Doing business globally creates a variety of challenges for multinational employers, but one of the most dangerous threats they face may also be the least obvious. This often silent, invisible saboteur is called “Domestic Violence Spillover” and it could cripple an organization from the inside out.
In North America, domestic violence affects roughly 30% of women and 10% of men. Most victims work, and about 3/4 of them report experiencing “spillover” (on the job harassment, threats, violence, and stalking). Most abusers are also employed, and many admit to using company resources, time, and equipment to commit their crimes.
This all translates to significant safety risks as well as cumulative financial losses resulting from absenteeism, decreased productivity, increased health care costs, greater legal liability, and higher employee turnover rates. All companies are vulnerable, but some may carry more risk than others. Industries like retail, hospitality, and health care may see higher rates because they chiefly employ younger, lower-wage females (the demographic most likely to experience abuse).
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But when operating worldwide, companies can face amplified perils due to variations in domestic violence prevalence rates, laws, and beliefs. Some global employers report at least one incident per week involving threats or assaults on a female employee, resulting in work stoppages, overall anxiety, and a collective loss of focus. Yet few victims have the courage to disclose abuse for fear of losing their coveted job. As businesses increasingly rely upon a global workforce to lower labor costs while raising profits, it’s fair to ask: Can workers (particularly females) rely upon their employer to keep them safe from domestic violence in the workplace?
Below are three Challenge Factors and three Proactive Principles that must be considered by multinational management, security, and human resources professionals as they navigate the complexities of international domestic violence.
Challenge Factor #1: Attitudes Toward Females, Working Women, and “Honor” Vary Greatly
Poverty, lack of education, and sexist social or religious beliefs are all considered roots of domestic violence, which affects up to two-thirds of women worldwide. Corporations in conflict zones, rural areas, or impoverished, unstable nations may see more cases, as will those operating within cultures that view women as inferior to men. Many people think DV is a “private issue” and even consider it normal in intimate relationships, as evidenced in the conventional Russian proverb, “If he loves you, he beats you.”
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In some countries, family honor is thought to lie squarely with women, leading to misogynistic practices like “Dowry” and “Suitor” violence in Pakistan, both of which have the potential to be carried out in the workplace, exposing co-workers, customers, and bystanders to possible injury or death. Even outside of work, such scenarios can gravely impact a victim’s ability to continue productive employment.
Workforce participation offers women not only the control that comes with a living wage, but also a potential path toward independence and gender equality. Unfortunately, female employment with multinational corporations has also had some unintended negative consequences. Because of their growing self-sufficiency, Western dress, and altered lifestyles, working women may be rejected or punished by their partners and families. One Bangalore study found that transitioning from unemployed to employed made women 80% more likely to be abused. Additionally, women around the world frequently report quitting jobs due to physical safety concerns or at the insistence of a jealous, insecure partner.
Challenge Factor #2: International DV Laws May be Different or Even Non-Existent
Globally, domestic violence is a consistently under-reported crime, with significant legal and social barriers to justice. 102 countries have no specific legal provisions against DV, meaning that employers must scale additional walls when addressing it. Corruption may also influence official judicial response. In parts of Southeast Asia, some police officers may not respond to domestic violence reports, while others are bribed into dropping complaints or assaulting abusers (depending on whose family pays). Instead of turning to an unreliable system, cultures may choose to handle domestic violence internally within families and communities. For instance, in Zimbabwe, elder relatives or tribal leaders may impose social or economic consequences on abusers. Occasionally, vigilante violence is also used, potentially impacting the workplace in close-knit communities where families and neighbors are co-workers as well. Employers can best navigate these local structures by familiarizing themselves with a country’s regional laws, social traditions, and available resources before setting up shop.
Challenge Factor #3: In Some Cultures, DV is a “Family Affair”
Internationally, the concept of family may hold different meaning than it does in our fiercely independent, mobile American society. Women in particular are often conditioned to see their personal identities as inseparable from that of their family and may feel responsible for keeping the nuclear unit intact. These beliefs can make domestic violence victims reluctant to seek assistance at work because they believe it is not the employer’s business, they don’t want to bring shame onto their families, and they do not consider arrest or divorce as viable solutions. Focusing on confidentiality, internal support and non-judicial remedies may help gain inroads with victims who are hesitant to cooperate with intervention.
A culture’s view of family also affects domestic violence in regard to “intra-family” violence. In India for example, adult unmarried women frequently live with their parents, as do many married couples. Wage earners are expected to “pool” their incomes and women may be required to turn their earnings over to male relatives. While this interdependent living arrangement can provide valuable family support for workers, it may also result in a multiple abuser/multiple threat scenario. Common situations include a mother-in-law who participates in a husband’s violence toward his wife, or a young, single female employee who is being abused by her father and brother. Sadly, suicide is often a particular concern in these cases, as some victims see no other escape from their situation. One possible strategy is to offer at-work time for EAP or outside counseling, as victims may have no way of accessing these services otherwise. If a victim refuses to involve police, another option is to suggest intervention by other “stakeholders” in their life, who may be able to reveal unexpected sources of support.
