Encountering domestic violence in the workplace

Someone you know has probably been the victim of domestic violence.

That’s not an exaggeration or hyperbole. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, income, education, gender identity, sexual orientation, professional status, disability status, age, or religion.

Need proof? According to information from a Congressional Research Service analysis of the Violence Against Women Act, one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. will be a victim during her or his lifetime.

That also means a co-worker or employee at your company could very well be living through an abusive relationship right now and you might not even know it. Just because you haven’t yet recognized some of the signs, however, doesn’t mean they’re not there, or that the abuse isn’t having a negative impact on that employee’s work.

The abuse experienced by an employee can impact their work performance, their co-workers, and ultimately the organization as a whole, says Shannon Barry, executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) in Madison. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control (2003), the impact of domestic violence in the workplace results in 8 million days of lost work each year. This is the equivalent of 32,114 full time jobs. 

In a survey of Fortune 1000 companies conducted by Liz Claiborne Inc., 48% of corporate leaders said domestic violence has a harmful effect on their company’s productivity.

“When an individual’s physical and emotional health is impacted by abuse, it can result in poor work performance and an inability to focus,” Barry explains. “When an individual is absent or tardy to work because of abuse, this could negatively impact their interpersonal relationships with co-workers who may have to pick up additional duties. Co-workers may also feel deep concern for the victim and become distracted.

“It benefits a company to support their employees and not ignore these issues.”

Many forms

Domestic violence is the intentional use of power and control tactics by one intimate partner over the other in order to create and maintain an environment of fear and intimidation.

Contrary to popular myth, domestic violence is not just physical abuse, notes Barry. Domestic violence can take on many forms. Each is marked by a pattern of power and control. Domestic violence can be:

  • Physical. This includes (but is not limited to) slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, physical restraint, aggravated assault, withholding medical attention, or forcing someone to take drugs.
  • Emotional. This includes (but is not limited to) extreme displays of jealousy and/or possessiveness, intimidation, blaming you for their problems, degrading and/or disrespectful behavior and comments, withholding communication, social isolation (i.e., preventing you from seeing friends or family), and threats of physical or sexual violence.
  • Verbal. This includes (but is not limited to) name-calling; yelling; criticizing your appearance, actions, and/or beliefs; humiliating you in public.
  • Sexual. This includes (but is not limited to) withholding physical affection, sexual activity following a physically abusive incident, threats of infidelity, coerced sex acts, or rape.
  • Economic. This includes (but is not limited to) refusing to share control of family finances; destroying, giving away, or selling your property without your consent; or using money as a tool to control your behavior or get what they want.
Twenty percent of threats to domestic violence victims and 72% of stalking incidents occur at work, potentially putting other employees and customers at risk.

Every abusive relationship is different but you may notice patterns beginning to emerge — not single instances or symptoms — which may lead you to feel concerned, Barry says. These signs, or patterns, can manifest themselves in a variety of different ways:

  • Arriving to work late or very early
  • Unplanned or increased use of Paid Time Off
  • Decreased productivity
  • Tension around receiving repeated personal phone calls
  • Wearing long sleeves on a hot day or sunglasses inside
  • Difficulty in making decisions alone or concentrating on tasks
  • Avoiding windows or the main entrance of an office
  • Repeated discussion of marital or relationship problems
  • Bruises, chronic headaches, abdominal pains, muscle aches
  • Vague, non-specific medical complaints
  • Sleeping or eating disorders
  • Signs of fear, anxiety, depression, or fatigue
  • Intense startle reactions



Difficult conversations

According to Barry, it’s important to keep a few things in mind before approaching a co-worker whom you suspect might be in an abusive relationship.

  • Abuse is never the fault of the victim or survivor.
  • There are many reasons people do not leave abusive relationships and leaving an abusive relationship does not automatically make a person safer; in fact, it is often the most dangerous time for a victim.
  • Survivors are the experts on their own lives and the best judges of what course of action to take for their safety.

“As an employer, if you are aware of a situation, you should not ignore it,” notes Barry. When approaching an employee whom you are concerned about:

  • Communicate your concerns for the employee’s safety. Offer specific observations of what you have seen or heard (bruising, absences, repeated phone calls).
  • Assure them that you will respect their confidentiality, and then do so.
  • Listen, express concern, but do not offer judgment or advice.
  • Tell the employee that you believe him or her.
  • Ask the employee what changes could be made to make him or her feel safer. 
  • Communicate your responsibility to provide a safe work environment to the individual and all other employees, vendors, and clients.
  • The employee knows what is best for her/his own safety — do not demand they contact law enforcement or use services.
  • If the employee chooses to, allow him/her to use office resources to contact services/law enforcement.
  • Refer the employee to DAIS, or other resources.
  • Consult with security staff if there is a concern about workplace safety.

“It is important to understand that it takes a lot of courage to reach out for help due to the fact that domestic violence victimization continues to be stigmatized in our society,” Barry comments. “As a result, it’s not uncommon for a victim to be unwilling to disclose. In that case, be clear that your role is to try to help and that you will believe them and not judge if they need help.”

Becoming a safe place

DAIS has many other helpful hints on its website for how to help a friend or family member.

In addition to offering support and assistance to any employee or co-worker who is seeking to remove him or herself from an abusive situation, there are other steps companies and organizations can take to protect the abuse victim and other employees at the workplace, Barry states.

“Confidentiality is crucial for victim safety. If an employee discloses their abuse, it is critical that it be kept absolutely confidential unless the employee agrees to share the information with others.

“As an employer, there are steps you can take to create a safe environment,” explains Barry.

  • Ensure employees know to call 9-1-1 in an emergency.
  • Consider a security system.
  • Display and distribute materials in a confidential manner (such as flyers in restrooms) that condemn violence and provide information about organizations that provide services.
  • Identify and communicate one person to respond to domestic abuse concerns (e.g., HR lead, high-level manager, benefits coordinator, EEOC coordinator).
  • Consider a policy prohibiting concealed carry and post signs at all the entrances.
  • Consider developing a domestic violence policy for your HR manual.
  • Implement a security policy and/or emergency procedures.
  • Provide mandatory training for supervisors.

DAIS offers such supervisor trainings to address domestic violence in the workplace, says Barry. Companies interested in providing a training session to managers and supervisors are encouraged to contact Faye Zemel, prevention, training, and education coordinator, at fayez@abuseintervention.org.

“The company should work with the victim in advance to develop a plan for how to address these types of scenarios, as every situation is unique and may have a variety of nuances. DAIS can help employers figure out what options may be available and appropriate,” Barry says.

Read part two of this story, about the legal resources DAIS can help provide to victims of domestic violence.

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