Domestic violence is a widespread problem with serious consequences for the victims, their families and their workplaces as well. In 2005 a national telephone survey by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence found that 44% of the employed U.S. adults surveyed reported having personally experienced the effects of domestic violence in their workplace, and 21% identified themselves as victims. The same survey reported that 38% of respondents were “somewhat” to “extremely” concerned for their own safety when they learned that one of their co-workers was being victimized.
These numbers are high enough that every organization should plan against the day domestic violence comes to work and becomes workplace violence. Your organization can incorporate these efforts into the range of policies and programs that should be in place to address other employment law requirements and workplace violence prevention contingencies.
Establish a Domestic Violence Policy and Response Programs
An employer should have a comprehensive workplace domestic violence policy that clearly addresses the organization’s commitment to ending domestic violence while supporting its victims. An increasing number of states and provinces require agencies to establish such policies, and recommend that private employers do so too. For example, Ontario requires a private employer that “becomes aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, that domestic violence that would likely expose a worker to physical injury may occur in the workplace, the employer shall take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker,” as part of extensive requirements that employers address workplace violence and harassment in their workplaces. Policies should include the following elements:
A strong message from the employer, acknowledging the pervasiveness of domestic violence, and stating its commitment to ensure a safe workplace, to support employees who are victims and address seriously any employees who are abusers;
A definition of domestic violence, and identification of warning signs of domestic violence;
How an employee who is a victim can get assistance within the employment relationship, including reporting situations, seeking referrals to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and/or other internal and external resources;
Employer’s commitment to respond to violent words, acts, or weapons in the workplace (“zero tolerance”; this should still allow for judgment in responding to individual situations); and
Training, response and security measures intended to ensure a safe working environment for all, and to respond if situations occur.
Useful training topics include the following:
Psychological and social dynamics of domestic violence, including power and control tactics and cycles of violence;
Questions to pose when interviewing and approaching the victim;
Training for receptionists/first point of contact including understanding orders of protection for abused employees, keeping photographs of abusers who may appear on the premises and keeping those photographs accessible for early identification, and contacting organizational security and/or the police as appropriate;
Resource information including names and numbers of all domestic violence advocacy agencies and other relevant resources in your area; and
Consequences if an employee is an abuser.
An employer may also want to list some potential safety measures that a manager and employee-victim may implement if an issue arises. Possible examples include escorts to the parking lot and cell phones for business trips; removing the victim’s identification information from workplace areas that allow public access; provision of the abuser’s photograph to security and frontline employees; and physically altering the victim’s workspace to increase safety.
Respond Effectively to Situations That Do Occur
If the organization identifies an employee who may be a victim of domestic violence, the employer can take several steps to assist the victim—which helps protect the employee and the workplace, and may even help resolve the underlying situation. Steps can include the following:
Approaching the victim to solicit information and begin to collect information;
Assessing the situation: non-expert co-workers and supervisors may be able to start this process, but trained professionals may be needed to ensure appropriate responses;
Keeping the victim safe including, if appropriate, helping to develop a safety plan, at work and perhaps outside work as well; and
Involving the law if necessary (this may include referrals to police, employee and/or employer efforts to secure an order of protection, and assistance with civil or criminal enforcement if that occurs).
These situations are complicated enough if only the victim works in the organization. They can be vastly more complicated if the abuser does too.
Don’t Add to the Victim’s Problems
Whatever the level of effort the organization chooses to apply to prevention and response, steps must be taken to avoid making the situation worse for the victim. For example, organizational policies and procedures should also ensure there would be no negative consequences to the employment relationship for employees who are victims, or who witness domestic violence and report the abuse to the employer.
Failure to do so may not only be unfair and counterproductive, it may even be illegal. Readers should note that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in October 2012 listing over a dozen examples of situations in which an employer’s less-than-helpful responses to domestic violence victims might actually violate laws against discrimination based on sex, or discrimination based on disabilities (physical injuries, depression, etc.) that result from victimization.
The following checklist can help you start to consider whether your organization’s policies are appropriate (if in place) and how they might be improved.
Has your organization established an approach to domestic violence spillover into your workplace?
Has your organization established a policy against domestic violence in the workplace?
- Does the policy define the spectrum of domestic violence?
- Does the policy include information on the warning signs of domestic violence?
- Does the policy state an organizational commitment to training (including, for example, all managers, Human Resources, security personnel, and frontline employees on safety measures)?
- Does the policy include a commitment to help all employees who may be victims of abuse?
- Does the policy include a commitment to help all employees who may be abusers
(e.g., EAP referrals)?
- Does the policy include a commitment to keep the workplace safe from the effects of workplace violence?
- Does the policy include a zero tolerance policy on violence in the workplace?
- Does the policy include examples of safety measures that the employer is willing to implement to ensure workplace safety?
- For employees who want to report abuse, has the organization stated “next steps” that delineate the roles of the EAP, Human Resources, and managers in this reporting process?
- Does the policy include a commitment to ensure no reprisals for reporting abuse?
- Does the organization include information on domestic violence resources?
Does your organization provide employees with training on domestic violence issues and responses?
Has your organization established procedures for responding to workplace evidence of domestic violence?
- Does it include steps to be taken within the workplace (security, etc.)?
- Does it include employer activities outside the workplace (e.g., assistance with transportation and/or housing, support to law enforcement efforts)?
Does your organization have procedures to deal with an employee who is an abuser, including situations where the abuser and victim are both employees?
Where Can I Go For More Information?
A wide variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations exist at the national, state/provincial
and local levels. National organizations include:
About the Author
Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 16 existing products, including Workplace Violence Prevention: A Practical Guide to Security on the Job, OSHA Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide.
Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).
Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).
You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.