Trouble at home

When domestic violence becomes a workplace safety issue

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

  • Domestic violence poses a risk not only to the intended victims but also to those who work around them.
  • A domestic violence prevention program should make resources available and encourage victims to come forward.
  • Prevention plans should lay out clear and specific guidelines for employees to follow when a domestic violence report is submitted.
  • OSHA recently established domestic violence as a workplace safety issue.

Every year in the United States, an estimated 7.7 million people are physically assaulted or raped at the hands of a partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 1,500 are killed.

Although few people would disagree that domestic violence is a serious social justice issue, some may not consider it a workplace safety issue. The reason why they should, experts contend, is simple: The violence and its impact do not stay at home. “There’s no one I know who doesn’t bring something from home with them every day when they go to work. Whatever it is, it comes with you,” said Jane Randel, vice president of corporate communications for New York-based Liz Claiborne Inc. Randel has worked on the company’s domestic violence community outreach since 1995. “Now imagine if you’re not safe at home, work is the only place you’re safe, and you’re being terrorized in the workplace by someone that theoretically loves you,” she said.

Randel believes organizations should address domestic violence, because “you cannot have a productive workforce if you don’t have a safe and healthy workforce.” A 2003 CDC report estimated domestic violence costs $1.8 billion in lost productivity. In addition, a 2007 survey conducted by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence revealed 80 percent of employees see firsthand the negative impact domestic violence has on workplace productivity and – more important – more than two-thirds of those workers believed domestic violence had a harmful effect on their physical safety in the workplace.

Kim Wells, executive director of Bloomington, IL-based CAEPV, noted that domestic violence poses a threat not only to intended victims, but also to everyone who works with them. A 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of businesses with 1,000 or more employees showed domestic violence comprised 24 percent of workplace violence incidents. “This is a huge percentage of the workplace safety issues that companies deal with on a regular basis,” Wells said.

Making the connection

In spite of BLS data indicating the prevalence of domestic violence incidents in the workplace, the same survey found only 4 percent of organizations have created policies that address the issue. So with all of the evidence indicating domestic violence has a serious impact on the safety and productivity of the workforce, why are so few CEOs acting on the issue?

One reason is that some may fail to recognize the correlation between domestic violence and workplace violence. When CAEPV was in its formative stages, corporate founders – led by State Farm Insurance – brought together domestic violence experts from across the United States and Canada to see what could be done to effectively tackle the issue. Domestic violence had never before been addressed by a group of employers, Wells said. In fact, when she was approached to be executive director of the organization, the concept of domestic violence in the workplace was novel to her – despite her extensive experience as a counselor for both workplace and domestic violence.

Recognizing a victim of domestic violence
Domestic violence includes physical, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. The batterer often aspires to isolate the victim to ...

“The idea of workplace violence and domestic violence coming together I had actually never thought about before,” Wells said. “As I started to think about it, I thought, ‘Of course that makes sense. Of course that’s a workplace safety issue.’” She believes addressing domestic violence through a coalition of employers is a powerful step.

Still, many corporate executives do not believe domestic violence has an impact on their particular workplace. “Often when you’re in the ‘C suite,’ you’re very disconnected to what’s going on at a human level with your employees,” said Kristen Illes, associate vice president of training for Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization located in New York. Additionally, Illes noted that “people tend to stereotype who they think the domestic violence victim is. Especially for a [corporate-level] person, they’re thinking, ‘Oh it’s no one around here, it’s no one in corporate headquarters,’ when actually it is.”

The misconception is pervasive. The 2007 CAEPV survey asked CEOs what percentage of their workforce they believed to be victims of domestic violence. The CEOs guessed 6 percent. The survey revealed that domestic violence actually affects 21 percent of all working adults and 26 percent of working women.

“It can be anyone,” Illes said, “and it doesn’t matter what your education is or how successful you’ve been at work or what your socioeconomic level is or your race. It’s 1 out of 4 working women. It doesn’t matter where they’re sitting.”

What to do?

Even CEOs who recognize the dangers posed by domestic violence may be reluctant to act simply because they don’t know what to do, Illes said.

