Companies Try to Bring Domestic Violence Issues into the Open

Article excerpt

To save lives, stave off lawsuits and maintain productivity, some employers educate managers and employees on warning signs and avenues for help

MARTHA RODRIGUEZ had a good 15year track record at Harman International Industries Inc. until a turning point in late 2001. The assembly-line veteran and audio-equipment maker at JBL Professional, a Harman subsidiary in Northridge, California, began reporting late for work and often had bruises on her face and arms. Suspicious that she might be a victim of domestic violence, her boss, production supervisor Christine Lucas, called Rodriguez into her office to discuss attendance and punctuality. During the discussion, Rodriguez spoke about her personal problems for the first time.

"My husband is into drugs and verbally and physically violent with my children and me," Rodriguez related. "He waits for me after work and threatens me. He has even tried strangling me." Rodriguez was afraid she would lose her job if her employers found out. She says it wasn't until after she attended a two-hour session at work that was designed to educate managers and employees about domestic violence that she felt she could discuss her problems. "At the training, I realized that I value myself and my children and that resources are available to help people in my situation," Rodriguez says. "I felt confident I would not be fired if I came forward."

The Family Violence Prevention Fund, a California-based nonprofit organization, reports that one in three women in the workforce is a victim of domestic violence. The agency says there were 1.7 million reported attacks on women in the workplace between 1993 and 1997, making homicide the second leading cause of death for women at work, after transportation accidents. Harman executives, struck by the numbers and the impact on employees, decided that the problem must be addressed in the workplace. Other companies, especially those that employ large numbers of women such as clothing giant Liz Claiborne Inc. and retail chain Macy's West, have clone the same.

"Employers have a corporate responsibility to maintain a safe environment at work, if not out of concern for their employees, then out of a legal responsibility to them," says Barbara Erickson, Macy's West's manager for benefits and unemployment insurance. Seventy percent of Macy's 30,000 employees across 144 stores are women.

A 2002 Liz Claiborne survey of 100 senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies says that while 5 out of 10 corporate leaders believe that domestic violence has harmful effects on productivity, physical safety, attendance and employee turnover, only 12 percent agree that their companies should address the subject. In fact, FVPF reports that 7.9 million workdays are lost each year because of domestic violence. This adds up to more than $700 million in lost productivity annually. Beyond that, injuries related to domestic violence lead to health-care expenses of about $4.1 billion, most of which is paid by employers. "If you have employees who are stressed because when they go home, they will be beaten up, of course this affects your bottom line. It's absurd to think otherwise," says Lynn Harman, corporate counsel for Harman and daughter of executive chairman Sidney Harman. The company has 3,257 employees, a third of whom are women.

Sidney Harman spearheaded the company's domestic-violence initiative after a treasured employee was killed by an abusive husband in 2001. "A Northridge employee who had been with us for 24 years was worried about her ex-husband, who was about to be released from prison," Lynn Harman says. "We helped her to a safe house, but a few days later, he waited for her on her return from work and ran her over with his car repeatedly. This sent shock waves through our whole company."

Harman says the company's two-stage clomestic-violence-prevention program, which centers on education and training, has cost less than $100,000. …

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