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Workplace Violence Prevention

Domestic Violence in the Workplace: A Continuing Danger

James Madero | March 1, 2004

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Domestic violence has been spilling over into the workplace at an alarming rate. This national tragedy requires a necessary response involving a team approach to eliminate the threat.

Dana M.—Administrative Assistant: Dana had been a 6-year employee who was well liked by both her supervisors and coworkers. Her interactions with her coworkers were frequent and always appropriate. However, she rarely, if ever, spoke about her life outside the workplace. Most of her friends knew that she was married and had two children. Some of her coworkers met Dana's husband at one of the company's Christmas parties. No one was aware of any problems in Dana's marriage. She never mentioned she was having difficulties, nor did she exhibit any physical or emotional signs of injury or abuse. Late one morning Dana's husband came to the workplace, went to Dana's office and fired five shots at her, killing her instantly.

Mary Beth W.—Bank Teller: Mary Beth was having so many problems with her husband that she decided to take a couple of weeks off from work, with the hope that she could resolve them before returning to work. Her hopes began to fade as the number of extremely intense arguments increased on a daily basis. Things deteriorated to the point that one day her husband slashed all the tires on her car with his hunting knife, threatened to kill her, and then beat her up to the point that she had to go to the emergency room.

While she was being treated at the emergency room, the police came and took a detailed report from her. A warrant for her husband's arrest was issued and the police immediately began looking for him. Mary Beth stayed at the hospital over night. She was discharged the next morning and went home, where she remained for several days while the police sought out her husband so they could arrest him. He showed up at home late one evening, kicked in the side door to the house, found Mary Beth in her bedroom and fired three shots at her. He then ran out of the house. A neighbor called 911 for help. Unfortunately, Mary Beth died on the way to the hospital.

Alice B.—District Manager: Alice notified her supervisor that she was going through a nasty divorce and custody battle with her soon to be ex-husband. The relationship with her husband was quite contentious and evolved to the point that he threatened to kill her. He even sent their two children home from a visit with him with several bullets to give to their mother.

Alice's supervisor immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation. He encouraged Alice to file a police report and obtain a temporary restraining order. He also circulated a picture of Alice's husband around the workplace and arranged to have armed security present during the hours that Alice worked. Three days later Alice's husband confronted Alice in the company parking lot, and shot her to death as she was getting out of her car.

A National Tragedy

Incidents involving domestic violence are occurring at an alarming rate in the United States. According to a recent survey, one out of every three American women reported being the victim of physical abuse by an intimate partner. The overwhelming majority of adult domestic violence victims are women and the perpetrators are men. Approximately 1,000 women are murdered every year as a result of domestic violence. Their killers are usually their husband, former husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Almost 1 million women per year are the victims of non-lethal domestic violence, including rapes and sexual and physical assaults.

Domestic violence has been spilling over into the workplace at an alarming rate. There were over 30 women killed at work in domestic violence incidents during 2002. Seventy-four percent of employed battered women will experience abuse at work either in person or over the telephone. The total cost of domestic violence to America's companies and organizations is estimated to be $3 to $5 billion dollars per year.

A Necessary Response

Almost all employers would prefer not to get involved in the private lives of their employees. The preferred focus at work is to have employees meet the needs of their employer by performing the work for which they were hired. In the past, many employers tried to ignore domestic problems when they started to appear in the workplace. All too often, however, this approach resulted in tragic consequences.

Nowadays, employers are taking a more proactive approach. Employers have learned that a planned, organized, and rapid response during the early stages of domestic violence in the workplace can help decrease and sometimes prevent a serious escalation of violence.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the problem of domestic violence in the workplace is for an employer to develop and implement a comprehensive Workplace Violence Prevention Program that includes the following:

  • Workplace Violence Prevention Team
  • Workplace Violence Prevention Policy
  • Workplace Security Audit
  • Training for the Workplace Violence Prevention Team, Managers and Supervisors, and all Employees
  • Communication Plan for Reporting Incidents
  • Incident Response and Incident Management Plan and Procedures
  • Domestic Violence Response and Incident Management Plan and Procedures
  • Effectiveness Evaluation

The Team Approach

One of the most effective methods for dealing with all types of workplace violence incidents, and particularly those involving domestic violence, is to take a team approach. At a minimum, the Team is generally made up of members from the following areas: executive management, human resources, legal, security, and a workplace violence/threat assessment specialist. The Team should be trained by a Workplace Violence Prevention expert. Once the Team is trained and begins to respond to, and manage incidents, each member of the Team can bring his or her unique expertise and experience to the incident management process.

