To Employers of Domestic Violence Survivors
Most victims of domestic abuse are likely to have a job, which perpetrators often use to steal their wages, stalk them, in sum, to further abuse. As an employer, you may be at a loss of how to handle work-related struggles that an employed victim or survivor faces. However, it is everyone’s responsibility to speak out against abuse. Learn how can you be an ally to your employee!
To all well-meaning employers,
Here’s the reality-- at some point in your career, you may have employees that is either a survivor or victim of abuse. The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence reported that 21 percent of full-time surveyed employed adults are victims of domestic violence and that 74 percent of those individuals also have been harassed at their workplace. That means that out of 500 employees you have, 105 will be a victim of domestic violence and 78 will be harrassed in their workplace. How can this affect you as an employer in your day-to-day? Perpetrators may be using the workplace as a means to further the abuse they inflict on some of your employees. Some abusers may be stealing your employees’ paychecks, damaging their car or stealing their money for public transportation, so they can’t go to work or even show up and threaten them at the workplace without your knowledge. .
Although physical violence is the form of abuse most commonly associated with intimate partner violence (IPV), the work-related struggles of victims and survivors of domestic abuse cannot be overlooked. To attach a few figures to the financial blows victims of domestic violence have to endure, consider that the U.S. Department of Labor reports that they lose nearly 8 million days of paid work every year. Naturally, you and your company suffer as well, as this results in a $1.8 billion loss in productivity for employers. What is even more concerning is that when perpetrators and victims work together, rifts among team members emerge, anxiety among employees who are aware of their coworkers’ abusive relationship spreads, and managers feel helpless in the face of such an overwhelming Human Resources (HR) crisis.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 16 percent of organizations have had a domestic violence incident in the past five years and that 19 percent had an issue in the past year. Yet the same organization also found that the majority of firms (65 percent) don’t have a formal workplace domestic violence prevention policy in place, and a meager 20 percent train their staff on how to deal with workplace domestic violence.
Dealing with workplace domestic violence and helping employees who are victims is no easy task. Maybe you, as the employer, genuinely want to help, but you are afraid of being held liable both if you do or don’t adopt a domestic violence policy. You ask yourself what your legal liabilities would be, were you to do something, and what they would be if you didn’t. And how are you protected? You ask whether domestic abuse is a “family matter” or an “issue best left to law enforcement”, and whether inquiring about your workers’ situation at home can be interpreted as an invasion of privacy. There’s also the question of who in the organization is to tackle the issue? Should management or HR be involved?
You may also assume that existing legislation is already tackling the issue for you. Perhaps, you think that existing federal laws that apply to all employees, although not tailored to victims of abuse, suffice. Your firm may have paid or unpaid leave policies, so you think your workers can take advantage of their eligibility for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, should they need some time off to recover from temporary injuries inflicted by the abuser, time to go to court, search for a shelter or to get a restraining order. Maybe you provide paid disability leave, and you think victims with disabilities caused by domestic violence are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You think that, if the abuser or perpetrator is a coworker or supervisor of the victim, your sexual harassment policy will prevent sexual abuse in the workplace.
But guess what? All of this is not enough. Because, in spite of all these Acts, as we speak, abused workers are dying on genuinely well-intentioned employers. This is the case in Alice B.’s (District Manager) story:
Alice notified her supervisor that she was going through a nasty divorce and custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-husband. The relationship with her husband was quite contentious and evolved to the point that he threatened to kill her. He even sent their two children home from a visit with him with several bullets to give to their mother.
Alice's supervisor immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation. He encouraged Alice to file a police report and obtain a temporary restraining order. He also circulated a picture of Alice's husband around the workplace and arranged to have armed security present during the hours that Alice worked. Three days later Alice's husband confronted Alice in the company parking lot, and shot her to death as she was getting out of her car.
The International Risk Management Institute (IRMI) rightly points out that Alice B. “should not have been allowed to continue working on-site until there was a high degree of certainty that her husband no longer posed a threat to her and/or her coworkers”. Her company clearly went to great lengths to try and ensure her safety, an effort that is praiseworthy, but, in the end, it failed to put in place the most important safety measure of all, as the IRMI argues: “the safer choice for Alice's company would have been to permit Alice to work off-site, or place her on leave until the threat ended”, a mistake that cost Alice’s life.
Every employer (and employee) is part of a broader system - the job market - a system that batters victims and survivors of domestic violence itself, sometimes in hard-to-detect, subtle ways. For example, while firms don’t openly discriminate against victims of domestic abuse, a prefered hiring method of theirs - favoring job applicants with a strong social media presence that reach out to employers via websites such as LinkedIn - is particularly detrimental to this demographic.
For survivors of domestic violence, safety in the aftermath of an abusive relationship often equates with becoming invisible. This, of course, is incompatible with sharing personal details and location on the internet, tagging and being tagged in online posts and including one’s phone number and address on a resumé. The issue is that, in current labor markets, being invisible is incompatible with developing the social and professional networks that would lift survivors up from the difficult financial situation abuse has probably left them in.
So what can you do as an employer?
Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence and Unison have an array of resources for employers, including a Model Workplace Policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking and a Model workplace agreement on domestic violence and abuse that you could consider implementing at your own firm. Every company should work directly with its legal departments to develop its own policies and programs, however, using the latest information on national and state IPV legislation, leave for victims and nondiscrimination laws.
Re-think Your Hiring Practices
You now know that, although survivors and other job applicants may have similar skills, survivors simply cannot safely engage in social media and the regular online job hunt. This should, at the very least, make you consider refusing discrimination against a job candidate with a missing social media profile if you don’t know the reasons for their meager online presence.
What to do If An Employee Discloses Abuse
In case an employee discloses being in an abusive relationship, the Cambridge Public Health Department advises Human Resources to:
Communicate their concerns for the employee’s safety and ask the victim what changes to the workplace would increase their safety;
Ensure the employee that HR believes them;
Refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Program that specifically deals with domestic violence offenders and victims and use the guidance of local domestic violence support agencies with trained staff;
Be clear that your role is to try to help and not to judge, belittle or criticize victims’ reasons for staying with or returning to their abuser;
In case of workplace safety concerns, security staff should be trained to, among other tasks, perform threat assessments, create individual workplace safety plans, escort victims to and from the workplace, secure parking and other spaces, and screen calls made into the workplace.
How to Treat an Employee That Is A Domestic Violence Survivor
There’s also the smaller everyday things you can do to help. Abuse leaves many scars that alter the way survivors exist in the workplace, PTSD among them. Try to step into survivors’ shoes. Some have been stalked for years. They may want a desk near an exit door or where they can see all their coworkers. Let them have it. A variety of places, objects, sounds, words, and people may be triggering for some of your employees suffering from PTSD, who may have to take unplanned breaks to calm down from anxiety or a panic attack. Let them have that break.
Home being a place permeated by abuse, work may be one of the few spaces where victims can escape perpetrators and seek help. Abusers often distancing victims from family and friends, coworkers may be their only ally. Unsurprisingly then, work and the financial independence it can provide are often a target of abuse. It’s an employers’ duty to provide victims and survivors with a safe workspace. Yes, that may require extra work and understanding on your part, but, really, accommodating for victims and survivors’ special work needs without judgement is basic human decency.
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