Now that we’ve examined some of the main difficulties multinational employers face, let’s look at three key concepts for preventing and managing employee related domestic violence:
Proactive Principle #1: Know Thy Enemy
You can’t effectively fight what you don’t understand, and unfortunately domestic violence is one of the most multi-layered issues known to humanity. It’s sometimes difficult to separate personal experiences, social myths, and deeply held stereotypes from the reality of domestic violence , which may in turn profoundly impact how we respond to it in the workplace. Additionally, when it comes to threat assessment, domestic violence is a different animal, meaning that traditional theories and techniques of targeted violence prevention may not apply, and precise subject matter expertise is required. These problems are best addressed through comprehensive, regular training in the foundations and handling of domestic violence for all levels including management, human resources, security, and legal (although each will need a role specific curriculum). For example, direct management and HR need to learn “The 3 R’s” (Recognizing, Responding to, and Referring domestic violence victims) while security personnel might focus on tactical response. Overall, the meta-message should be that domestic violence isn’t just “the victim’s problem”; it’s an issue that impacts the entire workforce, and is therefore everybody’s business.
Proactive Principle #2: Customize Remedies and Maximize Communication
Because victim assistance may not be readily available outside the U.S. (and in some places, not at all) employers must look for alternative solutions. One of the ways consultants can assist multinational clients is by familiarizing and connecting them with local avenues of support in host countries, some of which may come from unanticipated places. In one case, an Egyptian Muslim employee suffering from spousal abuse was refusing to involve police or consider leaving. While I typically caution against “couples counseling” and clergy intervention for domestic violence , the most successful strategy in this situation turned out to be weekly meetings with a local imam for family guidance and oversight. The victim later reported a significant reduction in violence by her husband, now that he was under the cleric’s watchful eye.
If employers don’t know when workers are experiencing abuse, they are “flying blind” and unaware of the potentially impending risks. Therefore, establishing and maintaining open lines of communication is central to preventing and handling domestic violence spillover. Ways to accomplish this include implementing confidential in-person and electronic reporting systems, and accessing the power of inter-employee relations. Because victims are far more likely to disclose to co-workers than they are to supervisors, many employers find that a “peer to peer” model using trained co-worker/educators can be highly effective. Companies may also consider organizing after-work “Women’s Wellness” groups or lunchtime “Stress Management” workshops, where local advocates can inconspicuously provide resources to employees who may not readily identify as domestic violence victims.
Another way to encourage awareness and communication is through an internal campaign featuring the dissemination of multi-language domestic violence assistance materials. Channels include break room posters, paycheck inserts, and hotline pens or magnets. One particularly successful tactic is to post resources with tear-off phone numbers inside bathroom stalls, which allows employee victims to discreetly access help.
Proactive Principle #3: Prevention Efforts Must “Trickle-Down”
While many multinational corporations do well addressing domestic violence at home, those practices don’t always flow smoothly from headquarters down to every foreign location or employee. Therefore, it’s crucial to preserve the integrity of your protocol pipeline, insuring that “boots on the ground” act in accordance with the parent company’s principles. This begins by establishing personnel policies that include specific prohibitions against workplace violence. Preferably, these mandates would contain unambiguous descriptions of domestic violence behaviors, clear expectations, and penalties for violators as well as sincere pledges of assistance, confidentiality, and non-discrimination for employee victims.
Multinational corporations can also help to prevent domestic violence spillover by extending EAP benefits to both nationals working overseas and host-nation employees. Additionally, they can demonstrate ideals of equality by paying female workers equal wages, promoting women to leadership positions, and offering them internal job training and mentorship programs. Lastly, they can publicly prove their commitment by supporting local programs that work to address domestic violence.
With the right guidance, multinational employers can utilize a variety of helpful strategies for engaging victims, deterring abusers, and increasing workplace safety overall. The key is in transitioning from a reactive to a proactive stance. Instead of waiting for targeted violence to strike, global corporations must exercise vigilance and preparation long before an incident occurs. Take the next step in your organization by asking about how domestic violence is handled both at home and abroad, and then examine the opportunities for improvement. You never know whose life you might be saving.
Editor's Note: Lynn Fairweather, MSW, is an abuse survivor who has worked in the domestic violence response and prevention field for over 23 years. As principal of Presage Consulting and Training, she provides professionals with domestic violence threat assessment and management training, workplace violence program and policy consultations, and 24/7 individual case response. Lynn is the President of Oregon VAWPAC, America’s only political action committee focused on violence against women, and is author of Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships.
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