US employers stand up to domestic abuse at work

More than one million American women are assaulted by their partners every year, and the US Department of Labor estimates about 50,000 of these attacks actually occur at the victim’s place of work.

Business and HR leaders are beginning to acknowledge the effect it is having on employees through low productivity and morale, absenteeism and healthcare expenses. The American Institute on Domestic Violence estimates this problem costs employers between $3bn and $5bn (£1.7bn and £2.8bn) a year.

Security escorts and panic buttons are effective deterrents, but they are not panaceas, said Johnny Lee, director of anti-violence agency Peace at Work.

“It’s about creating a culture of non-violence in a respectful, supportive workplace,” he said. “It falls primarily as an HR issue, because it deals with job performance, safety, personnel and disciplinary issues.”

Ultimately, Lee said, the individual has to reach out. “Victims don’t stand around the water cooler saying: ‘Guess what happened to me last night’.”

Looking for the signs

Experts agree that supervisors and HR personnel on the frontline observing staff performance and appearance can be trained to spot the signs. About half of victimised employees are late at least five times and miss at least three days of work each month. Inappropriate clothing – such as wearing long sleeves or jumpers in hot weather – can also indicate abuse.

A study by Peace at Work revealed common threads in 155 domestic violence assaults in US, Canada and UK workplaces. Almost a third occurred in car parks as victims arrived at work, and a quarter of victims said they were harassed at work. Two-thirds (98) of these cases ended in a fatality. However, only 8% of companies took precautions to combat the threat to their staff.

Fear of the law

America’s litigious nature has many employers balking before getting involved in what they regard as personal issues. A 2002 poll of 100 senior American corporate executives by New York fashion chain Liz Claiborne showed that while they were aware of the problem, only 12% of large employers believed they should play a major role.

While most are already under numerous legal obligations to safeguard employees, lawmakers have stepped in. More than 40 US jurisdictions have enacted legislation directed at workplace domestic violence, including provisions for employers to obtain restraining orders, and granting unemployment benefits if victims must leave work to protect themselves or their children.

Comprehensive policies can also transform attitudes towards domestic violence at work. Strategies at Liz Claiborne include a website, education campaigns, wallet cards, and helpline numbers. Associate relations director, Dennis Butler, said the company’s 90 HR generalists knew what to look for.

“Once HR is aware, it is very receptive and can be proactive and help,” he said. “It’s not HR’s job to rescue or tell someone what to do, but we will help victims access expert services that can. We just have to be clear of what our role is: to recognise, respond, and refer.”

HR personnel assign parking spaces, remove directory names, relocate workspaces, arrange for benefits and pay to be delivered accordingly, and create flexible schedules. Well-publicised policy and protocol are buttressed by a supportive environment with educational outreach, employee assistance programmes and short-term paid leave.

The company also has a Domestic Violence Response Team, comprised of trained legal, security and HR representatives, which responds when abuse is evident. Set up in 2002, it has dealt with more than 60 cases to date.

Wireless service provider Verizon Wireless encourages victims to come forward through its ‘Hopeline’ project. This means providing a strong supportive workplace for its 51,000 staff.

Employees are more open to reporting abuse because they know the company culture encourages them to speak out, according to Michael Golabek, executive director for employee relations. “It’s not taboo here,” he said. “HR staff help those requiring special leave, increased security, and location or shift changes.”

They also volunteer at shelters to help victims prepare for job interviews and create CVs.

“Corporations spend millions placing and training staff,” said Golabek. “It only makes sense to protect that investment by giving your staff the help they need.”

For more expert advice on combating domestic violence in the workplace, go to

What can employers do?

  • Protect confidentiality and detail the path all relevant information will take
  • Adopt a policy that specifically addresses domestic violence
  • Ensure prevention policy is consistent with other policies: paid leave, hours, etc
  • Adopt policies allowing abused workers time off to go to court
  • Establish confidential and respectful means for reporting domestic or sexual violence
  • Provide training for supervisors to ask questions appropriately and respond adequately
  • Educate employees about relationship abuse and how they can speak out on the issue


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