Wells agreed, saying she believes a major reason CEOs are reluctant to intervene is because they think they will need to become counselors. They are afraid and, because they do not know what to do, they do nothing. This fear is largely unfounded, she said. “Your role is not to be a counselor,” Randel stressed. “Your role is to provide conduit to the people that can help the employee, and to do whatever you can do within reason to provide a safe working environment for that person and the people around them.” Randel advocates calling SafeWork – a workplace-focused division of Safe Horizon – or CAEPV for help. “Our job is really as a referral service,” she said. These organizations can provide the training and resources needed to get a domestic violence prevention program off the ground.

Creating a domestic violence program in the workplace
Domestic violence became one of Liz Claiborne Inc.’s main charitable focuses in 1991, and it soon occurred to the New York-based company that the same outreach it was doing in the community could be applied to its employees.

Creating a workplace domestic violence prevention program, Illes said, is “really something that’s simple to do. It builds upon skills and things companies do already.” She noted that most companies have policies in place to handle situations such as sexual harassment, drug addiction, and balancing work and life issues such as sudden illnesses or child care. “I would never say domestic violence is not complicated, because it is,” Wells said. “But I think an employer’s response is not that difficult.”

Keeping workers safe

What a domestic violence program seeks to do, according to Illes, is establish a culture in which victims have resources available to them and are not afraid to come forward.

“Ideally, as an employer, you want to know when it becomes a workplace safety issue,” she said. “You want to know when someone’s being harassed and stalked at work, or being threatened at work.”

The most important thing to remain informed on is when a victim decides to leave an abusive relationship. “The majority of homicides with domestic violence happen when the victim decides to leave,” she said. “So if you have an employee who’s a victim of domestic violence and they are finally able to leave, where is the batterer going to find them? They’re going to find them at work.” Knowing when a victim is leaving an abuser can give employers an opportunity to set a safety action plan in place.

Stress to co-workers that although it requires having an uncomfortable conversation, informing employers about a domestic abuse situation “could have the potential of saving your life and/or co-workers,” said security expert Nick Dillon, director of education and risk services for Brookfield, WI-based Aegis Corp. “Encourage them to get restraining orders, encourage them to let employers know that they have gotten a restraining order, and even provide a picture of the individual so that they can alert security, as well as people around, so that if anyone noticed the person – even so much as in the parking lot – they could make security aware that the person shouldn’t be on the premises,” he said. “That helps to minimize the risk.”

Randel recalled how beefed-up security potentially saved one Liz Claiborne employee’s life. A woman in a Pennsylvania facility had a restraining order against an estranged husband, so she left a copy of the order and a photograph of the man with security per company policy. When he arrived at the facility one day, security turned him away, locked down the campus and notified police, who were able to arrest him after a brief standoff. “Had we not had these policies in place,” Randel asked, “who knows what would have happened?”

On its Website, CAEPV offers a step-by-step guide to creating a domestic violence prevention program. Clear and specific language is essential, as is adequate training for employees at every level of the organization.

Illes suggested making resources available in a manner that allows workers to access resources and get the help they need without filing a report. “The workplace may be the one safe place for [a victim],” she pointed out. Employers can accommodate the worker by providing work time to go to court, talk to an advocate or make a private phone call. “That’s an amazing thing for an employer to do, and it’s not really exhaustive of any resources,” Illes said.

The fear of employer retribution, such as being fired, often will prevent employees from coming forward. It should be made clear to employees that they will not be penalized in any way for seeking assistance. Although laws vary by state, generally it is illegal for employers to take negative action against a suspected victim of domestic violence. Also, employment and abuse assistance should not be contingent on any set of circumstances, such as leaving the abuser.

Changing perspectives

Although domestic violence policies remain rare, Wells has seen increased awareness in recent years. “I have seen the question change from ‘Why should I do something about this?’ to ‘I know I should do something about this, I’m just not sure what I should do.’” Employers now, she said, “have an understanding that it’s impacting their workplace.”

Illes agreed the issue is becoming more prominent and noted that OSHA now considers domestic abuse a workplace safety issue. “I just hope that companies are able to learn, and that it doesn’t take a tragedy,” she said. “Because when you talk about tragedy with domestic violence, you’re talking about someone being murdered.”

According to Wells, the human factor – seeing domestic violence’s effect on an employee – has the most impact on pushing organizations to act. “I think you have to make the business case and you have to make the safety case, but I think no matter what, you really have to see the face of someone to make it real to you,” she said. “It has to be a head and a heart issue.”

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