HR Management & Compliance

A Clear and Present Danger: Domestic Violence in the Workplace

On Monday, November 19, emergency room doctor Tamara O’Neal was shot outside her workplace, Mercy Hospital & Medical Center on Chicago’s south side. According to sources, the shooter, Juan Lopez, was angry with her over a broken engagement, leading to yet another workplace active shooter situation. While coworkers can be the perpetrators of workplace violence, employers must also be aware of the threat of domestic violence spillover stemming from an abuser in an employee’s home. If an employee reports that he or she is experiencing abuse at home, awareness and sensitivity on the part of the employer goes a long way. It’s a situation all too familiar to Lynn Fairweather, MSW, president of Presage Consulting and Training, LLC.

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“The most important thing every victim of domestic violence needs is to make a safety plan and learn about their options,” says Fairweather, an abuse survivor, speaker, consultant, and author who has worked in the domestic violence response and prevention field for over 25 years. “This can be done both internally through management, HR, EAPs [employee assistance programs], or security personnel, and externally through local community-based and criminal justice referrals.”

Fairweather also notes that victims can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) to speak with an advocate—the hotline is free, confidential, and running 24/7. “I would recommend allowing work time and space to make these calls or plans,” advises Fairweather, “as many victims are not able to communicate safely during their off-time.”

Recognize the Warning Signs

There are many signs of domestic violence that employers can watch for. Three of the biggest warning signs are:

  1. Visible injuries or obvious excuses and cover-ups. “These might include blaming a black eye on a door handle or wearing a turtleneck in mid-summer,” says Fairweather.”
  2. Performance issues. Fairweather notes that “frequent absenteeism, tardiness, reduced productivity, and excessive partner calls or visits at work” could all be signs of DV issues.
  3. Anxiety and/or depression. “This often results in isolation or withdrawal from coworkers,” Fairweather says.

However, even if an employer notices these or other symptoms of a domestic violence situation, there is the chance that the employee will be unwilling to officially report abuse. How should an employer proceed?

Unwilling (or Unable) to Come Forward

“Domestic violence victims have a lot to fear in coming forward,” Fairweather explains. “When their biggest secret is revealed, others may expect them to make instant, daunting life changes—helpers sometimes project onto victims what they believe they would do in the situation rather than what is truly best for the victim. Also, abusers may react by escalating their violence and threats. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that employees may truly be risking their lives by disclosing intimate partner abuse.”

Victims may have a variety of other concerns about the consequences of disclosing abuse, including:

  • The loss of their jobs;
  • The perception of them as being incapable of good performance; or
  • The possibility that they will become the subject of water-cooler gossip.

“This is why it’s important to emphasize, in both policy and procedure, that victim rights and confidentiality will be respected,” says Fairweather. “It’s also crucial that HR and management personnel be trained in methods for engaging abused employees using sensitive questions and observations instead of judgmental comments or unrealistic beliefs. When an initial interview is being planned, it may be helpful to invite an HR or EAP representative, an advocate from a local domestic violence service, or a coworker that the victim trusts.”

If employers are putting all of these best practices to proper use and a victim still refuses to disclose or cooperate with intervention, Fairweather suggests a number of strategies for working with reluctant or non-cooperative employee victims, one of which is backing off and waiting for the wheel to roll around again, so to speak. “Victims in the ‘false honeymoon’ period of the domestic violence cycle may be aligned with their abuser and hopeful for reconciliation or change,” she says. “The cycle then moves into a ‘tension building’ phase, and finally culminates with an ‘explosion,’ or abusive incident.” By taking steps to connect with a victim as soon as possible after a violent event, employers seeking to help the situation can increase their chances of victim participation and safety.

Should a victim still refuse help, other strategies employers can use include:

  • Reexamining the initial contact with the victim to see if there were any errors or miscommunications;
  • Offering to rework the safety or referral plan to make it more realistic or comfortable for the victim; or
  • Reaching out a second time with a different HR or management staff member with whom the victim may feel more comfortable.

“Remember that even if a victim refuses to disclose or cooperate with workplace involvement, they must still be informed of any actions taken by the employer,” stresses Fairweather. “For a person living in domestic violence, everything has repercussions, and failing to share interventions or security plans may put their life in danger.”

Domestic Violence Education

Fairweather points out that it’s impossible to prevent or manage something you don’t understand. Since domestic violence issues make up 20%–40% of threat cases handled by corporate security teams (not to mention the billions of dollars lost each year in associated costs), workplace violence training should absolutely include domestic violence education.

“Due to a variety of reasons, domestic violence is a different animal from other types of targeted violence,” Fairweather says. “If it’s dynamics, types, prevalence, and patterns are not clear to threat managers, then the solutions won’t be either.” Such an approach would include information regarding impacts to victims, coworkers, and the business as a whole.

Fairweather advises that management, HR, and security staff need to be trained on what is known as the “3 Rs”:

  • Recognizing victims,
  • Responding to victims, and
  • Referring victims.

“Education needs to be supported by strong, comprehensive domestic violence and workplace violence policies, which all employees should be made aware of,” says Fairweather.

What Does the Future Hold for Prevention?

When asked if she feels generally optimistic or pessimistic when it comes to workplace violence prevention, Fairweather supposes that she feels a little bit of both.

“I’m mostly optimistic because the picture is improving on many fronts, particularly within large businesses that understand the importance of addressing workplace violence and domestic violence specifically,” she says. “The issue itself is becoming less taboo, and many companies are wisely providing training for their key staff.”

However, there is still plenty of room for improvement—according to the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, over 70% of U.S. businesses have no workplace or domestic violence programs and policies in place.

“Many employers still believe that domestic violence is ‘family business’ or ‘the victim’s problem,’” Fairweather explains. “But in reality, 59% of America’s mass shootings are related to domestic violence. As of now, we see three women per week murdered on the job as a result of domestic violence—therefore, we obviously still have a lot of work to do.”

Lynn FairweatherLynn Fairweather, MSW is the president of Presage Consulting and Training, a threat assessment firm focused on preventing domestic violence. Lynn has over 20 years experience working with public and private sector organizations to develop methods for recognizing the risk factors that lead to incidents of workplace domestic violence, and putting preventative measures in place.