HR Management & Compliance

HR Can (and Should) Help Victims of Domestic Violence

As my home state of Connecticut and the surrounding states began to recover somewhat from the coronavirus, my wife was thinking of getting in touch with her favorite hairdresser and friend from her hometown of Queens. When she tried to get in touch, she learned that her friend had been tragically murdered by her husband in front of their children. We were all shocked and saddened, but her story is far from unique. Statistically speaking, the recipient of domestic violence all too often ends up losing his or her life, and anyone can be a victim, including one of your employees.

Source: Prostock-studio / shutterstock

The domestic violence situation has always been very serious and far more widespread than reported and certainly more widespread than it should be. The current crisis, like most crises, has seen a tragic rise in domestic violence. Victims are stuck in their homes with their abusers, more trapped than ever, and the situation gives abusers a new level of control.

The truth is, employers and HR in particular can and should help for two very important reasons. First, anyone in a position to help save lives is morally obligated to do so. Second, domestic violence regularly spills over into the workplace and can impact many more people than just the victim.

Domestic Violence Is a Workplace Issue

I recently spoke with expert Kim Brunell, the Associate Director at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy that specializes in this and other workplace risks. She expressed concern that when her organization brings up the threat of domestic violence, “sometimes we get people saying that this is an issue that’s occurring in the personal life of an employee. Is it any of my business?” Brunell believes that this is a workplace issue, and she explained three reasons why.

1. Domestic Violence Can and Will Spill Over into the Workplace

If an employee has been working from home “under the isolation and control of her abuser, a return to the physical workplace may be the victim’s first opportunity to escape her abuser,” says Brunell. As workplaces provide the option to work from the workplace, many abuse victims will likely take that opportunity. According to Brunell, “This may represent a loss of control to the abuser and could become a trigger and present an elevated concern for workplace violence” to spill into the workplace.

2. Abusers May Have Secret Access to Work Documents, E-Mail, and Files

Brunell warns that when an employee is a victim of domestic violence and works remotely, the person may find himself or herself “with an abuser who uses the pandemic as a scare tactic to keep the victim at home and completely isolated from others.” She goes on to say that if part of that control involves “listening or monitoring work communications or reading and editing company e-mails, that presents a data privacy or security concern for the employer.”

3. Victims of Domestic Violence Can and Will Fall Behind on Their Work

Speaking of worker productivity in the context of something terrible like domestic violence can be difficult. However, such victims often have serious productivity and performance issues that may be invisible to their employer. Employers that do not have the tools they need to identify when an employee is a victim may take disciplinary action against that employee without understanding that what the person really needs is help.

Employers Truly Can Help

Domestic violence is uncomfortable. It can seem like a private matter that is none of anyone else’s business. However, employers in general and HR specifically are in a unique and critical place to genuinely provide assistance to these victims. When you consider how often domestic violence escalates to murder, anyone who can help really should help. And employers have every reason. Not only can they help someone escape violence, but they can also show their employees how much they care and improve their organization’s security. Let’s take a look at how.

Have Policies in Place

When an organization does not discuss domestic violence during its orientation, in employee handbooks, or through training and other forms of employee communication, it fails to do something very important: let victims know it is a safe place to discuss their abuse.

Step one should be officially acknowledging the issue so your employees know they can come forward if they are being abused or know of someone being abused. This sets the stage for other important steps employers can take, like listening.

“Model policies providing things like the purpose and goals, the organizational commitment to a safe workplace, and a supportive climate to prevent domestic violence incidents and reduce the negative effects of domestic violence,” says Brunell.

She adds that a good policy should at least include the following:

  1. State the purpose and goal of your policy. This should include the organizational commitment to a safe workplace and a supportive climate to prevent domestic violence incidents and reduce its negative effects. This will show public support for victims.
  2. Make sure domestic violence is well-defined in your policy. As with many uncomfortable topics, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Define domestic violence and what behaviors constitute it. That includes everything from being controlled, physically assaulted, verbally abused, and stalked. Do your research, and make sure the terms are well-defined.
  3. Be clear about the role of protective and restraining orders. Your policy should define what happens when an employee has a restraining or protective order. That means understanding if it prohibits the abuser from coming to the employee’s place of work or if the employee should be required to notify the employer. It helps you put together a plan to keep that employee and others in the workplace safe.
  4. Cleary define confidentiality controls and the response to violence. This part of the policy should answer questions like what will and will not be confidential; how you are legally required to accommodate a victim; and which federal, local, and state laws play a role when it comes to taking nondiscriminatory action against a victim or to what degree victims of domestic violence may be disclosed.

