California HR

Workplace Violence: An Ex-Spouse Is Threatening Our Employee; What Do We Do?

Recently, the abusive ex-husband of one of our employees entered our facility and threatened the employee and several of her co-workers. No one was injured, but the employees are now looking to us to do something. Should we encourage employees who are victims of domestic violence to notify us if there’s a possibility of this kind of thing happening? If we suspect an employee is a domestic violence victim, what should we do? What sort of security or other help should we offer these employees? — Uneasy in San Francisco



We turned to Rebecca Speer for an answer to this challenging problem.

Your question addresses one of the most difficult issues an employer can face: the “spillover” of domestic violence into the workplace. Although domestic violence might seem a strictly personal or private problem, many employers will learn—as you have—that it can directly affect the workplace. Beyond its potential impact on an abused employee’s attendance, productivity, and well-being, domestic violence at times can raise significant safety concerns for an organization, leading an employer to ask: What must I do when I learn or suspect that an employee’s abusive partner has threatened the employee at work and, as in this case, other employees as well?

Although the inherent complexity of domestic violence situations precludes a rote approach, several principles can help guide you through these often murky and even treacherous waters. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

You Are Not Alone

As an employer faced with the workplace effects of domestic violence, you’re not alone. Millions of people— predominantly women—are beaten by intimate partners each year, and this violence can follow them straight to work. Seventy-five percent of battered women responding to one survey reported that their abusers regularly threatened them at work, either in person or by telephone. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, each year approximately 18,700 violent events in the workplace are committed by a victim’s current or former spouse, partner, or boyfriend/girlfriend.

As these figures suggest, the workplace is often an abuser’s most accessible venue for oppression, intimidation, and violence, especially when the abused partner attempts to leave the relationship. Many times, the office is the one place the abuser can count on finding his or her victim.

Anecdotally, clients report that a good percentage of workplace safety issues involving threats or violence stem from domestic violence situations. Surveys conducted by human resources and security associations show that employers consistently rank domestic violence as a chief security concern. Overall, the spillover of domestic violence into the workplace is a top security issue for companies nationwide.

7 Steps for Preventing Workplace Violence

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management reveals that more than half the companies in the United States have experienced some form of workplace violence.

Learn how to protect your workplace with our free White Paper, 7 Steps for Preventing Workplace Violence.

No Socioeconomic or Ethnic Bounds

The chains of abuse that lure an abused partner into a destructive relationship (and often keep her or him in it) ignore race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social and financial status. Domestic violence affectstop management as well as entry-level workers. It occurs in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Furthermore, while the overwhelming majority of abusers are men, abusers are sometimes women.

You Have an Obligation

You have the right and the obligation to intervene when domestic violence affects workplace safety. Understandably, many employers feel reluctant to interfere in situations involving domestic violence, given the private nature of the problem. However, it becomes imperative for you as an employer to promptly address safety issues when you become aware of threats or other conduct by an abusive partner (or suspected abusive partner) that could affect the workplace. As a legal matter, you must take responsible steps to protect workplace safety, irrespective of the identity or motivation of a possible perpetrator.

Intervention requires a thoughtful, interdisciplinary approach. Proper intervention will vary from situation to situation but typically will involve the following:

  • Get to the facts. When you become aware of threats or other conduct that could potentially affect workplace safety, begin by getting the facts. How easily you can gather information often will depend on whether the employee in question discloses an abusive relationship to you or resists your intervention. Either way, it is important to determine, to the extent you can, facts that will help you assess the existence and nature of any workplace threat posed by an abuser. These facts include:
    1. The timing, frequency, and nature of threats involving the workplace;
    2. Whether the abuser has come to the workplace before;
    3. Whether the abuser knows where the employee works in the building or parks his or her car;
    4. Whether any restraining orders are in effect; and
    5. Whether the employee has recently attempted to leave the relationship or has communicated to the abuser a desire to end the relationship.

    Of course, beyond the employee in question, pertinent facts about the abuser can be learned from knowledgeable co-workers and an appropriate criminal background check.