With regard to a domestic violence situation, Human Resources can provide information on the employee, facilitate contact with the company or organization's Employee Assistance Program, and/or local Domestic Violence Prevention organizations. Legal can advise the Team on privacy issues, negligence, and temporary restraining orders. Security deals with reporting incidents to the police, dealing with safety issues, and providing on-site security and other forms of protection.

Eliminating the Threat

The ultimate goal when dealing with domestic violence in the workplace is to make the workplace safe for all employees, customers, vendors, and anyone else who comes to the workplace. This can sometimes be a very daunting and challenging task. When a report of a possible domestic violence incident is made, many times the first reaction is to focus on the potential "employee victim," and initiate measures to insure his/her safety. This certainly is an important goal, and steps should be initiated immediately to accomplish this. At the same time, however, equal attention needs to be given to protect all of the organization's other employees.

The Team needs to address issues such as temporarily removing the potential "employee victim" from the worksite, notifying the police, placing armed security on-site, and having the threat assessment specialist evaluate the level of risk and begin formulating the steps to be taken to eliminate the threat to the workplace. It is critical when dealing with domestic violence in the workplace that the Team utilizes the expertise of all Team members, but particularly a Threat Assessment/Incident Management Specialist that has considerable experience with domestic violence.

Obstacles to a Safe Resolution

Even with the best intentions and expertise, there may be serious obstacles to attaining the goal of returning the worksite to a place of safety for all employees. The Team has to avoid giving advice that could backfire. For example, if the Team were to tell the "employee/victim" to leave his or her spouse and the spouse subsequently kills the employee, the employee's family may sue and take the position that the advice to leave was the cause of the employee's spouse committing the homicide. It is generally safer for the employer to refer the "employee/victim" to the police and/or a domestic violence prevention organization.

Another obstacle involves the "employee/victim" not following through with referrals to the police, domestic violence prevention organizations, or the Employee Assistance Program. There are also times when the "employee/victim" may withhold important information, provide incomplete or distorted information and/or engage in reckless behavior. Some domestic violence "employee/victims" have become involved in a romantic relationships with coworkers, further increasing the risk to the workplace. Occasionally, the "employee/victim" continues to have contact with the perpetrator, sometimes even violating their own restraining order.

Three Tragedies Revisited

Could the three domestic violence tragedies described above have been prevented? There is no way to determine this for sure, but applying some of the information discussed in this article might have made a difference. If Dana M. or a coworker had informed their employer about the potential for violent behavior from Dana's husband, then Dana's employer could have taken steps to protect her, including referring her to the police and a domestic violence prevention organization. Had this happened she might still be alive today.

If Mary Beth had stayed away from her home and gone into hiding, she too might still be alive today. Somewhere along the line, Mary Beth was either given bad advice, or chose to ignore some good advice and returned to her home while her husband was still "at large." Informing her employer of her domestic violence situation might have made a difference.

Lastly, given the seriousness of Alice B's situation, she should not have been allowed to continue working on-site until there was a high degree of certainty that her husband no longer posed a threat to her and/or her coworkers. The safer choice for Alice's company would have been to permit Alice to work off-site, or place her on leave until the threat ended.

It Isn't Over

America's employers and employees are more aware of domestic violence in the workplace than they were a decade ago. There are also more resources available now than a decade ago and it is very likely that people's lives have been saved because of this. Nevertheless, domestic violence continues to exist, and is likely to do so well into the future. America has many elements of a violent society. Until this changes, domestic violence will continue to pose a threat not only to the workplace, but to the lives and well-being of hundreds of thousands of its citizens no matter where they are.

For more information on this topic, please see the July 2006 article, "Investigating Domestic Violence in the Workplace."

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