Benefits and Compensation, Learning & Development

How Employers Can Address Domestic Violence

Every workplace is at risk of encountering instances of domestic violence. However, being proactive in addressing this difficult issue can have a big impact on both the individuals affected and the organization as a whole. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an opportunity for HR professionals and their organizations to consider how to take action to safeguard employees and minimize risk.

Domestic violence follows victims to the workplace, and the effects are devastating to the victim, the victim’s coworkers, and the company’s bottom line. For organizations that may employ either victims or perpetrators, domestic violence can create a damaging ripple effect of lost productivity, legal concerns, and other costs, as well as the potential for an incident in the workplace.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 10 million people each year are the victims of intimate partner violence. According to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly half of women and 40% of men report being the victims of violence by a partner at some point in their lives. This means the likelihood of an employee being either a victim or a perpetrator is higher than many may realize.

Domestic violence is a difficult subject matter to tackle within the workplace; however, by implementing prevention and intervention strategies and creating an action plan, HR professionals and leaders can effectively address domestic violence within their workforce, helping their organization protect their employees while minimizing their liability and risk.

Understanding the Workplace Impact

Domestic violence impacts people of all ages, races, and backgrounds, including employed adults. Overall, one in four adults in the United States will be abused by an intimate partner during their lifetime, and among employed adults (men and women), the number is one in five.

While both men and women are affected by this issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the leading cause of death for women at work is homicide. From 1997–2009, 321 women and 38 men were killed at work by an intimate partner. And nearly a quarter of incidents of workplace violence can be traced back to intimate partner relationships when someone enters a workplace to target a current or former partner.

While alarming, the effects on the workplace begin much sooner, and everyone pays the toll. Many victims report their ability to work is affected by domestic violence; an astonishing 74% report some form of harassment from their abusers while they are at work.

And the effects of domestic violence are not limited to victims; a survey conducted by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence found that at least 44% of those who worked with a victim of domestic violence reported feeling personally impacted, including concern for their own safety. This can also have a devastating effect on workplace morale.

Recognizing Instances of Domestic Violence

There is no one root cause of domestic violence; it can stem from a combination of individual, societal, and situational factors. It is important to note that domestic violence is not limited to physical abuse. It can include any range of assaultive and coercive behaviors used by an individual to hurt, dominate, or control an intimate a partner or family member, such as stalking, emotional or verbal abuse, financial control, and more.

In order to effectively support employees experiencing domestic violence, it is critical to understand some of the common signs that may indicate a problem:

  • Unexplained bruises
  • Unusually quiet/withdrawn
  • Frequent absences
  • Lack of concentration
  • Wearing concealing clothing, even in warm weather
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Change in performance attitude
  • Frequent breaks or appointments with friends/family
  • Receipt of harassing phone calls

If an employee demonstrates any of these red flags, intervening in a sensitive and private manner can make a difference and encourage the person to seek help before the problem escalates. In order to be most effective, it is beneficial for managers and other employees to be prepared to handle this important yet personal matter.

Keep in mind the workplace is somewhere perpetrators know they can locate their victim. This increases risk and liability for businesses, which can also lead to additional costs.

The Costs of Domestic Violence

Whether it’s a physical injury, a threatening phone call, stalking in the parking lot, missed work due to abuse at home, stress, or distraction, intimate partner violence can result in high absenteeism and turnover, lost wages, a heightened risk of violence to coworkers, and lost productivity. The price for everyone is steep.

Costs associated with domestic violence can include:

  • Lost productivity. In terms of lost productivity alone, businesses pay $729 million each year related to domestic violence, according to the CDC. And more than 80% of employees experiencing domestic violence indicate this has negatively impacted their ability to obtain or maintain employment.
  • Healthcare costs. Healthcare costs are also higher for domestic violence victims, and employers often pay the price. Victims frequently require medical attention and support as a result of abuse, leading to combined medical and mental healthcare costs of more than $4 billion a year.
  • Legal and liability issues. Domestic violence can also expose a company to legal liability, which can carry a hefty price tag, potentially driving employers’ costs up further.

Despite the risks associated with this issue, the majority of workplaces do not have a program to address domestic violence.

How Businesses Can Address Domestic Violence

Surprisingly, 65% of respondents to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management reported that their organization does not have a policy or program in place to prevent or address domestic violence.

While employers are often aware of issues within their organization, they may be reluctant to take action due to uncertainty about their role, among other reasons. However, organizations and their partners have the potential to help prevent issues and support their employees, so it is critical to put a plan in place to address this issue.

Instituting a plan can benefit both the organization and individual employees by protecting both victims and their colleagues, mitigating risk and liability, minimizing associated costs, and decreasing turnover and lost productivity.  

By collaborating with employees, management, and other external resources, companies can create and put a comprehensive plan into action that addresses prevention, intervention, and response. Key components of this program include:

  • Initial assessment. Before creating a policy, work with management to analyze past incidents, assess the potential for issues, and assess preparedness. This will ensure the plan is tailored to the organization’s unique needs.
  • Multidisciplinary policy. Based on the results of the assessment, this should include how the organization will support victims, including providing security measures and disciplinary procedures for perpetrators.
  • Robust training plan. In order for the policy to be effective, it is important to raise awareness of the issue and educate both managers and employees on how to identify potential situations and respond appropriately.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Get the message out to the workforce through a variety of channels, including newsletters, posters in break rooms or restrooms, the intranet, and more. This can include information about the company’s program, as well as how to access available resources.

Organizations should also understand what resources are available to them and form relationships with groups that can provide a range of support when needed, including an employee assistance program (EAP), local domestic violence centers or shelters, and law enforcement personnel.

Domestic violence is a serious issue both in and out of the workplace, but with careful planning and preparation, organizations and their partners can address this important subject and enhance the health and safety of their workforce, reduce the impact on productivity and profitability, and prevent liability.

Benefits professionals play an important role in this process by helping organizations proactively implement the right programs to help should the need arise. It might be too late if you wait until something happens. By raising awareness of this important issue and connecting businesses with EAPs and other resources, brokers, consultants, and others can ensure employers are prepared to address issues related to domestic violence should they arise, reducing liability while ensuring the safety of the workforce.

If you or someone you know may be impacted by intimate partner violence and need immediate help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP, is executive vice president of EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate. Alicea is a licensed psychologist and premier trainer with over 29 years of experience in the EAP field. He has a specialization with executive coaching and management consultations in assisting with difficult workplace situations and also conducts corporate training locally and on a national level.