Family Wellbeing

Silent Suffering: Addressing Domestic Violence Among Employees

Here's how to recognize the signs, navigate suspected domestic violence situations in the workplace, and develop a domestic violence policy.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    One in every four women and one in ten men experience intimate partner violence, commonly known as domestic violence. From the C-suite and HR teams to the maintenance crew, there’s no income bracket or form of relationship that’s exempt from the dynamics of interpersonal violence. 

    Domestic violence (DV) is defined as a pattern of coercive behavior in an intimate relationship, used by one person to gain power and control over another. This can include physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse.

    DV affects millions of people every year, and nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. Over the course of a year, this equals more than 10 million people. 

    During an average day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. DV is woven into the fabric of our society, and it’s a part of the workplace, too. Yet, 65% of companies don’t have a domestic violence policy. 

    HR and People leaders have an opportunity to step up and be an ally to employees who may not have any, and that’s a powerful thing. Keep reading to learn how. 

    Firsthand experience with the impact of domestic violence

    I’ve facilitated support groups for children and teens at a domestic violence shelter for close to four years, so this is a topic close to my own center of moral concern. I’ve witnessed the effects of interpersonal violence and the impact it has on people’s lives firsthand.

    Learning how to navigate something that is deeply personal, complex, and often dangerous isn’t easy. Intimate partner violence is terrifying, often deadly, and it’s all around us, affecting so many—not just the people who are directly abused, but their children and other family members as well. 

    Recently, the shelter I work for hosted a Domestic Violence Awareness Day seminar, featuring two experts on DV issues in the workplace—Lynn Cox, a hospital EAP counselor and Jenny Patten, senior legal counsel for a local hospital.

    Here’s what Lynn and Jenny shared about how leaders can support employees experiencing DV, along with insights from my own experience from working at a shelter. 

    The cost of domestic violence: mental health and lost work

    Domestic violence is a workplace issue because it is a moral issue. Good employers care about their employees' wellbeing. 

    It’s also a workplace security issue—21% of employees are DV survivors and 74% of that group have been harassed at work.

    Survivors of DV miss 8 million days of work every year and the total costs of lost work amount to 8.3 billion dollars.

    Of course, people who experience interpersonal violence inside their homes and relationships are going to have worse mental health outcomes than people who don’t.

    On average, more than half of people seen in any kind of mental health setting are survivors of partner abuse. There are also some specific diagnoses common to domestic abuse survivors, including:

    • PTSD
    • Depression
    • Anxiety

    Lacking a sense of safety is incredibly taxing on mental health. It affects every other aspect of life, from work, to child raising, to physical and emotional health. Traumatic events can also create lasting changes in both the body and mind. 

    Signs of domestic violence in the workplace

    When people experience domestic violence, the effects will likely spill over into the workplace. Employees can’t just check their experiences at the door when they clock in. 

    Signs may include:

    • Injuries and bruises occurring on a regular basis
    • Dressing in concealing clothing that is out of season
    • A spike in stress related illnesses, exhaustion, fatigue
    • Poor attendance, regularly late to work and productivity issues
    • Can’t travel or participate in after work activities
    • Has frequent, intense personal calls at work and seems upset after
    • Is resistant to using direct deposit and someone else picks up their check
    • Abrupt changes in personality which may look like isolating from coworkers

    Any one of these signs in isolation doesn’t necessarily mean the employee is dealing with domestic violence. But when there are several signs clustered at once, and they continue to be present over time, there may be cause for concern. 

    In that case, an HR leader or supervisor should initiate a conversation with the employee.

    Navigating suspected DV situations in the workplace

    It may feel overwhelming or uncomfortable to approach an employee if DV is suspected—but the worst possible response is doing nothing. It reinforces the abuser’s power and creates a safety issue for all employees.

    Not sure how to help? Follow these three steps. 

    Start with a conversation 

    Even if the employee doesn’t respond, you’ve planted a seed and established yourself as an ally. Yes, it may be awkward, and you may feel ill equipped to be asking about something as personal as partner violence. But awkwardness is better than doing nothing.

    Stick to the facts

    For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve had some injuries, been late to work a lot, and seem to be really anxious. I’m worried about you. Is there anything going on that you want to talk about?”

