Labor Letter, November 2012: The Hidden Safety Hazard – Domestic Violence

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[author: Betsy Weintraub]

As the holidays are approaching, you notice that Susan, one of your longtime employees with a near perfect attendance record, has missed several consecutive days of work due to an unspecified illness. When she returns to work, Susan looks like she has spent the past several days in the tanning bed. It seems unusual because Susan is so health conscious, but you shrug it off. Susan calls in sick again the next day.

When she returns to work this time, her face is plastered with heavy makeup. Even though it is warm in the office, Susan leaves her winter scarf snug around her neck for the next several days. Susan's department manager reports to you that Susan's work performance is sliding – she is not nearly as productive and efficient as she used to be. The manager also expresses concern over Susan's behavior. She seems withdrawn and edgy, sometimes overly emotional when the manager asks her about her work performance. You assure the manager that you will talk to Susan after the holidays.

A few weeks later, you invite Susan to your office for an informal meeting. She sits down in the chair across from you. That is when you notice the bruises. Her arms are covered with them, in various colors and sizes. Her fake tan is starting to fade. You try not to stare as you chat with Susan about her work. She assures you that she will do better; she has just had trouble concentrating lately.

As Susan returns to her desk, you flip through the employee handbook, even though you know that there is not a policy to guide you through this situation. You call your supervisor and tell him that you think one of the employees is a victim of domestic violence. "Are you sure?" he asks. You admit that you do not have any proof, but you have a strong feeling that something is going on at home. After a moment of silence, your supervisor tells you the best thing to do is just let it go. "It's a personal matter," he says, "we would not want to embarrass her or invade her privacy. Just let her be."

You try to ignore it. When Susan shows up at work one day with her arm in a cast, you accept her story that she fell in her driveway. When two of Susan's co-workers tell you that Susan came to work with a swollen lip and discolored cheek, you tell them to respect her privacy. When the receptionist mentions that Susan's husband has been calling ten to fifteen times a day, you send Susan an email reminding her of the company policy on personal calls at work. Susan's husband stops calling, but starts showing up at the office.

The first time, Susan seems a little nervous, but she smiles when her husband produces a bouquet of flowers from behind his back. When he shows up the next time, however, he doesn't have flowers. He takes Susan outside to the parking lot. When she returns to her desk fifteen minutes later, Susan seems upset, but you don't say anything. You would not want to embarrass her.

His visits become more and more frequent, and he always takes Susan outside the office to talk to her. Sometimes, when you leave work, you notice him sitting in his car, waiting in the parking lot. This goes on for weeks until, suddenly, one day, it stops. Susan's husband seems to have disappeared. He doesn't call or come by the office, and Susan seems to be returning to her old self. Her work and attendance improves and she stops wearing so much makeup. You feel a sense of relief, thinking that she must have finally left him. Your supervisor was right: the problem took care of itself.

A month or so later, your heart stops when you pull into the company parking lot. There are police cars everywhere. An ambulance. You run up to the EMTs just as they are loading Susan inside. There is so much blood on her face and hair that you hardly recognize her. She is unconscious. You turn around and see her husband as the police load him into the back of a car. Another officer carefully picks up a hammer off the ground and places it in a plastic evidence bag. His latex gloves are covered in blood.

A Personal Problem?

When the effects of domestic violence reach into the workplace, employers need to address it as promptly and aggressively as they would address any other safety hazard. At the same time, domestic violence is unlike any other safety hazard. While many victims of domestic violence commonly exhibit some of Susan's behaviors described above, such as concealing or lying about injuries, erratic attendance, and work performance issues, they are not always easy to recognize. Similarly, perpetrators of domestic violence typically act out in private; in public settings, perpetrators may just seem overly protective of their partners or spouses.

But just because domestic violence occurs outside the workplace does not mean that employers should ignore it. The truth is that domestic violence and stalking is widespread in the United States. According to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced "severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime." One in six women has experienced stalking, much of which occurred through technological communications such as phone calls and text messages. Annually, approximately 12 million men and women are victims of intimate partner violence in the form of rape, physical violence or stalking. That averages out to 24 people per minute. Don't think it happens to your employees? Think again.

Do Something

Despite the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States, more than 70% of employers in this country do not have a program or policy that addresses any type of workplace violence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the minority of companies that have policies addressing workplace violence, only 44% specifically address domestic violence. Most policies focus on coworker violence, customer/client violence, and criminal violence.

As a result, when a member of management does recognize signs of domestic violence, he or she is often in the uncomfortable position of the individual described above, unsure of what to do and afraid of embarrassing the employee. Likewise, a victim of domestic violence is not likely to communicate her fears, concerns about safety, physical injuries or emotional distress to management without clear guidance on who to talk to and assurance that such communication will not place her job in jeopardy.

There is not a solution to domestic violence, but there are ways to protect your employees, particularly in the workplace. First and foremost, do something. Even something as simple as recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, supporting a charity event to stop domestic violence, or putting up a sign with law enforcement resources for victims, communicates to your employees that they do not have to keep their experiences to themselves. Your recognition of the problem as a community issue, not a personal issue, is important to encourage victims to come forward.

An even better way to encourage victims of domestic violence to communicate their fears to management is to tell them that it is okay to talk about it and who to talk to. Step out of the 70% of companies without a formal domestic violence workplace policy and create one. It's easier than you may think. Check with your Fisher & Phillips attorney. Or you can begin to create a basic policy in about 20 minutes by clicking on the "Create Your Policy" link.

Our Advice

As an employer, you have a legal responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for your employees. As a human being, you have an even bigger responsibility to watch out for dangers to your employees that are not readily apparent. Stalking, by definition, is "pursuing or approaching stealthily." Some abusive partners stalk their victims out in the open, constantly calling them at work or showing up at their workplaces unannounced.

A 1999 survey by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that approximately 50% of employed victims of domestic violence had experienced harassment at the workplace by their abusers. Often, however, an employer may not be aware that one of his or her employees is a victim of stalking until it is too late.

Victims of stalking often feel very alone, scared, and trapped. Some victims take extreme measures to hide from their stalkers, such as moving to another residence, changing phone numbers, changing their names and leaving their jobs. Imagine that one of these victims works at your company. (In fact, you do not have to use your imagination if you employ at least six women; statistically, one of them has probably experienced stalking victimization).

Imagine that she began working for your company after going through the prolonged process of leaving an abusive spouse, obtaining an order of protection, moving to another part of the city, changing her email address and phone number, resigning from a job she loved, disassociating with her friends and even family members out of fear that he might hurt them, and now, finally, she is starting to feel safe again. No one at the company knows about her past, so no one thinks to ask whether she wants her picture from the company picnic posted on the website.

Stalkers know how to use Google just like anyone else. They also know that, if their victims change jobs, they are probably going to stay in the same profession. So while it may seem like a hassle to ask employees for permission before using their names or images on the company website, you could actually be saving their lives.

You can be even more active by encouraging employees who feel in danger to talk to Human Resources about it. Let them know that you want to protect them and you want them to always feel safe at work. Most workplace domestic violence occurs in the parking lot. Offer to have a security guard or a coworker escort them to and from their cars. Ask them if you can give a photo of the stalker to security or the receptionist, so that they know to call the police immediately if he is spotted on the premises. Alert those handling incoming phone calls that they are never to verify that she works there. Most importantly, be mindful of her situation – even if you don't know who she is.

The author is a former prosecutor and was Assistant District Attorney General for Memphis and Shelby Counties. She may be contacted at BWeintraub@laborlawyers.com or (901) 526-0431.

Published In: Administrative Agency Updates, Civil Rights Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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