security officers have shared that while they hadn’t experienced instances of extreme violence, there have been times when an ex or current partner lurks in the parking lot, shows up uninvited, or makes harassing phone calls. They know the threat of violence is there—right around the corner. The problem is that companies are often unsure of the appropriate action to take. In fact, according to research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 65% of companies do not have a formal workplace intimate partner violence policy, and only 20% offer training on intimate partner violence. Discussing IPV can be uncomfortable to address while at work, and managers want to respect employee privacy. But, by taking no action, business leaders become more vulnerable to threats that result in safety and legal ramifications.
The WorkSafe Initiative
The Mary Byron Project’s WorkSafe Initiative helps business leaders become proactive about supporting and protecting employees who are victims of intimate partner violence and those who work in close proximity to them. The program is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It follows a basic structure that is tailored to each individual organization. The program starts by providing assistance in developing or tailoring a company’s policies and procedures around the issues of intimate partner violence and stalking. We believe this step is crucial because many employees fear that if they come forward with information about an abusive partner or ex, they risk being punished or even fired. And this is, surprisingly, a valid fear. Additionally worrisome, is that once an employee is terminated for revealing that he or she is afraid of a partner, has a protective order, etc., other victims stay silent about their abusive situations. In turn, the entire workplace is in more danger when necessary safety precautions are not taken. From a legal, moral, and practical standpoint, firing the victim to solve the problem is problematic. Established policies let employees know that they won’t be penalized for seeking help and provide guidance to leadership on how safety issues and accommodations should be handled.
Once the policies and procedures are in place, WorkSafe provides training for managers and staff. It’s crucial to educate employees on the new policies. This helps to establish a company culture that encourages employees to come forward for support. It’s also important to prepare managers to have these conversations with their employees. Specifically, WorkSafe training:
- Provides an understanding of intimate partner violence and its societal impact
- Illustrates the ways intimate partner violence presents itself in the workplace
- Familiarizes employees with workplace policy and reporting procedures
- Trains staff on the resources available for employees experiencing violence
Manager training provides guidelines for how to respond if they suspect an employee is being harmed at home, and how to have conversations with employees who disclose an abusive situation. Managers are not expected to become counselors or domestic violence advocates—the training teaches managers and staff to identify the signs of IPV and to refer the victim to where they can find help. The WorkSafe program facilitates a connection with the local domestic violence agency so that managers know who to contact when they have a staff member who needs support. This is critically important. Because domestic violence can be so dangerous—even fatal—victim safety planning with victims is crucial. Again, we don’t expect managers and supervisors to become experts in safety planning, but they can provide a “warm hand-off” to the domestic violence agency where expertly trained staff are available to help victims determine a plan for their safety.
Far too many business leaders believe that intimate partner violence is not affecting their workplaces. But, obvious or not, it’s happening to employees in workplaces everywhere. Businesses simply can’t afford to assume immunity. Being proactive is key to create an informed, healthy, safe workplace—their brand, reputation, assets, and the lives of their employees depend on it.