By Lynn Fairweather, M.S.W. (Reprinted with permission from DomesticShelters.org)
As a threat assessment and management consultant, I often face the challenge of convincing employers to heed potential workforce “time bombs”, including those they can’t hear ticking just yet. Sometimes new clients seek me out because a “personnel land mine” has just exploded inside their organization, seemingly without warning, and they’d like to avoid a re-occurrence. The danger I’m referring to comes from domestic violence, and unfortunately many businesses don’t realize they have a problem until an incident occurs on premises, as it will for one in four large companies.
Abuse within relationships isn’t as rare as one might imagine. Current estimates indicate that nearly two thirds of all women have been physically, sexually, or severely emotionally abused by an intimate partner. Men can also be abused, but statistics show that the majority of victims are female. Here’s where the workplace becomes involved: studies tell us that 74% of abused women are employed, and for many, the maltreatment received at home continues at work. For example, abusers frequently call victims on the job to check up on, harass, or threaten them. They may use proxies, or show up in person to do the same, bothering or intimidating customers and other workers as well. In fact, current or former husbands and boyfriends commit over 14,000 violent incidents in the workplace each year.
For some industries, the risks of an on-site attack may be particularly elevated. For instance, in fields such as retail and hospitality, work sites are generally open to public access, making it easier for an abuser to reach his target. Also at high risk may be positions commonly occupied by younger, lower paid females, as these are all factors that statistically correlate with domestic violence victimization.
Business leaders should also be aware that domestic violence incidents in the workplace can occur on a number of different levels. For example, a factory line worker may receive threatening phone calls, a customer may attack their partner in a store, or the estranged husband of a corporate executive might show up in the office parking lot with a gun. Employers must take action at multiple points to prevent violence within their organization, and to avoid the subsequent effects on company finances, morale and brand reputation.
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Although workplace attacks are never completely avoidable, there are concrete steps companies can take to protect employees and customers, while simultaneously reducing health care costs, absenteeism, turnover, and legal risks. Organizing and implementing a corporate domestic violence response program is easier and more cost effective than you might think. Here are three compelling arguments for the investment, beginning with the most urgent:
Of all the things that could possibly cause a female worker’s death on the job, from falls to electrocution, in most years the leader of the pack is homicide. In roughly 20% of these murders, the alleged killer was the victim’s current or former intimate partner. Such was the case in Orlando, FL on September 27, 2012. That was the day Michelet Polynice brought a handgun to the Quality Suites Inn where his ex-girlfriend Carlene Pierre was working at the front desk.
Two weeks before, Polynice had been served with a restraining order after he hit Carlene with his car in the hotel’s parking lot. When he returned on this day, he shot Carlene and her co-worker Vanessa Gonzalez-Orellanes. Both were killed instantly. Polynice then drove to the Westgate Lakes Resort parking lot where he shot and wounded Carlene’s best friend Jean Guerline before killing himself. This tragedy is, of course, a worst case scenario but its occurrence proves that for any business, such an attack could be looming just around the corner.
Research has shown that most corporate security directors are already aware of the threat domestic violence in the workplace poses. In fact, in a survey from 1995 in Personnel Journal, 94% of them ranked domestic violence as a high security problem at their company. Yet oddly, another study in 2007 found that although a significant majority of corporate executives recognized the devastating impact of domestic violence in the workplace, only 13% thought their company should address the problem. If the safety of their employees and the general public is not enough to sway the C level, perhaps this next point will get their attention.
Being abused at home (and possibly at work) can result in a number of problems for employees, and thus multiple costly issues for their employer. For example, a victim of domestic violence may sustain injuries, causing them embarrassment and pain which then produces absenteeism and health care costs for their company. When they do return to work, they may arrive late or leave early, because their abuser has kept them up all night or sabotaged their childcare and transportation plans. While on the job, victims can suffer from anxiety, humiliation, and an inability to concentrate, due to threatening phone calls or visits from their abuser. The victim’s co-workers experience difficulty when these things happen as well, because they may be worried for her safety, frightened for their own, or resentful that they have to take up her extra work.
