This morning, Valerie came in to work with a cast on her wrist and heavy makeup on her face. She told Susie, her supervisor, that she had an accident, but she’s fine now and able to work. Later, Susie overhears Valerie telling a coworker that she took out a restraining order against her boyfriend. Susie calls HR for advice. What should HR do?
First, it’s important that HR meet with Valerie promptly, both to check on her ability to do her job while she’s wearing a cast and to follow up about whether there’s a restraining order in place. It’s critical to understand the likelihood of any risks to Valerie and potentially to other employees, particularly if she feels she’s currently in danger or if she has any reason to believe there’s a threat of physical harm to her coworkers. You should encourage her to cooperate and provide information that will help you evaluate the risk and take any necessary precautions. That may mean giving a copy of the restraining order to HR so you can confirm whether it does, or determine whether it should, list the workplace as off-limits to the boyfriend.
After being put on notice of a domestic situation, HR should take steps to make sure the workplace is safe. Is the boyfriend aware that he must stay away from your premises? Does Valerie think he will respect those boundaries? Did the boyfriend make any threats involving the workplace? If Valerie is concerned about her personal safety while she’s at work or says her boyfriend might be upset at her coworkers, HR should not only contact people who need to know internally but also make sure the local authorities are aware of the situation.
Offer Your Support, Through EAP and Otherwise
HR can take a number of steps to support Valerie when she’s at work. Because she is injured, you should determine whether she needs any accommodations to do her job. Even if she didn’t have any physical injuries, HR—and her supervisor—should be alert to any performance problems that could be related to any emotional or mental distress she might experience. Additionally, you might ask whether she feels she needs other types of accommodations, and you should be open to reasonable adjustments, such as changing her shift, moving her desk to a less visible area, allowing her to vary her work hours so her schedule isn’t predictable, letting her work from home, and offering her a parking space closer to the building.
If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), remind Valerie that she can seek emotional and other support through the program. If you don’t have an established relationship with an EAP provider, you might want to explore setting up such a program. Another key question is whether Valerie has a support system outside the office and is aware of any outside resources available to her.
Valerie might need time off to take care of herself or her legal issues. Under RSA 275:62, New Hampshire employers with more than 25 employees must provide time off to employees who are victims of a crime so they many attend legal or investigative proceedings associated with the prosecution of the crime, unless the leave would be an undue hardship for the employer. The statute applies to “any person who suffers direct or threatened physical, emotional, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or the attempted commission of a crime.” The time off may be unpaid, or you or the employee can choose to substitute paid vacation, personal time, or sick leave. Before taking the time off, Valerie must give you a copy of the court notice or other relevant papers.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Valerie should be encouraged to stay in touch with HR if the situation or the restraining order changes. As with other sensitive situations, assure her that you will keep the information as confidential as possible and share it only on a need-to-know basis. You are legally required to maintain the confidentiality of any written documents or records she provides to establish her need to take leave from work.
A victim of domestic violence may be concerned that sharing information with her employer could jeopardize her job. It’s important not to discriminate or retaliate against Valerie in connection with her domestic situation or for taking time off to meet with a lawyer or attend a hearing related to the restraining order. Under RSA 275:71, New Hampshire employers must not “discharge, threaten to discharge, demote, suspend, or in any manner discriminate or retaliate against an individual with regard to promotion, compensation or other terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because the individual is a victim of domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault, or stalking.” Job applicants are also protected under the law.
Finally, you shouldn’t discriminate or retaliate against Valerie if she refuses to share information with you or denies that she needs any help. In that case, however, you should still take precautions to make sure the workplace is safe.
Evaluate Your Security Protocols
With or without Valerie’s cooperation, once you’re aware of a potential security risk, you should reevaluate your security features and procedures. What are the security protocols for the building? Do you have security personnel who should be advised to be on the lookout for the boyfriend? Are the doors locked, and do employees have security badges? Are there cameras? You should ask Valerie to provide a description of the boyfriend and his vehicle as well as a photograph you can share with the receptionist and others who might be in a position to see an unauthorized person entering the building.
However, those precautions should be balanced against Valerie’s desire to maintain privacy in a situation that might be embarrassing or upsetting to her. Without telling other employees specifically what’s going on, you can certainly remind everyone about your safety protocols and procedures for visitors and guests. Workers should ensure that the doors that should lock are closed behind them, and you should reinforce the use of badges, sign-in logs, and other security measures.
Instances of workplace violence have been increasingly in the news. It’s important to take any threats of violence seriously, and address any situations that could put your employees at risk. When you become aware that an employee is a victim of domestic violence, you should confirm that there’s no imminent danger on your premises, take reasonable measures to protect your employees while they’re at work, and notify the people with a need to know to be prepared to call the police if they see a suspicious person on the premises.
Karen Whitley is a shareholder of Sheehan Phinney and a member of the labor and employment group. Whitley is also an editor of New Hampshire Employment Law Letter and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.