Be Open to Learning About Abuse from Employees, and Train Frontline Managers

Once your policies are defined and communicated to employees, having a system in place for abuse victims to be heard by their employer creates the potential for victims to speak up and receive assistance.

“An employer can start by promoting awareness of the increased risk during this time with that combination of stress and isolation and financial strain,” which are all factors that exacerbate domestic violence, says Brunell.

Once a system is created for letting employees know they can be heard, frontline managers need to be trained to handle the situation. Brunell says, “Frontline managers, especially during a period of remote work, may be that isolated employee’s only contact with the outside world if he or she is being controlled by the abuser. Really listening to those needs” is critical. If managers are not trained on how to listen or react, cautious and vulnerable victims may not come forward, or worse, they’ll come forward and feel like they were not taken seriously.

Such training not only helps managers listen to their employees who need help but also gives them the tools they need to really make a difference. They can then assess whether “new housing is needed to escape or medical or psychological treatment is required. Maybe the person needs food or is seeking a protective order or just some time to recover from abuse.” Such support needs to be available and tactfully deployed when victims raise their hands. Training your managers will be critical for making that happen.

Learn the Signs

Domestic violence can be difficult to spot because victims may take whatever measures they can to avoid detection to protect themselves from further abuse, which often occurs when a victim reaches out for help and the abuser finds out.

However, the current environment makes spotting victims even harder. Before, they may have had signs of physical abuse, like bruising or visible injuries, but those may be much more difficult to see now.

However, there are a few ways to detect abuse victims. They do not guarantee that abuse is happening, but they can help paint a picture:

  1. They have recurring and obvious injuries. Everyone gets hurt sometimes. But most people do not get hurt all the time. If an employee regularly has signs of injury, the person might be a victim of abuse.
  2. Unexplained absences. Victims may take time off to recover from injuries so they are not detected. If they are being regularly injured, these absences may stack up.
  3. Their e-mails and other workplace communications don’t sound like them. Everyone has his or her own unique style of communicating. If someone’s communication style changes, this may be a sign that someone else—potentially an abuser—has taken over such communication.
  4. They refuse to do video chats or conferences. When there are physical signs of abuse, victims may not want to appear on camera for fear it will be noticed.
  5. They are eager to return to work, even when it seems unsafe to do so. Victims may be itching to get out from under the control of their abuser and will be willing to risk an unsafe workplace to escape their abuse. Listen carefully when someone pressures employers to return to work.

If you have a suspicion that an employee is an abuse victim, what you do next can make a big difference. Brunell says, “Taking the time and effort to check in on the employee and their well-being and segueing into how they are faring and what their needs are” are good ways to try to get a victim to tell you if he or she is being abused.

Take Action

The actions you take next depend on your local, federal, and state laws, as well as your policies. But whatever your actions are, make sure they are well-defined and that managers are trained on them. It might be as simple as referring employees to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or available local resources. Or, it might include connecting them with your employee assistance program or other services your organization may offer.

Brunell also cautions, “It’s so important, on this topic, for employers to take that supportive role—not act as a counselor but take that supportive role of people who are victims of domestic violence.” That means having a plan regarding what to do when you learn of an abuse victim and calmly and successfully guiding the person through that process.

Codes Play an Important Role

Perhaps you have heard of “Angel Shots.” They are specific drinks women can order at a bar to alert the bartender they are being stalked or harassed or otherwise feel unsafe. The bartender can then take the appropriate action. Lists of these drinks can often be found in the women’s bathroom and play a large role in combating date rape and other forms of physical and sexual abuse.

Similarly, code words and actions have been created to give victims a way to communicate their abuse to others. Remember that, especially now, abusers may be monitoring their victim’s every communication. Victims may not be in a position to say something as simple as “I need help” without being detected by their abuser.

“Employers should establish clear reporting channels for coworkers to report concerns. Those should be in multiple mediums. So, in the event that they are being monitored very closely by [an abuser], they could come up with a key word or some code words modeled after [the] Angel Shot [that] signals bartenders,” says Brunell.

One popular symbol that has gone viral involves a simple hand signal. Learn more about it here.

Final Thoughts

No one person can solve domestic violence. It’s an uncomfortable situation with complex emotions and many difficulties. And no one article, including this one, can outline everything you need to know to help victims and prevent abuse. Do your research, gather your resources, and rely on organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), women’s shelters, and other local resources. But most of all, remember how important compassion and understanding are, especially now, when so many victims are trapped in their homes with their tormentors.