Violently Ill

Violently Ill | Human Resource Executive Online While many view domestic violence as a home -- not work -- issue, the costs to an employer can be immense, from absenteeism and lost productivity to security and safety issues in the workplace.

Monday, September 1, 2008
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Each morning when she walked into work, Alex thought she left her troubled personal life at home: The late-night beatings by her alcoholic husband ... the mental abuse ... the emotional strain.

What often lingered was the physical pain from getting punched, kicked and choked -- not to mention the serious injuries, such as her fractured skull and broken foot.

An administrative worker at State Farm Insurance's headquarters in Bloomington, Ill., the then 32-year-old began to notice that -- little by little -- keeping her work and home lives separate had become an increasingly difficult challenge.

Oftentimes, after a night of abuse, Alex (who requested that her last name be withheld) wouldn't be at her desk for long before the phone would start ringing. While Alex was trying to focus on work, her husband would still be drunk from the night before, inundating her with calls.

"I'm sorry."

"I want you back."

"I won't ever do it again."

To win back her affection after a fight, he would even resort to playing music.

"He would play some stupid love song," says the now-37-year-old, noting that she let the majority of those calls go to voicemail. "When I wouldn't call back, then they would change into a more threatening type."

"I'm going to come find you and get you."

"I'm coming to get you."

Then came the intimidating e-mails that sometimes ran pages long.

A few times, he even showed up at the office, but rather than acting scary and abusive, he chose to bring flowers.

"He was wowing people that he's this really nice guy when he's not," says Alex.

She finally got to a point where she couldn't take the cycle of abuse any longer.

"You're frustrated. You're scared. You don't know where to go. You're desperate," she says.

If that weren't enough, her manager began to notice that she often showed up for work tired and weary, losing focus easily. He couldn't help but be aware of the many times she called out "sick."

Then he noticed the bruises on her arm.

Rather than asking Alex about domestic abuse outright, her manager said that he " 'was concerned' " she recalls, and also said " 'I'm here if you want to talk.' "

"I felt like I couldn't hold it in anymore," says Alex. "I thought, maybe [my co-workers] do care and I just opened up."

While the company leaders could have easily focused on negatives, such as her frequent absenteeism and lost productivity, State Farm urged her to formally report the threat through its electronic system, then set her up with Steve Heldstab, a security specialist at the company.

Heldstab linked her with the company's employee-assistance program as well as several nonprofit outreach organizations that provided counseling and helped her build a plan of action to leave her husband.

Heldstab also gave her safety tips, provided escorts in and out of the building and placed her husband on the company's "Do Not Admit" list, meaning nobody could bring him into the building as a guest.

"Then it was just a matter of her regaining her self-esteem so that she could get beyond being a victim to becoming a survivor, which she is," says Heldstab.

State Farm also gave her paid time off and offered a flexible work schedule that allowed her to go to counseling sessions during the workday and make up her hours at night.

The company's official policy on domestic violence, which was created about a year ago -- well after Alex's situation -- also helps victims by assigning special parking spots, screening telephone calls, eliminating their names from the automated telephone directory and having paychecks delivered to other addresses. When assessing an employee's performance, State Farm says, it makes reasonable efforts to consider that victims of domestic violence will also have higher rates of absenteeism or tardiness, and if they are getting help, they will not be disciplined for such actions.

Upon entering counseling, Alex began to finally realize the gravity of her situation, especially during one exercise in which counselors attempted to quantify the severity of the abuse.

"I was in the highest bracket, which means homicide was most likely to happen," she says. "That information is what really woke me up and I needed to make a decision to start getting out."

Cases such as Alex's are far too common. In a study of 70,000 people, released in February 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 26 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported being victims of "intimate partner violence," defined as being threatened, attempted or completed physical or sexual violence, or emotional abuse by a current or former intimate partner. The CDC reports that in 2004, intimate partner violence resulted in 1,544 deaths; 75 percent of them women and 25 percent men. Each year, women are subjected to about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults, says the CDC, while men are subjected to roughly 2.9 million.

