Home » Domestic violence and the workplace: Confronting what we don’t want to see

Domestic violence and the workplace: Confronting what we don’t want to see

By Zeynab Day and Kasey Tyring

Someone knows – someone always knows. This truism along with the fact that the “someone” is usually a co-worker has helped spark a new coalition intent on educating Kentucky businesses about preparing for when domestic violence comes to work.

domestic violence_132119546The Kentucky Commission on Women, the Mary Byron Project and the Kentucky State Police have joined their collective knowledge and resources to help business leaders become proactive about protecting employees who are victims of domestic violence and those who work in close proximity with them.

Domestic violence is unpleasant and so contrary to the emotional control workplaces prefer that the inclination is to avoid the subject lest an unsavory pot get stirred.

The coalition is working on programs to inform Kentucky employers, small and large, about why it’s in their interest to have policies addressing domestic abuse reporting and implement safe practices for those who are most at risk. Crimes of passion can and do come to the office, store or shop floor, and those who have prepared can avert, lessen or prevent disturbance, injury or worse.

Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary Byron Project and board member for the Kentucky Commission on Women, approached fellow commission members last winter during their strategic planning session about taking up the challenge of helping to educate Kentucky businesses about domestic violence with regard to workplace safety. Board members voted yes unanimously.

After Roth recruited more help for the initiative through Sgt. Rick Saint-Blancard, commander of the Public Affairs Branch of the Kentucky State Police, a training session for board members took place Aug. 7 at the Governor’s Mansion. It revealed many commonwealth business leaders are underprepared for acts of domestic violence in the workplace and that some think they can get rid of the problem by firing the victim.

Targets are often hesitant to inform managers about domestic violence due to fear of retaliation from their employers, said Madeline Abramson, chair of the Kentucky Commission on Women.

“Our feeling is that people should not have to feel their job is at risk if there’s a problem,” Abramson said. “Sadly, in some instances the employer response is, if this employee is having domestic violence issues that can spill into the workplace, then we’ll just terminate this employee. That’s not a good solution for the employer to lose a good employee, and it certainly is not the right solution for the person who is working.”

More common and costly than most realize

Many employers, Roth said, are unaware of how widespread domestic abuse is and what type of risks it poses in their workplace.

Spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends and ex-boyfriends/ex-girlfriends were responsible for the on-the-job deaths of 321 women and 38 men from 1997-2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“In most things that happen in domestic violence, we want to pretend that domestic violence is a crime that hits invisible people,” Roth said. “I’ve never spoken anywhere where someone hasn’t come up to me and said, ‘I know just what you’re talking about; it happened to me – it happened to my aunt, my mother.’ ”

By the time domestic violence reaches the workplace, Sgt. Saint-Blancard said, the situation has escalated. Workplace confrontations are often preceded by the victim filing for a protective or restraining order. However, job schedules for many employees change little from week to week, making the workplace an easy target.

Beyond safety in the workplace issues, other ramifications include financial losses for Kentucky businesses.

A recent journal article published by the University of Kentucky titled “Intimate Partner Violence, Employment and the Workplace” compiled data on the scope and effects of domestic abuse on the workplace and illustrated how problems from home can surface at work. It reviewed absenteeism, job loss, turnover rates, tardiness and lack of concentration as chasms for productivity loss.

One study found 54 percent of victimized employees were absent three or more days a month due to issues such as shame regarding their situation or injuries, legal issues, depression and partner sabotage, the article states. Abuse at home was touted as the cause of issues ranging from tardiness to job loss.

Productivity can be affected in other ways. Victim stress can cause concentration problems and distractions at work. The UK article states that 71 percent of respondents in a 2005 survey admitted being unable to concentrate because of partner victimization, and 63 percent were unable to complete their jobs to the best of their abilities.

“An analysis of the NCVS (National Crime Victimization Survey),” the article states, “indicates that partner-violence victims incur $24 million annually in medical expenses, much of which again is borne by employers.”

Medical costs are second only to productivity costs in business financial losses due to domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Roth emphasized, many women who become domestic violence victims have few outside contacts, and this makes co-workers the first choice for advice and comfort.

The journal article states “66 percent of employed or recently employed women who filed for domestic violence orders in the Commonwealth of Kentucky reported (previously) telling someone at work about their partner violence at home.”

And those victims often make requests regarding certain needs for dealing with domestic violence, which includes someone to confide in, telephone screening from abusive partners, assistance in creating a secure workplace, scheduling flexibility, information about counseling and how to seek protection, according to the article.

The business of keeping employees safe

Less than 24 hours before the new coalition’s training began, a tragedy in Fort Thomas punctuated the need for educating Kentucky businesses about becoming proactive with domestic violence issues in the workplace.

The morning of Aug. 6, 31-year-old Alisha Waters Mathis was tracked down on the way to work and shot by her estranged husband. According to police, Dennis Mathis chased his wife into her workplace and shot her several times before killing himself. Waters Mathis was gravely injured.

