Unhappy Home, Unhappy Workplace: When Domestic Violence Follows an Employee to the Office, Private Horror Becomes a Workplace Problem

By Milano, Carol | Risk Management, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Unhappy Home, Unhappy Workplace: When Domestic Violence Follows an Employee to the Office, Private Horror Becomes a Workplace Problem


Milano, Carol, Risk Management


One in five full-time workers--both male and female--has experienced domestic violence. In one major study, 20% of those victims surveyed had been abused by a domestic partner while at work. That means, for every 2,000 employees, as many as 80 have faced some sort of abuse in their workplace. Identifying employee domestic violence victims as not easy. "Some victims choose not to disclose to coworkers for fear of being fired, embarrassed, or judged negatively for staying in a violent relationship," explains Robin Runge, director of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence. "For many, the workplace is where they feel supported and successful, which might be jeopardized if their co-workers knew the violence they are experiencing at home." Fortunately, as employer awareness grows, more workers are discovering that assistance may be available without negative consequences.

Scope of the Problem

"Domestic violence" refers to abusive behavior in an intimate relationship, often aimed at gaining power or control over a partner. Tactics include emotional and verbal intimidation, economic domination, harassment, stalking, physical or sexual violence, and threats. Domestic violence victims and offenders are from all ethnic, socioeconomic and educational groups.

In a 2007 survey among Fortune 1000 companies, more than 50% of executives acknowledged that domestic violence affects their business. Only 13% believe that corporations have a major role to play in addressing the problem, however. Many are uncertain about how to address what are traditionally considered to be "personal family matters."

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In 2005, researchers at the University of Arkansas conducted the first-ever large-scale study to examine the workplace specific impact of domestic violence with the help of a $750,000 grant from the Department of Justice. The researchers discovered that the workplace is a tempting setting for intimate partner violence. Employees spend many hours there, usually on a specific schedule, making their whereabouts predictable. Abusers often view work as a path towards possible economic independence and scheme to get a partner fired in order to retain dominance. Subtle sabotages include turning off an alarm clock or refusing to drive the employee to work.

Elements of Risk

Domestic violence has a significant affect on employee productivity. Both male and female victims report higher levels of distraction at work when they are faced with home troubles. A victim's average annual health care expenditure for emergency room visits, mental health services, substance abuse treatment and dental work is $439 more than that of a nonvictim. Women in the United States lose about eight million workdays each year because of physical assaults, threats or stalking, costing employers an estimated $728 million. Abuse-related job turnover carries significant costs, as well.

"People fixate on the Law & Order moment, thinking the perpetrator will come to the workplace with a gun, when a survivor discloses at work that she is a victim," says Runge. Far more commonly, abusers gain workplace access by pretending to be a customer, or cajoling a security guard with a pretext like, "I'm her husband. She forgot her lunch." Other abusers make dozens of threatening calls a day.

Victims have won claims and received damage awards when employers did not respond appropriately. Both federal and state laws cover employers' legal responsibilities. Federal statutes include sexual harassment, under Title VII, where both victim and perpetrator are employees, or harassment and discrimination based upon a disability either caused or exacerbated by domestic violence. OSHA laws require any employer aware of a workplace health and safety threat to protect all employees.

While a logical response may be eliminating the threat by firing the employee, workers "should be protected, not retaliated against, for reporting the workplace health threat," says Runge. …

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