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Practical Preparedness for Workplace Violence, Part 3: When Domestic Violence Becomes Workplace Violence

April 11, 2013
Domestic violence isn’t just a personal problem – it bleeds into the workplace, too. In the third installment of this workplace violence series, a legal expert explains why domestic violence is a threat to the American workplace.

Employers who view domestic violence as a personal problem unrelated to the workplace are dead wrong. In addition to impacting the victim’s productivity, absenteeism, health and emotional well-being, domestic violence can become workplace violence if the abuser seeks out the victim at work. This is a serious workplace safety concern that might be more prevalent than you think.

“Any large or mid-sized company absolutely has this problem,” said Pamela Paziotopoulos, Esq., senior vice president of the workplace violence and intimate partner violence division at Forest Advisors. “I’m here to tell you no one’s immune.”

Paziotopoulos, who for years worked as a prosecutor specializing in domestic violence cases, spoke at an April 9 workplace violence seminar in Cleveland to discredit common myths surrounding intimate partner violence and explain why employers must address this issue.

Domestic Violence Myths

The typical domestic violence victim or situation might not be the same you picture in your mind. According to the “Silent Storm” video from the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, the top myths surrounding domestic violence include:

  • Myth 1: Smart, successful people are not victims of domestic violence. Paziotopoulos explained that professional, successful and powerful women are not immune to domestic violence – in fact, she’s handled many such cases firsthand.
  • Myth 2: Domestic violence isn’t a workplace issue; it’s a private issue. In reality, domestic violence spills over into the workplace.
  • Myth 3: Only violent incidents impact the workplace. Many of the effects of domestic violence at work, including absenteeism, damaged morale and distraction, are silent and nearly invisible.

According to Paziotopoulos, intimate partner violence costs companies $3-5 billion a year in lost productivity, health care costs, absenteeism and more. She added that 98 percent of domestic violence victims reported difficulty concentrating at work, 78 percent reported being late to work and 67 percent claimed their abuser came to their workplace. The majority of responding human resources and security professionals – 71 percent – reported an incident of domestic violence occurring on work property.

The Workplace Is Predictable

Many victims of domestic violence fear they will be fired or discriminated against at work if they reveal the abuse. They don’t want to appear weak and prefer to handle the matter on their own. Unfortunately, this strategy can create a threat not only for the victim, but for everyone she works with.

“When you break up with someone, they might not know where you live, but they know where you work,” Paziotopoulos said. “Work hours, parking and location are predictable.”

That predictability often makes the workplace the easiest place for an abuser to track down his victim. If a victim moved out in an attempt to escape her abuser, you can probably guess the first place he’ll look: her place of employment.

Domestic Violence Warning Signs

Paziotopoulos outlined the following warning signs that may indicate an employee is being abused:

  • Unexplained bruises
  • Unseasonable clothing (a turtleneck in hot summer weather, for example)
  • Change of behavior
  • Fluctuations of quality at work
  • Distraction
  • Signs of anxiety
  • Nervous reaction to gifts, such as flowers, delivered to the office
  • Sudden change of address
  • Receiving repeated, upsetting phone calls
  • Frequent absences or unexplained use of time
  • Requests to be moved from a public location
  • Disruptive visits from partner

Employers or colleagues who suspect a domestic violence problem should meet with the employee to express concern for her safety. If the employee is open to discussing the abuse, the following questions can be helpful in determining how far along the abuse is:

  • Are you afraid of partner?
  • What’s the status of your relationship?
  • If the relationship recently ended, how did your partner accept this news? (Paziotopoulos stressed that the period during and after a breakup is the most dangerous.)
  • Have you ever left in the middle of the night?
  • Have you ever been to a domestic violence shelter?
  • Is your partner making threats, including symbolic threats? (A symbolic threat could entail breaking something meaningful to the victim, leaving gifts of dead roses, etc.)
  • Has your partner ever attempted to strangle you? (According to Paziotopoulos, strangulation is one of the highest predictors of future violence.)
  • Is your partner using or increasing his use of alcohol or drugs?
  • Has your partner recently acquired guns?
  • Has your partner discussed detailed suicide plans?

“No one’s asking you to be a social worker or body guard,” Paziotopoulos said. “Just recognize and report [potential abuse].”

Establish a Policy

Employers can address domestic violence before an abuser shows up at work with bad intentions by encouraging workers to report domestic abuse with no fear of retaliation or judgment. In the end, this policy is in the employer’s best interests – a worker who reports her ex-husband has been stalking her in the office parking lot could set into motion security strategies to prevent a violent incident from occurring on company property.

“Make it crystal clear [to your employees] that you want this information and won’t discriminate, that you want to keep them and everyone else safe,” Paziotopoulos advised.

She recommends establishing a formal policy that encourages workers to report potential signs of domestic violence and that pledges to protect – not retaliate against – a domestic violence victim. She also suggests creating a team responsible for collecting information and investigating potential threats; scheduling meetings to discuss the issue; training workers in identifying warning signs; making it clear that company equipment may not be used to stalk or harass; and inviting local experts to share additional best practices.

“Ensure employees it’s OK to report this type of information,” Paziotopoulos said, “and you can have tremendous influence over the quality of life of your employees.”

This is an installment in a special series on workplace violence prevention. Access all parts here:

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