When Domestic Violence Intersects With Your Workplace

September 9, 2016
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

An employee’s car is vandalized in a school parking lot. A fire is deliberately set in a staff lounge and two people are injured. A manager is stabbed at an employee recognition event.

Stories such as these can spark worry about workplace violence in all of us. Management seeks ways to tighten security. Employees begin to look suspiciously at unfamiliar faces in their workplaces. Staff members leaving work alone are wary about strangers in the parking lot.

But it wasn't a stranger in the school parking lot who vandalized Jenn's car.

It was her husband, from whom she's separated. A custodian at the school recognized Jenn's husband and waved to him as he pulled out of the parking lot that very morning, never realizing that Jenn had filed for divorce four months ago, or that just last week she received an order of protection after her husband assaulted her in a grocery store parking lot.

It wasn’t a stranger who started the fire at Dan’s office; it was Dan’s long-time partner, Chris—a familiar visitor at his workplace.

Chris is friendly with all the staff and plays on the company’s softball team. No one knew of Chris’ jealousy regarding Dan and another employee. No one saw Chris’ rage brewing as he walked through the building and headed for the staff lounge, where a short time later a fiery explosion severely injured Dan and another employee.

TJ was an invited guest. His wife Sue was being recognized for her 25 years of service at the hospital where she worked. TJ arrived at the event intoxicated and was verbally abusive to his wife. He ridiculed her loudly while her award presentation was being made. When confronted and asked to leave, he stabbed Sue’s manager in the eye with a fork. Other employees were also hurt as they struggled to physically remove TJ from the premises.

Not simply a “private matter”

These examples highlight the dangerous intersection that can occur when the personal lives of domestic abuse victims intersect with their workplaces.

Historically, domestic abuse has been considered a “private matter,” but any organization that’s concerned about the safety and security of its employees must consider the possibility that domestic violence can spill over into the workplace.

In addition to concern for the victims of abuse, there must also be concern for the safety of other employees, as well as anyone else who may be present in a workplace—clients, patrons, visitors, or vendors.

Why abusers are interested in their victims’ workplaces

Victims frequently find the workplace to be a safe haven—a place where they can feel “normal,” have friends, and feel valued. In addition, without the financial resources that employment brings, they often have little hope for financial independence.

For these very reasons, an abuser might feel threatened by the victim’s workplace and might want to sabotage work attendance and performance. Even if an employee has a protection order, the workplace is often not included and is an easy place for an abuser to track down a victim.

Addressing victims’ needs

Organizations can address the needs of victims or suspected victims of domestic violence through a number of helpful responses, such as:

  • Providing education for all employees about the issue of domestic abuse
  • Posting resource information in private areas, such as restrooms
  • Making referrals to local domestic violence services
  • Adding security measures, such as call screening or escorts to the parking lot, if they are needed
  • Allowing flexible scheduling if an employee needs time off for counseling sessions, court hearings, or legal appointments.

Organizational policies to prevent and respond to domestic violence

In addition to providing support for victims and employee education regarding domestic violence, employers can reduce risk related to domestic violence through the implementation of relevant policies and procedures.

Often these policies will be part of an organization’s violence response plan. The following checklist will help you determine how well prepared your organization is to prevent incidents of domestic violence at your workplace and to deal with any incidents that might occur on your premises.

  • Do you have policies that prohibit harassment and threats?
  • Do you have procedures for employees to follow in the event of a violent or potentially violent incident?
  • Are all employees aware of these procedures?
  • Does your staff periodically review and practice violence response procedures?
  • Do you have a system in place to make sure that all visitors sign in, are expected, and are accompanied while on your premises?
  • Do you have a policy regarding employees who have restraining orders?
  • Do you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or its equivalent, available to your employees?

Supervisory strategies

In addition to these organization-wide policies, it is important to provide training to supervisors so that they can adequately handle issues of domestic violence. Supervisors often believe the are "crossing the line" by asking employees if they are being abused, even if they have good reasons for their suspicions.

While interfering in a person's private life is not appropriate, a supervisor can address attendance or performance issues and express concern about an employee's well-being without specifically mentioning domestic violence.

Supervisors can also offer support in several ways. They can document harassment or other inappropriate behavior on the part of the suspected abuser—for example, if the abuser is constantly calling the workplace, showing up during the employee's regularly scheduled hours, or loitering on the premises. Supervisors can also remind the person of organizational resources available to employees, such as an EAP, paid or unpaid leaves, or flexible scheduling.

Domestic violence is a complex problem with wide-ranging effects on victims, their families, and sometimes, their workplaces. Your organization can best confront the effects of domestic abuse by taking a proactive approach that includes employee education, resources for victims, and violence response procedures that will help to ensure the safety and security of everyone in your workplace.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, September 2006. © 2006 CPI. Certified Instructors, log in to read more JSM articles.

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