3 Questions about Domestic Violence in the Workplace You Always Wanted to Ask

Many years ago when I was the human resources (HR) manager for a company I had a female employee (I’ll call her “Dee”)  come to me to tell me that she was going through a divorce and her estranged husband was stalking her and threatening her life, and that of their two young boys.  She was very, very afraid.

So I contacted my counterpart at another division of the same company and we arranged for Dee to transfer to the other division.  Dee would have virtually the same job, earn the same pay and have the same shift.  This would enable her to earn the income that was her lifeblood to supporting her two boys, providing health insurance for them, and still keep the same hours so that she could be with them when they were not in school.

The day before she was supposed to transfer a few of her co-workers came to me and asked if I realized that Dee was sitting in her car in the parking lot crying.  I didn’t.  And I’ll tell you, if you have an employee who is being stalked, the last place you want them sitting alone and vulnerable is in their car in a parking lot.  So I want out there.

Dee was crying her eyes out.  She was crying so hard she was hyperventilating.  In between shaky breaths she told me she had decided not to take the transfer and when she told the other HR manager, the woman screamed at her, “Do you know the hoops I jumped through to get you this job?  Do you realize the time it took me to create this position?”

Poor Dee was horrified and I was mortified.  How could a human resources manager, whose job by its very nature is to help and support employees, be so selfishly consumed that she re-victimized Dee, who was going through so much anguish already?

I don’t know why Dee decided not to take the transfer.  I never asked because it didn’t matter.  I can only assume it’s because she already sensed that the environment of our division was one of caring and acceptance.  That we would do what it took, as already proven, to ensure her safety.  And we did.  We made slight modifications, none of which cost a penny; and Dee remained safe and we retained a valued employee.

I saw HR and management as being woefully undertrained in the dynamics of domestic abuse’s impact of the organization and the people who work for it. Ten years later, that and the many other experiences I encountered over my human resource career, propelled me into a full time focus of intimate partner violence’s organizational impact consulting and training.  It has become a mission that is heartrending and joyously rewarding – every single day.

There are many questions which are commonly asked.  It doesn’t bother me. People are curious and they want to know.  The topic of domestic abuse is taboo and they are reaching out to dismantle myths – it’s all good.  People probe for information on the dynamics of abuse and they challenge me about the workplace getting involved.  Of the questions I’m most frequently asked, about addressing domestic violence at the workplace, the following are the most common:

“I never see anything and I never hear about it.  Why would I believe my company is affected?”

The sustenance of domestic abuse is silence.  It thrives and grows in secrecy.  By domestic abuse’s very nature it’s something victims keep secret for the embarrassment, humiliation, fear of blame, and re-victimization that is attached to the stigma of abuse.

Offender’s power and control grows stronger every day that they can keep their victims quiet and the ugly truth of their behavior buried.  They are expert manipulators and empowered by people’s resistance to get involved.

So just because you don’t actually see it happening at the workplace, hear conversations among employees, or have staff come forward asking for help, don’t be duped that it isn’t happening.  It is.  Experts in the field of domestic abuse, including myself, believe that up to 25% of employees are affected in some way; they are either victims or offenders, or suffering the long term effects of past abuse.

At the point that something “obvious” shows up at work, a bruised face or an act of violence, it means the abuse has been going on already for some time.  And it’s been affecting the employee and costing the workplace all along.

“I’m afraid there will be a spike in people coming to me for help.” 

Hallelujah if they do!  You want people to come forward so that they can self-disclose and be directed to the help and resources they need.  You, personally, are not the one to do the long term counseling, but your employees will not get the services, be it counseling, shelters, legal resources, or anything else if they don’t know where to find that help and that it’s o.k. to use it.  Remember, you may have scores of employees who are actually afraid to ask for help for fear of losing their job or some other form of re-victimization.

One of my clients recently told me about several employees that came forward, and that included a young man who recognized himself as an abuser.   This manager said the employee thanked him afterwards for not only being receptive to speaking with him respectfully, but for giving him a list of resources he could contact in private.  It’s one of the first acts of preventing domestic violence in the workplace. Wouldn’t you rather see that than have a bitter and angry employee who potentially retaliates violently against the workplace, or have someone’s “significant other” who does?

“I don’t want to get involved in their personal lives.”

I’m not suggesting that you do, per se.  I don’t recommend the executives, managers and human resource professionals I work with to attempt to be therapists.  Not unless they’re licensed already.  But if you have employees that come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol you get involved, right?  If you have employees that have chronic attendance problems, you get involved, right?  Or employees that have productivity issues, or need FMLA time off?  Right?  Well, the same is true for domestic abuse.  But it does take training and education on the dynamics of abuse and the appropriate and most affective approaches to deal with it in a manner that “saves face” for the employee and maintains hers, or his, safety.

A couple clients had these words to say after their experience:

“…your ability to customize the training, policies, and resources for our organization has been invaluable.”

“…one could argue the Workplace as a whole benefitted from a demonstration that targeted assistance can generate significant breakthroughs, especially in DV cases.”

I often think about Dee, and wonder what her life is like today, all these years later.  I’m certain she remembers the days when we were there to help her through one of the toughest times in her life – and I’ll bet she remembers it with appreciation.  A colleague once said “You have two choices: control the risks or finance the results.” Most of all you will create a safe environment to ask for help.  It speaks volumes about you and your organization.  And who can question that?



2 thoughts on “3 Questions about Domestic Violence in the Workplace You Always Wanted to Ask”

  1. You took the words right out of my mouth, Jeff. That is such a common occurrence, whether it be a workplace conversation or a networking event. You get that deer in the headlights look. You would think you’d get that look when you say “did you know you’re wide open to millions in lawsuits?” So collectively we talk about it more opening and freely, you, myself, and other champions out there that understand that ultimately dealing with this wide-spread social ill vastly improves our workplaces and communities and makes all of us better off. There was a time when people crossed the room to get away from breast cancer sufferers too. Your blog comment is much appreciated!

  2. I applaud you effort in this area. I have an HR education with a law enforcment management background. I am currently a security director in the corporate arena and it seems like everytime I try to address situations in this area, I get attacked by HR although none of them have had any training in this area and it shows. I try hard to educate our HR on the seriousness of domestic abuse and benefits of effectly dealing with DV with it shows up in the workforce. They are quick to ignore and scare managers to stay out of employees personal business instead of getting more educated on the subject and effectively handling such matter before they get worse and become a much bigger problem including risking the safety of the rest of the workforce.

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