Domestic Violence is a Workplace Problem
by Christina Morfeld

Despite the staggering statistics (http://www.auburnpolice.com/handbook/stat.asp) on domestic abuse, the corporate world has traditionally remained mute on the subject. While such silence may imply a lack of compassion, it is more often due to an unawareness of the problem, discomfort with asking probing questions when suspicions do arise, or the mindset that what takes place in someone's private life is just that.

Fortunately, many companies have begun taking a stand against domestic violence in recent years. Perhaps this is due to the growing recognition of its significant toll on the workplace (http://www.aidv-usa.com/Statistics.htm). This is not meant to imply that proactively dealing with the issue is purely profit-motivated. Rather, the existence of a business impact justifies employers' concern for the total well-being of their staff members - empowering them to offer assistance with respect to non-work-related problems.

It is important, however, that conversations initiated by management are based solely on performance that is either declining or already at unsatisfactory levels. If an employee reveals during such a discussion that she (or he) is in a violent relationship, you should be as flexible as possible when dealing with the effects of that abuse on work behavior. Job loss, after all, means the end of financial independence - without which many victims would not even consider leaving their mates.

Altruism aside, there are some legal issues to consider before disciplining an abused employee, particularly in the case of excessive absenteeism. First, victim assistance laws may prohibit adverse action for days missed due to related court proceedings. Second, domestic violence situations qualify for leave - either continuous or intermittent - under family and medical leave laws in certain states.

Therefore, while the performance problems should not be ignored, the circumstances should weigh heavily into how you choose to respond to them.

If and when an employee discloses abuse, seize the opportunity to lend your support. Assure the employee that violence isn't acceptable under any circumstances and that she's not responsible for what's happening. Refrain, however, from directly criticizing her partner.

If your organization offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), encourage the worker to utilize its services; otherwise, recommend that she contact one of the many local or national resources that are available.

A non-directive and non-judgmental demeanor is essential when reviewing options with the employee, even if it appears that she is unlikely to pursue them - a frustrating reality for many a concerned friend, co-worker, and manager.

Because abusers often harass their partners at work - either in-person or by telephone - you must be willing to shield victims (and their colleagues) from these unwanted visits and phone calls. For example, you may offer to:

  • Change the employee's workstation and/or schedule so that her whereabouts are less predictable. (It is especially important to move a person who sits in or within view of the reception area or near a first-floor window.)

  • Give the worker a parking spot near the door.

  • Have a security guard walk her to and from her vehicle.

  • Provide the victim with a cellular telephone for emergency use if she does not otherwise have one available to her.

  • Provide photos of the perpetrator to security and reception personnel.

  • Remove the abuse victim from the dial-by-name phone directory.

While you should strongly encourage the employee to agree to these precautions, no protective steps should be taken without her consent.

Additionally, you should always require visitors to check in with a security guard or receptionist, as well as prohibit employees from releasing any other employee's direct telephone extension, work location, or - if offsite - anticipated time of return.

But what if the worker does not divulge the violence when confronted with the performance problems? While that obviously makes the conversation more difficult, it does not completely hinder your ability to communicate your concerns. You must, however, do so delicately. Most importantly, avoid making presumptions and pressuring the employee to confide in you. A gentler approach - one more likely to get her to open up to you and/or seek professional help - might consist of the following series of statements:

  1. We've already spoken about your absences and errors over the last few weeks. You've also seemed very upset and nervous lately. And I noticed what appeared to be bruises on your arms the other day.

  2. I'm concerned because I think it might be possible that someone is physically abusing you.

  3. No one deserves to be mistreated in that way.

  4. There are steps that the company can take - with your agreement and as confidentially as possible - to protect you.

  5. The organization's EAP (or, in the absence of one, an abuse counselor or women's shelter) can provide you with the support that you may need.

So far I've only addressed conversations initiated by a manager. Unfortunately, no matter how much sensitivity he or she demonstrates, the meeting is bound to be anxiety-filled for the victimized employee. After all, a discussion about performance deficiencies implies a lack of job security - a nerve-wracking thought from a number of perspectives.

This additional stress could clearly be avoided if abused employees felt comfortable enough approaching their managers or HR representatives before their work began to suffer.

There are many ways that companies can cultivate an environment in which victims are more likely to come forward:

  • Foster a culture of open communication, respect, trust, and support. (An EAP, in particular, speaks volumes about a company's concern for the welfare of its employees.)

  • Develop, document, and adhere to rigorous security practices - at all times, not just when a threat arises.

  • Compose a formal domestic violence policy that:

    • Expresses the organization's commitment to maintaining a safe work environment for all employees, as well as specifically supporting those who are victims of domestic abuse;

    • Emphasizes confidentiality;

    • Conveys a willingness to be flexible with regard to benefits, leaves, work location, and scheduling in circumstances involving domestic abuse;

    • Details general procedures that managers and employees should follow if they suspect that a subordinate or co-worker is in a violent relationship; and

    • Recommends steps and resources for the victims themselves.

  • Build awareness by:

    • Offering informational workshops about domestic violence;

    • Training HR staff, managers, and employees to recognize and act upon signs of abuse;

    • Actively supporting local shelters and other community resources (e.g., allowing employees to volunteer on company time, sponsoring fund or clothing drives, etc.);

    • Distributing flyers and pamphlets about national and local resources and the organization's EAP; and

    • Aggressively publicizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The strategies described in this article cost little or nothing to implement, yet go a long way toward protecting the physical safety and emotional security of your employees. These, of course, can only have a positive influence on your organization's bottom line - by way of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, reduced healthcare costs, and minimized liability.

There's no better time than now - during Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October) - to develop a comprehensive and proactive campaign that benefits not only your company and staff, but also countless members of your community that may be victims of these unfortunate circumstances.


Christina Morfeld is president of Affinity Business Communications, a provider of high-quality instructional design, technical writing, and content development solutions. Whether writing to instruct, inform, or persuade, our work is reader-focused, benefits-oriented, and results-driven. Contact us at 203-445-9964 or info@affinitybizcomm.com, or visit our website at http://www.affinitybizcomm.com to learn how we can increase your firm's sales and effectiveness!

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Copyright 2001-2003 Christina Morfeld and Affinity Business Communications, LLC. Originally published by Suite101.com. All rights reserved.

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