Domestic Violence can become Your Business Problem

Violence in the workplaceDomestic violence too often becomes workplace violence. This presents social, ethical, legal, and cost impacts on the business. The violence done to an employee is a terrible thing on its own, but the effects extend beyond the specific incident.
Affected employees are “shamed” in front of their co-workers, physically hurt, and emotionally embarrassed. Workplace domestic violence is challenging for the employer, they can be confused about the appropriate personal response as well as the necessary legal action. And, violence towards employees – at home or in the workplace – affects the worker’s productivity and distracts co-workers and management, an expense that adds up.

The Definition

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against another . . . regardless of age, economic status, race, religion, nationality, or educational background . . . part of a systematic pattern of dominance and control . . . resulting in physical injury, psychological trauma, and sometimes death. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)

The Numbers

The statistics are staggering and not to be minimized:

  • One in four women will experience domestic violence.
  • 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
  • 85% of domestic violence victims are women.
  • Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

The Cost

The following numbers from affect our economy and need attention:

  • Victims of intimate partner violence lose almost eight million days of paid work in the United States – each year. This loss equals more than 32,000 full-time jobs and almost 5.6 million days of household productivity. That is at least $5.8 billion a year in direct medical costs, health care services, and lost productivity.

  • Finding recent data is difficult, but a MA law firm posts 74% of employed abused women have been harassed by their partner while they were at work. This has made 56% of them late for work at least five times a month, 28% of them leave early at least five days a month, and 54% miss three or more full days of work per month. Seventy one percent of Employee Assistance Providers have reported an employee being stalked at work and another 83% have assisted an employee with a restraining order.

The Workplace

Domestic violence often becomes workplace violence.

  • Domestic violence is no longer a private affair. Once an employee leaves an abusive partner, the workplace can become the setting for harassing phone calls, stalking, and outright viciousness.
  • Employers have long understood that home life problems can affect attendance, job performance, and turnover. They know, too, that the abuse can spill over and threaten other employees and the physical assets.Employers of size can provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that can provide counseling on depression, addiction, and domestic abuse. But, there are no trustworthy statistics on the effectiveness of EAPs.

Violence in the workplace hits the business as spontaneous and unexpected. As such, it challenges planning and precaution.

The Liability

In the case of domestic violence, the risk assessment is rather obvious, but the risk management poses different challenges:

  • Privacy Concerns - Any disclosure of information about an employee's domestic violence situation presents a liability for invasion of the employee's privacy. Court decisions drive employers to regard and treat the information as confidential.

  • Liability for Failure to Protect Employees - Courts have not held employers liable for failing to protect employees from domestic violence - if they neither know or should have known of an unreasonable risk to the employee. The thinking is that the employer is not required to take precautions against an attack which s/he has no reason to anticipate.

On the other hand, common law holds employers liable for protection of employees under certain circumstances. OSHA requires employers to provide a place of employment free from "recognized hazards” which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." Under certain circumstances, employers have an affirmative duty to protect their employees.

For example, when an employee tells the employer that s/he has obtained an order of protection from being physically present at the victim's place of employment; the employer has an affirmative duty to provide reasonable accommodation for the employee’s safety.

  • Termination of Domestic Violence Victims - Sex discrimination claims have been filed against employers after domestic violence incidents occur on the job. In addition, sexual harassment and hostile work environment charges have been made against employers where workplace relationships lead to harassment and violence. Employers must address harassment and violence peremptorily, but they should manage the aftermath and discipline – if any - of parties involved with experienced legal advice.

The Risk Management

  • Physical Deterrence: There is an array of physical deterrents in the form of security guards, access ID cards, video cameras, metal detectors, and the like.
  • Policy Prevention: Employers of any size should review company policies, create emergency response plans, offer EAP assistance to employees, drill employees, and train supervisors. Workers’ compensation insurance companies and professional employer organizations are ready, willing, and able to provide practical risk management support.
  • Affordable Means: Small businesses should do what they can afford. Examples of some of these measures would be to ask the threatened employee what you can do to make things safer, isolate employee with some privacy barriers, record and archive threatening phone messages, report threats to police, remove the victim’s name from phone directory and assign the employee priority parking.

When employee victims deny that abuse exists, but you, the business owner, still suspect that the abuser is a threat to the employee as well as to the workplace, you must act to protect the employee and co-workers. Your best legal and ethical response is to take reasonable steps to educate the staff on domestic abuse, possible threats, and the impact on staff and business.

No business stakeholder, business owner, or business manager wants to see employees suffer from any type of violence at home or at work. You have to remember that violence arrives suddenly and loudly, so it is important to have response mechanisms in place in the interest of the affected employee, co-workers, and business.

It is imperative that business owners understand the cost and difficulties of risk management. You must act early and strategically with clear policies and education on the appropriate response.