    Be open and non-judgemental

    Do more listening than talking. On average, it takes seven to nine attempts for someone to leave an abusive partner. There are always complicating factors, like the very real threat of violence, children in the home, pets, immigration status, and/or economic insecurity issues, to name a few.

    The most helpful philosophy to keep in mind is that the person experiencing DV is the expert on their own life and knows best what they need. 

    Keeping employees safe

    If an employee discloses abuse and wants help, you’ve established yourself as a trusted ally. The most urgent concern is finding out if the abuser is coming to the workplace and/or surveilling the employee at work. 

    Domestic violence situations are often extremely volatile and can escalate quickly. If there’s an immediate threat of violence, call 911 and alert security.

    If there isn’t, focus on providing support and creating safety for the employee experiencing partner violence. Here are some ways to do this: 

    • Ask the employee what can be done to make them feel safe at work.
    • Never try to push them into leaving the abusive situation right away, without safety planning. This can escalate into a dangerous and violent situation very quickly. In fact, the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when they leave.
    • Create an individual workplace safety plan with the employee.
    • The safety plan may include: relocating the employee to a different office, changing their phone numbers and email, changing the employee’s schedule, preferential parking, and/or connecting the employee with a local shelter if they don’t have a safe place to go.
    • Cooperate with local law enforcement regarding protection orders.
    • Remind the employee about EAP offerings, including mental health support. Licensed clinicians can give support and guidance. 
    • Direct employees to the domestic violence national hotline or to local shelters for more resources and support.
    • Make sure employees have updated emergency contact information in case they no call or no show. 
    • Do not suggest marriage or family counseling. That could put the employee in danger.

    During the DV seminar, Jenny shared some useful examples of managers and supervisors who helped employees experiencing intimate partner violence. 

    One employee told a manager that she was being stalked and needed a temporary protective order (TPO). She was given time off to acquire the TPO, and left her phone at work so she couldn’t be tracked.

    In another example, a supervisor changed the employee’s schedule to make it look like she was at work while she was attending support groups at a local domestic violence shelter. 

    Policy guideline suggestions 

    Given the number of employees affected by domestic violence, it’s critical for companies and organizations to spend time thinking about and implementing a domestic violence policy. 

    This isn’t an “if it happens” situation. There are already employees in most companies experiencing domestic violence, and it may even be happening in the workplace.

    What are some of the key facets of a good domestic violence workplace policy?

    • Clearly defined terms.
    • A statement of non-discrimination and non-retaliation.
    • Description of leave and other available accommodations.
    • Confidentiality: Tell the employee, “This will not be gossiped about. I will not discuss this at a staff meeting or with my assistant.” However, you can’t promise to never discuss the abuse. If the abuser is coming to the workplace, then security, HR, and local law enforcement need to be notified. 
    • The company may be obligated to file for a temporary restraining order or temporary protective order if the abuser is showing up at the workplace. The OSHA Act means employers have a legal obligation to protect employees.

    For an employer, the most important part is foregrounding the safety of employees while they are at work. Here’s a model policy Jenny suggested for addressing domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking in the workplace.

    Make domestic violence awareness part of workplace culture

    Domestic violence is already part of the experience of many employees. 

    It’s essential for organizations to:

    • Have a comprehensive domestic violence policy in place
    • Create awareness and education around the issue for all employees
    • Offer one-on-one supervisor and leader training, to equip people to advocate for DV survivors at work

    October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Here are a few ways to bring more awareness to DV at your workplace:

    • Announce that it's domestic violence awareness month, and share your current or new DV company policy
    • Bring in a speaker to talk about domestic violence
    • Provide resources
    • Create a relationship with local domestic violence shelters and keep their information in a visible location

    Become an ally for your employees

    It’s impossible for me to put into words everything I’ve seen working at a DV shelter for almost four years—the pain, the trauma, the incredible strength and resilience of so many DV survivors, and the beautiful relationships I’ve been privileged to develop. 

    This issue has been hidden in our society for too long as people suffered alone, grinding through workdays in silence and fearing what waits at home. That doesn’t have to be reality. 

    You now have more knowledge and tools. Go be an ally. This starts with a simple choice to do something instead of nothing.

    Read this blog next to discover why the future of work must prioritize family wellbeing, and the steps HR leaders can start taking today to make this a reality at your organization.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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