And because this is an issue that also affects the workplace, HR must get involved in detection and prevention, not only to protect potential victims, but protect the bottom line, as well.

Threat to the Workplace

Each year, victims of domestic violence lose nearly 8 million days of work, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs and almost 5.6 million days of productivity, according to a 2003 study by the CDC.

"People think, 'Sure [people are domestic-violence victims], but they don't work here. If they work, they don't work in a place like this,' " says Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, a Bloomington, Ill.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the costs and consequences of partner violence by leveraging the resources of the corporate community.

In a 2007 study of 503 employees and 200 senior executives by the CAEPV -- along with retailer Liz Claiborne Inc. and support group Safe Horizon, both based in New York -- the majority of corporate executives (55 percent) say they understand the negative impact domestic violence can have on the workplace; however, those same executives estimate that it only affects 6 percent of workers.

The study revealed that 26 percent of women identified themselves as victims or survivors and 22 percent reported working with someone who is a victim or survivor.

The largest discrepancy, however, appears to be between what employers and employees think about the company's role in addressing the problem. An overwhelming number of employees (84 percent) said they believe the company should be involved in the solution, while just 13 percent of executives think it's the company's job to help solve the problem.

"There's this disconnect between what a CEO or a senior-level executive perceives, and what's happening on the ground," says Wells.

The effect on the company can be devastating, since domestic violence can lead to rising healthcare costs, absenteeism, lateness, loss of productivity, turnover and decreased workplace safety, says Wells.

Not knowing the extent of harm can hurt a company's bottom line.

"They're losing money," says Denise Curran, a psychotherapist at the Chicago-based employee-assistance-program provider ComPsych.

Curran trains employers to pick out the warning signs in potential victims: receiving lots of outside phone calls, sudden outbursts of tears, acting anxious, preoccupied, unfocused or depressed. And, of course, visible bruises.

To address the issue, she says, companies should create a policy that allows victims to take paid time off and connect them with an EAP that can provide counseling and other resources. Curran says companies interested in developing a domestic-violence training program should start by instructing management, but she hopes an organization would eventually extend that education to all employees.

Training often includes teaching employees the warning signs that someone is being abused, and how to gently elicit information, such as, "I'm here if you ever want to talk." A training program may also outline security procedures or provide videos or written materials about the issue.

For many victims, however, admitting their abuse to co-workers or managers may not feel natural. Curran says companies can gain the trust needed to achieve such a confession by running a training program on the topic and showing that anyone who steps forward will be treated with support, not scrutiny. Oftentimes, once employees take part in the training program, they may go to their EAP counselor on their own to admit they are being abused, she says.

If an employer fails to recognize the warning signs of domestic violence, it could not only prove life-threatening for the victim, but the company could also be held liable. In the case of La Rose vs. State Mutual Life Assurance Co. in 1994, the family of Francesia La Rose filed a wrongful-death action against her employer after she was murdered by a former boyfriend at the worksite for failing to protect her after being notified of the specific threat. The case was settled for $350,000.

The specific laws on domestic violence vary from state to state. Several -- Florida, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, North Carolina and Washington -- force companies to allow workers to take leave if they are victims of domestic violence.

Some, such as Florida, which enacted its law in July 2007, mandate that companies with more than 50 employees must give three days of leave to victims during a 12-month period. The leave can be paid or unpaid.

The law in Washington, enacted in April, applies to public or private companies regardless of size.

Legalities aside, there are right and wrong ways to handle domestic-violence victims, says Curran. They should be handled with sensitivity and not be punished or made to feel guilty for a lack of productivity or time away from work.

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It is also important to put domestic-violence policies into place to minimize the effect it can have on co-workers, who are often asked to make up for the victim's missed work when they are absent or tardy.

"The co-workers can get this residual anger about it and the feeling that [the victim] gets special attention [and] gets to come in late," says Curran, "and they feel they have to pick up where she's not functioning or have to fill in when she's sick or doesn't come in."