For Kentucky businesses, the job of keeping employees safe has to become part of day-to-day operations, said Dina Bartlett, legal consultant for The Mary Byron Project. The problem, she said, is not just about protecting an employee directly involved but also bystander co-workers and customers.

Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary Byron Project, and Madeline Abramson, chair of the Kentucky Commission on the Women, look at the domestic violence resources available to businesses at workplacerespond.org.
Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary Byron Project, and Madeline Abramson, chair of the Kentucky Commission on the Women, look at the domestic violence resources available to businesses at workplacerespond.org.

Bartlett referred to a workplace tragedy last year in a Milwaukee suburb where a domestic dispute escalated into violence at a day spa that employed a victim. Three people were killed, four were injured and several customers wearing bloody bathrobes fled into nearby streets seeking shelter.

“The abuser doesn’t just go after his victim,” Bartlett said. “He’ll take down anyone who gets between him and her – maybe killing four other people along the way.”

Many Kentucky business managers and company owners have never implemented policies and procedures for dealing with domestic violence in their workplaces. Domestic abuse is mainly viewed as a personal problem that has no place at work and requires no policy. However, Bartlett said, the sheer numbers indicate a proactive response is needed.

Twenty-five percent of all women are victims of domestic violence, she said, and 75 percent of those women are harassed at work. For a company that employs 100 women, those statistics equate to 18 employees being harassed by an abuser. Employers with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach could discover their workplaces are more dangerous because they aren’t prepared.

“The ostrich approach is not a very practical one,” Bartlett said. “And being proactive not only helps to insulate businesses from liability, it also produces employees who are more loyal and more productive. Ultimately, taking care of your employees creates a positive effect on the bottom line.”

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have umbrella regulations that cover many workplace violence issues. Both the EEOC and OSHA mandate that employers provide a safe work environment for employees. In June, the EEOC published a memorandum stating that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act have applicability to employees who experience domestic or dating violence, sexual abuse or stalking.

For example, if an employee gets mugged and the employer grants time off for things like doctor’s visits or court hearings, then those same benefits must be offered to victims of domestic violence.

Small businesses may be more vulnerable to potential liability than larger ones because they often lack a legal arm or a human resources department to consider the possibility of domestic violence in the workplace.

However, Bartlett said, there can be a cost for doing nothing if domestic violence shows up in the workplace no matter the size of the business.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is $727.8 million (in 1995 dollars), with more than 7.9 million paid workdays – the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs – lost each year.

The grassroots work continues

Eleanor Jordan, executive director for The Kentucky Commission on Women, has worked her entire career to elevate the status of women and girls in Kentucky – first as a legislator and now as the driving force behind the commission.

Jordan believes that whether Kentucky employers realize it or not, domestic violence is coming to work every day.

“It’s not just ‘her’ problem anymore,” Jordan said. “Domestic violence doesn’t just happen one day. It follows her to work every day.”

Jordan said it is important for employers to understand the implications of domestic violence in the workplace as they are often the first defense and resource for victims. She said the Mary Byron Project paired with the Kentucky Commission on Women to spread the word about the implications of domestic violence in the workplace to encourage employers to implement some kind of plan to educate employees and outline safety protocols.

It was not the goal of the partnership to create plans they hope employers will implement, Jordan said, but to inform employers so they can be better prepared to implement a plan of their choosing.

The commission has recruited volunteers and members to discuss domestic violence effects in the workplace with businesses within the local communities.

Zeynab Day and Kasey Tyring are students of the Eastern Kentucky University Department of Communication.

Where to find help

For businesses: Resources are available to help employers of any size draft and implement effective workplace domestic violence policies. One is workplacesrespond.org.

For individuals: Reporting is strongly encouraged. If you know of abuse, an anonymous report can be filed with the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services hotline at 800-752-6200. Those who need someone safe they can turn to can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).

Mary Byron Project: The Mary Byron Project was established in Louisville in 2000 in memory of the victim of a highly publicized murder. Mary Byron was killed in the parking lot after her shift at a JC Penney hair salon by her former boyfriend, who had just been released from jail. One of its first initiatives was helping establish the Victim Information Notification Everyday program. VINE notifies victims of a perpetrator’s release from jail and is now implemented in more than 40 states.

Kentucky Commission on Women: In response to President John Kennedy’s federal Commission on the Status of Women, Gov. Edward T. Breathitt in April 1964 commissioned a study and report on the status of Kentucky women. Its findings demonstrated a need for a permanent agency to promote improvement of women’s status, and in November 1968, Gov. Louie Nunn by executive order established the Kentucky Commission on Women.

In 1970, the Kentucky Commission on Women became an official state agency through legislative action. It became part of the Cabinet for General Government as an administrative body attached to the governor’s office in 1980. In January 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear relocated the Kentucky Commission on Women into the State Capitol for the first time in its history.