If you’re a business owner, supervisor or human resources professional, you might think that domestic violence is something that is committed at home. But it reaches into all aspects of people’s lives—including the workplace.
Intimate partners inflict rape, physical violence and/or stalk more than 1 out of every 3 women and more than 1 out of every 4 men in the U.S. Intimate partners also physically assault an estimated 1.3 million women each year. That means domestic violence is likely to affect one or more employees in even the smallest businesses.
Stephanie Angelo, founder of Human Resource Essential, a company that specializes in domestic violence training for the workplace, says she hears people say, “‘Gee, we’ve only got three people, it couldn’t happen here,’ or, ‘We’re like family, I would know it.’” Employers need to understand that domestic violence can be committed against anyone.
In addition to the toll on survivors, domestic violence has a financial impact, causing American employees to miss 175,000 workdays a year.
What Can Happen at Work
Domestic violence can show up in the workplace in many different ways. The abuser may:
● Limit access to transportation so the survivor misses work
● Try to control phone calls or conversations with customers
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● Expect the survivor to be home at a certain time
● Call frequently, distracting the survivor
● Come to the workplace and be verbally or physically abusive
● Isolate the survivor from having friendships with coworkers outside of work hours
“When an employee is distracted, worried or fearful, that affects their quality of work and their interactions with peers and customers. It makes everyone feel nervous and unsafe,” says Janice Santiago, creator of the Safe at Work Network, part of the Steps to End Domestic Violence organization based in Burlington, VT.
And keep in mind that abusers have jobs, too. Angelo says, “A lot of the companies I come across are not even thinking that offenders work for them.” Abusers could:
● Use a company cell phone or vehicle to follow, stalk or harass a survivor
● Use a company computer to contact, threaten or stalk survivor
● Make threats that other employees overhear
● Be late or miss work because of their activities toward the survivor
● Create a threatening atmosphere in the workplace
What Can Employers Do?
Whether you suspect domestic violence or not, you can start by creating a dialog and building a culture that makes your company a comfortable, safe place to talk about domestic violence, which can a difficult subject.
Connect with resources. Learn where your local domestic violence agencies are and what services they offer. That way, if a situation comes up and an employee needs help, you can point them in the right direction or provide a referral. “We do this with employees who have cancer, or family issues, or drug-related issues,” says Angelo. Your local agency may also be able to provide domestic violence training and support.
Update your policies. Companies should have a policy in place to address domestic violence. It might allow for time off for a survivor to manage safety issues or access to an employee assistance program for help. If you have an employee who is isolated or alone at work, like a front-desk receptionist, you might want to have a policy that calls for a safety code word or an emergency buzzer.
Train your staff. Training can take away fear and teach violence prevention techniques and awareness. Trained managers should be the go-to people if a domestic violence situation becomes apparent. Companies can hold training sessions either for managers and supervisors or for all employees. Angelo recommends a half-day training session talking about the dynamics and realities of domestic violence. “You really need to understand the dynamic of abuse,” she says.
Employers need to understand that domestic violence is committed against people from all backgrounds. Angelo says, “I have had managers come up to me and say, ‘I am in an abusive relationship. But I’m in such a high-profile position no one would believe me’.”
If you suspect someone in your company is a domestic violence survivor and you’re organizing a training session, you can give the trainer some details so he or she can include information that might encourage the survivor to seek help without drawing attention to the survivor.
For example, Angelo says she spoke to a company where managers suspected domestic violence and the survivor’s partner was in law enforcement. Angelo was able to sprinkle references to dealing with abusers in law enforcement into her training. “I did not talk to [the survivor] or even know who she was, but I called the employer periodically over the next three months and they had great things to report. Her work had changed and they suspected she got out of the relationship,” she says.
Offer help. “So many of the organizational leaders I come across say, ‘When I see bruises or something I’ll do something about it.’ They are completely overlooking the fact that at the point you physically see injuries [domestic violence] has been going on so long. Intervening could have possibly prevented so much of that [abuse],” says Angelo.
Human resources professionals can recommend a person talk to an advocate at a domestic violence shelter to learn about safety planning, or point an employee to a site like DomesticShelters.org, so that the individual can learn more about the different types of abuse that exist. HR shouldn’t recommend someone seek counseling unless that person has expressed that they are open to it and/or has asked for counselor recommendations.
Another option is to put information on resources available in a place where all employees can easily come across it, such as a lunchroom, bulletin board or intranet site, then letting everyone know those resources can be found there during a general meeting.
There are also workshops available for employers to learn more about recognizing, assisting with and preventing domestic violence among their employees. Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence offers workshops and speakers, and Human Resource Essential offers webinars and personalized consulting services for companies.
Create a plan. “Once a company acknowledges [domestic violence] they can come up with a plan,” Santiago says. “A lot of little pieces can make everybody feel safer and more comfortable.” Plans may involve:
● Moving a survivor’s desk
● Making sure coworkers and employees see a photo of the abuser so they would recognize him or her
● Making people aware of restraining orders
● Involving the survivor before taking any action, since the survivor knows the situation best
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