Companies should also be concerned because, if an abuser enters the workplace looking for trouble, it becomes a workplace-safety issue for all employees.

"If [a victim] says 'Don't tell anybody, but my abusive husband is coming over here and might be violent,' they have to make sure they, as a company, come up with a safety plan for that whole company," says Curran. "It has to involve the receptionist, the security people and managers."

A safety plan should include provisions for moving a threatened employee to a different work location, changing his or her shift time, making sure the employee has a cell phone, providing a safe parking space or escorts to and from the building and providing a photo and physical description of the abuser to security.

But how does the company keep a situation private yet still warn security and others about the threat? Curran says company leaders should first remind people of the already existing safety plans and then focus on informing the "gatekeepers," usually security personnel stationed at the entrance.

"A description and name of the abuser can be given discreetly to building security and receptionists or front-desk people," she says. "That has worked effectively at many companies, but HR must be diligent about updating new personnel on the situation, keeping building security aware. If the abuser makes it past the gatekeeper, it's often too late."

Fighting Back

At a jewelry counter at a Macy's store, a female employee had just returned to work after a sudden, two-week absence that she said was due to illness, according to a company executive. Shortly after her shift started, her husband came to her station and the two got into a heated argument.

Within minutes, the husband grabbed the woman by the hair and slammed her face repeatedly into the glass cosmetics counter.

"It's shatterproof glass, but he was hitting her face hard enough that it not only did damage to her face, but it shattered the glass," says Julie Avins, vice president of employee and labor relations at San Francisco-based Macy's West, which includes roughly 230 retail stores in 11 states in the western part of the United States.

A co-worker contacted Macy's security, who subdued the man. In accordance with company policy, a manager was called, who took the injured woman off the selling floor and called police and paramedics. Security officials detained the attacker until authorities arrived.

Although the woman was fortunate enough to suffer only cuts and bruises, Macy's management knew that she needed support from the company to get her life in order.

"We gave her a couple weeks of paid time off and, during that time, we were having conversations with her almost daily just to check in to see how she was doing," says Avins.

The company eventually moved the woman to another work location, but, in an effort to keep her safe, management did not tell any employees where she had gone or that she had even been transferred. If the abuser called looking for her, an employee would only be able to tell him that she no longer worked there.

All of these steps were taken because of a domestic-violence-training program Macy's began in January 2003 targeted to managers and executives. Since then, the company has trained approximately 6,000 employees, mainly in small-group settings.

"We talked to them about the warning signs they could look for, gave them guidelines about conversations that they could initiate -- and we talked to them about their responsibility to report what they observed or what they had been told," says Avins.

So far, the initiative has been well-received.

"Associates walk away from training realizing that the company does care about them," says Avins. "And that it's not just performance at work, but if there is something that is happening outside of work that is affecting them negatively and, in turn, possibly affecting their ability to do their job, we want to know about it and we want to do whatever we can to help them."

Back in Bloomington, Alex still works for State Farm, and is grateful to the company for providing sercurity and giving her the resources to get counseling so she could eventually leave her abusive husband. Five years later, she is remarried and has been promoted several times.

But perhaps most remarkable is how she turned from domestic-violence victim to survivor to motivator. She has spoken at lunch-and-learn events at State Farm and "It's Time to Talk Day," a day of outreach and events in Bloomington. She has even been interviewed by newspapers and radio stations.

"It's been a pretty emotional rollercoaster," says Alex. "I have a whole nervousness about stepping out and telling my story. There's always that risk that my abuser can find out, but I feel empowered in some sense that I am standing up and saying, 'This is what happened to me and it isn't right.' People need to recognize this issue. I know that if I'm saving at least one person's life, then I've changed that bad in my life to a positive."

In her journey toward a new life, she credits a lot to that manager who pulled her aside and asked if she needed help.

"I always tell the manager, he saved my life."

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