Domestic violence afflicts millions of working men and women. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience domestic violence in their respective lifetimes. SHRM reports that, in the United States, victims of domestic violence lose nearly eight million days of paid work per year, resulting in a $1.8 billion loss in productivity. Given these statistics, every company is likely to employ workers who experience domestic violence.
Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abusive behavior or coercive control in any relationship that is used by one person to gain or maintain power and control over another. Domestic violence may be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, or economic in nature, and often occurs in private. Victims may feel compelled by fear or shame to keep the abuse a secret. Thus, employers should not wait until an employee reports domestic abuse. Instead, they should take a proactive approach in planning to support victims and to keep them safe.
The first step is an appropriate, comprehensive policy that expresses the company’s commitment to a work environment free from violence or threats of violence, including violence or threats outside of work that impact the workplace. The company should make crystal clear that the use of company time, equipment or resources to threaten or abuse another person is strictly prohibited and will lead to immediate termination. The policy should invite employees who are experiencing domestic violence to speak with a designated, trained human resources professional at the company. The policy should then list accommodations that may be provided. Depending on the circumstances, such accommodations may include time off for medical appointments, counseling, to go to court, to change residences or other related matters; flexible scheduling; preferential parking; an office move; or other changes designed to enhance the victim’s safety and productivity.
The second step is training. All employees should be made aware of the domestic violence policy and the resources available to domestic violence victims. Agencies such as Partnership Against Domestic Violence (www.padv.org) and the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.gcadv.org) can provide brochures to be distributed in restrooms and breakrooms and maintained in the human resources department. These brochures will discreetly identify local services providers with expertise in safety planning, mental health counseling, legal advocacy and other areas of need.
Signs of Abuse
In addition to training the workforce as a whole, the company should ensure that its human resources professionals are trained to identify employees who show signs of possible abuse, and the company should offer appropriate assistance. While every case is different, signs of abuse that may be evident at work include the following:
- Inconsistent attendance or unexplained tardiness; or employee works longer hours and does not want to go home.
- Unexplained black eyes, broken bones, bruises or other injuries.
- Inappropriate clothing such as long sleeves in the summer or wearing sunglasses indoors to hide injuries.
- Employee receives many phone calls, emails or texts from her partner.
- Decline in performance.
- Employee seems unusually tired or distracted.
- Emotional distress—employee is unusually fearful or tearful.
If an employer detects a pattern of signs that may indicate an abusive relationship, a trained human resources professional should reach out to the employee and let her know that the company is concerned about her well-being. Open-ended questions such as “Are you safe at home?” “Is someone hurting you?” or, “Are you afraid of your partner?” may help a victim open up about her safety concerns. If an employee discloses that she is in an abusive relationship, she should be provided with contact information for the company’s Employee Assistance Provider (EAP), if applicable, and a list of local domestic violence resources that can provide shelter, legal assistance, counseling, and support. Human resources professionals should not try to “solve” the domestic violence problem or “fix” the victim, however. The company’s role is to offer safety at work and to direct the victim to an agency that has expertise needed to help her be safe and supported.
Providing Meaningful Assistance
One area where an employer can provide meaningful assistance is in keeping its employees safe at work. An abuser knows when and where his victim goes to work and may target her at the office with phone calls, texts, emails and even personal visits. The victim should be encouraged to save any threatening voice mails, emails and texts that may help her obtain a restraining order. She should prepare a safety plan and provide the company with an emergency contact should she go missing or be unreachable. The company and employee may designate a code word or phrase so she can alert her supervisor to danger. The company may also move her work station, change her work schedule, change her telephone extension, move her parking space, and have security escort her to her car. The employee may have other suggestions, given her knowledge of her abuser.
Domestic violence can significantly impact a victim’s success at work and her personal safety. It is crucial for employers to educate themselves and their respective workforces regarding available resources to support employees in abusive relationships and to help keep them safe.
Michelle W. Johnson is a partner in the Atlanta office of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough who practices in the areas of labor and employment law, business litigation and appellate work. She serves on the board of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.