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Domestic violence and the workplace: Putting an end to abuse

In July, a man named Robert Reza snuck into the Emcore manufacturing plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, armed with a gun. He shot six employees— killing two— before taking his own life.

What sparked this brutal act of mass violence?

Simple: Reza was angry with his girlfriend. She was one of the plant employees injured in his rampage, but not his only victim.

Although most cases of domestic violence happen behind closed doors, partner abuse can affect the workplace in many ways and in horrific cases such as the Emcore shooting, it can threaten the lives of both the victim and her co-workers. Here’s what you should know about domestic violence and the workplace, and what you can do to stop abuse before it’s too late.

An all-too common danger

Have you ever been verbally or physically threatened by a romantic partner? If not, it’s almost certain that one of your friends, family members, or colleagues has: The 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey found that one in every four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime— but she probably won’t talk about it.

Because domestic violence victims are often fearful for their lives and are under strict surveillance by their controlling partners, they are reluctant to report incidents to the police, or to seek assistance from others. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need help.

“Often, the abusive partner will visit the victim at work, or email or call her constantly,” says Jessica Carmer Loftus, the domestic violence coordinator at Partners HealthCare in Boston, Mass. “This surveillance is how he controls his partner. Victims in abusive relationships are constantly thinking about their safety, so they’re always under severe stress, which can have a huge impact on their physical and mental health.”

In a 2005 survey by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, 64 percent of those who had experienced domestic violence claimed that it had seriously hurt their work performance. Many victims needed to take frequent sick days because of the injuries they’d suffered from their abusers, while others simply found it impossible to concentrate on work-related tasks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly eight million productive workdays are lost each year due to domestic violence incidents.

In many cases, domestic violence victims can even lose their jobs as a result of their abusers’ harassment of them in the workplace.

“My batterer stalked me at my workplace in person, as well as through phone calls directed at me at the office, as well as my boss and co-workers,” says Alexis Moore, founder of domestic violence reform group Survivors In Action. “He was calling co-workers’ residences and they had unlisted numbers, so this was difficult for me to explain, and ended with my termination from a title company.”

Finding workplace support

Despite the frightening prevalence of domestic abuse, few workplaces are doing much to combat partner violence. According to the Bureau of Labor’s 2006 Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention, fewer than 30 percent of U.S. workplaces have programs that address domestic violence, and just 4 percent of businesses provide training to employees on how domestic violence can impact the workplace.

Still, some companies, including Verizon Wireless, are leading the way in protecting their employees from partner violence and raising awareness of the issue. Verizon hangs domestic violence posters, including hotline numbers for abuse victims to call, in their corporate offices; offers booth space to local women’s shelters at its annual health and benefits fairs; hosts speakers during Domestic Violence Month; and offers full confidentiality from its employee assistance program (EAP) and human resources department, with the ability to fill requests such as leaves of absence.

At Partners HealthCare, “the issue is taken seriously enough by our institution that there is a domestic violence contact person within our EAP,” says Carmer Loftus. Their partner, Massachusetts General Hospital, offers monthly events to combat domestic violence and publicize available resources, and hosts a group called Men Against Abuse, in which men are asked to take a stand against domestic violence.

“Raising awareness of domestic violence in the workplace is very important,” says Andrea Stidsen, director of the EAP program for Partners HealthCare. “It’s essential to create an environment that is supportive towards domestic violence victims within the workplace, and for employers to develop a policy that offers support to employees in those situations.”

What you can do

It’s not always obvious when one of your employees or a co-worker is being physically or emotionally abused by a partner, but if she is constantly showing up with bruises or taking sick days, you may be tempted to say something.

“Don’t diagnose the situation,” warns Carmer Loftus. “Instead, co-workers can say, ‘It seems like you’re having some problems—here are some resources that can help.’ Then you can offer a referral to your Employee Assistance Program or other local resources.”

If your business is too small to have an EAP, “people tend to know more about what’s happening, and may even be witnessing some abuse,” says Stidsen. “In every state, there are free resources for people in these situations. If a co-worker or manager sees someone being abused, give the victim phone numbers for domestic violence hotlines, and give her time during her shift to seek support.”

Even if an abuse victim at your office confides in you directly, don’t rush her to leave her abuser immediately.

“It often takes a long time for victims to move out of their violent situation because they are so traumatized,” says psychotherapist Bob Livingstone of San Francisco, Calif. “Support them by being willing to listen to their stories of being emotionally, physically, and possibly sexually abused. Don't try to ‘fix’ them; being present and listening is the best action you can take.”

And if you do witness abuse or stalking at the workplace, don’t be afraid to get involved.

“When there is a domestic violence situation or stalking situation that involves a employee or a co-worker, understand that the victim is powerless to fight back without witnesses,” says Moore. “Reach out to a domestic violence organization so that you can be a part of the solution instead of aiding the batterer.”

If the situation appears dangerous, you shouldn’t hesitate to get law enforcement authorities involved. “You want to be respectful of private information, but if there is a significant safety concern, you want to involve the pertinent security,” says Carmer Loftus.

When it comes to domestic abuse, there are often many warning signs in the workplace. By doing your part, you can help to ensure that incidents like the Emcore shootings never happen again.

Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, here are some free and confidential resources that can provide support.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline
This free, private hotline provides support to domestic violence victims 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in 170 languages. Call 1−800−799−SAFE (7233).

Violence Against Women State Resources
This site from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services offers state-by-state links to local organizations working to help victims of domestic abuse.

Women’s Law
This online resource offers legal information and help for women suffering from domestic abuse and sexual assault.