  • Respect privacy and show compassion. In gathering the facts, diligently respect the employee’s privacy. Ask only those questions whose answers will advance your goal of addressing workplace safety. Focus on the abuser’s behavior as it affects the workplace, and don’t stray into unnecessary terrain. In addition, show empathy and compassion; do not engage in victim-blaming. Solicit a reluctant employee’s cooperation by identifying the problem behavior in a nonjudgmental way and explaining the company’s need to safeguard the workplace— both for the employee and others.
  • Seek expert help. Get the help you need to evaluate risk and craft an appropriate response. Conduct or circumstances that threaten workplace safety raise a constellation of behavioral, security, and legal issues and require an interdisciplinary approach. Employers often will greatly benefit from three resources in managing threats and violence:
    1. A psychologist or psychiatrist trained in violence risk assessment who can assist with fact-gathering and risk evaluation and can provide practical advice from a behavioral perspective regarding strategies to mitigate risk;
    2. An employment law attorney with direct experience in dealing with workplace violence issues; and
    3. A security professional who can recommend and help implement any necessary security measures and assist with any criminal background check considered appropriate. Working together, you and your assembled team of experts can ensure an effective course of action that is both legal and safe.
  • Consider appropriate security measures. When a risk of onsite violence has been identified, consider possible security measures to help mitigate that risk. Depending on a number of factors, security measures can include:
    • Bolstering onsite security
    • Providing a photograph of the abuser to personnel responsible for controlling access into the workplace
    • Changing and delisting the employee’s direct dial office telephone number and e-mail address
    • Routing harassing calls and e-mails to security
    • Keeping the employee’s location confidential
    • Providing the employee with a parking space near the building entrance
    • Arranging for security personnel to escort the employee to and from the parking lot
    • Instructing front-office staff in what to do if the abuser is seen entering the workplace
    • When feasible and necessary, temporarily relocating the abused employee to another worksite.
  • Don’t overly rely on restraining orders. Resist the temptation to depend on a restraining order to eliminate violence. Corporate workplace violence restraining orders—available to employers in California—at times can prove extremely helpful. However, they are not always appropriate or advisable and are by no means a panacea. Get help from the right professionals in evaluating the potential benefits and pitfalls of a restraining order.

Comply with Relevant Labor Code Provisions Permitting Time Off

At times, an appropriate response to domestic violence situations involves giving an employee time off to seek medical attention, psychological counseling, or legal intervention to address the abuse in question. Two California statutes prohibit employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees who need time off for domestic violence-related needs. Labor Code Section 230 prohibits discrimination or retaliation based on an employee’s need for time off to obtain or attempt to obtain any relief (including a restraining order) to help ensure the health, safety, or welfare of the employee or his or her child. Labor Code Section 230.1 requires California employers with 25 or more employees to provide, within certain limitations, unpaid time off for domestic violence victims who need to seek medical attention, obtain assistance from a shelter or crisis center, receive psychological counseling, and/or to take action to increase their safety.

Additional Suggestions

While you must intervene, remain mindful of the proper scope of your involvement. Just as some employers don’t intervene in situations involving domestic violence when they should, others adopt an overly broad role, counseling the abused employee and assisting him or her in leaving the abusive relationship. Although such an impulse is admirable, it is not always advisable or productive because most managers simply don’t have the requisite training or expertise to offer such help. Further, this more extensive involvement raises important legal issues, especially when questions of employee privacy and off-thejob safety are concerned. Rather than taking on an overly broad role, it is better to refer the employee to appropriate community resources, such as a local domestic violence shelter, a domestic violence hotline, or the company’s Employee Assistance Program. Strengthen your company’s efforts to protect workplace safety by addressing domestic violence in your workplace violence policy and related training. A wellcrafted policy can contain a provision requiring or strongly encouraging employees to inform appropriate personnel of any restraining orders affecting the workplace and any harassment or threats made to the workplace from any source. You can also conduct training designed to promote a workplace that is well-informed about domestic violence. This can increase the likelihood that you will learn about domestic violence that compromises workplace safety and how to appropriately respond.

Overall, domestic violence is a complex problem that defies easy answers. Interested employers can refer to this free publication that contain a comprehensive discussion of the issue: Workplace Violence—Issues in Response (FBI 2003).

Rebecca A. Speer is founder and principal of Speer Associates/Workplace Counsel, an employment law and employee relations consulting firm in San Francisco.