Over time, these concerns can produce low organizational morale and a high turnover rate. When translated to dollars, the cost of abuse becomes colossal: U.S. employers collectively pay out more than $8 billion each year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and health care costs related to domestic violence.
Employee victimization isn’t the only part of the equation that affects your bottom line. Although you may not know their identities, statistics say there are probably batterers working for your company right now. And according to one study, their abusive habits can crossover into the workplace. In addition to often displaying bullying behavior and aggressive tendencies on the job, 78% of them admitted to using company resources and equipment to harass, threaten, or check up on their victim, according to Employers Against Domestic Violence. Furthermore, 42 percent admitted being late to work, and 48 percent had difficulty concentrating on the job as a result of their abusive behaviors.
Curious about how much domestic violence may be costing your company? Check out the Texas Health Resources Domestic Violence Cost Calculator. Your accountants may be in for an expensive surprise.
If you’re starting to see the benefits of addressing domestic violence, but still aren’t sure you could get company wide buy-in, consider bringing in the only team members who might seal the deal: the legal department. Corporate attorneys have a keen understanding of liability issues, and therefore can help to drive home the following point: neglecting to take action against domestic violence could leave your company open to massive legal and financial risk.
To begin with, there is the General Duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which says employers must take steps to protect their workers from acts of violence. If the employer fails to do so, the result may be a substantial OSHA fine, or worse. Jury awards for inadequate security suits average $1.2 million nationwide and settlements average $600,000 (Perry, P. 1994. Assault in the workplace. Law, May 1, 41).
Considering that domestic violence makes up a quarter of all workplace violence, it’s an area well worth an employer’s focus. For example, when Francesia La Rose’s employer State Mutual Life Assurance Co. failed to take adequate action to protect her against a specific threat, they paid in both blood and money. Francesia was murdered by her former boyfriend at her work site, causing not only heartbreak for her family and trauma to her co-workers, but an $850,000 settlement by the company as well (La Rose v. State Mutual Life Assurance Co., No. 9322684, 215th Dist. Ct., Harris Co., Texas 1994).
Other legal considerations include the possibility of a discrimination claim, an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint, or a wrongful termination lawsuit from a victim who has been fired, not hired, or passed over for a promotion due to the fact that he or she is a victim of domestic violence. A company can also be sued if it is determined that they violated a victim’s privacy, ignored harassment from other employees toward the victim, imposed substandard or punitive job accommodations, or failed to allow a legitimate absence under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Don’t forget about those batterer employees either. Successful lawsuits in many states have proven that companies can be held liable for the dangerous acts of employees if they don’t use reasonable care in hiring, training, supervising, or retaining them when harm was in any way foreseeable.
A final but significant point for industry leaders to consider is that they are responsible not only for their employee’s safety but also that of customers, guests, and others invited onto their premises. For instance, if a hotel desk clerk issues a copy of a woman’s room key (without permission) to her estranged husband, who then enters the room and harms her, the hotel can be held accountable. And no one wants to imagine the cost in lives and lawsuits that can accompany a domestic violence related mass shooting in the workplace.
As influencers in stations of power, the leaders of our country’s workforce are in prime position to effect change and take a stand against domestic violence. Not only might lives be saved, but individual companies will profit through both hard and soft benefits. If you are considering addressing domestic abuse within your workplace but don’t know how to begin, please read part two of this article (to be published March 29) where I explain the steps required to create an effective, in-house domestic violence program. Resources can also be found through the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence and Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Editor’s Note: Lynn Fairweather, MSW, is an abuse survivor who has worked in the domestic violence response and prevention field for over 23 years. As principal of Presage Consulting and Training, she provides professionals with domestic violence threat assessment and management training, workplace violence program and policy consultations, and 24/7 individual case response. Lynn is the President of Oregon VAWPAC, America’s only political action committee focused on violence against women, and is author of Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships.