Let’s Get To Work: Empowering Employees to Take Action on Domestic Violence

Americans spend more waking hours at work, on average, than we do anywhere else. The positive and negative aspects of our lives come to work with us, and our experiences at work impact our overall quality of life. During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’re reminded both of the devastating national impact of domestic violence on many individuals’ lives as well as the essential role that workplaces play in addressing this issue.

Domestic violence is a workplace issue—and unfortunately, it is also an all-too-common occurrence in the workplace. One hospital in Maryland experienced two employee deaths five months apart in 2013, both of which were committed at the hands of family members who came to the workplace. According to a 2012 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly 20 percent of organizations experienced a domestic violence incident in the previous year.

Together, we bring nearly a half century of experience in addressing domestic violence in the workplace and in our communities: Holly as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence on college campuses and in communities for over 20 years, and Elizabeth as an employment law attorney whose experience includes serving as General Counsel and Ethics Officer of SHRM and as a legal and policy advisor to the Vice Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In our current roles at EVERFI, we spearhead efforts to address sexual and gender-based violence in the workplace.

From this vantage point of both experience and expertise, we have identified three critical questions you can ask your company to assess whether your organization is ready to support employees who are experiencing domestic violence.

(Tim Gouw)

What are the policies related to domestic violence in your workplace?

Go look. We’ll wait.

Can’t find it? You’re not alone: The SHRM survey also identified that only 35 percent of workplaces had developed and implemented policies specifically related to domestic violence. What many more workplaces do have in place though are workplace violence policies—which are important, because they can address threats and acts of violence in general, but which don’t typically include considerations for the person experiencing the harm or employees impacted by a co-worker’s experience.

If your organization does not have a policy on domestic violence, ask your HR department about creating one. Ideally, it will affirm the organization’s commitment to supporting employees who experience domestic violence; address safety concerns of the impacted employee and other employees; provide information about resources (including confidential resources) for all employees to seek assistance both in the workplace and in the community; detail the processes the organization will follow once they learn of a possible situation of domestic violence impacting an employee–either from the survivor or from third-party reports; prohibit discrimination or retaliation against an employee or applicant because they have experienced a threat or act of domestic violence; and outline a range of accommodations or assistance that may be appropriate to provide the impacted employee. (Consider providing a copy of this model policy developed by Futures Without Violence as a good resource to get your company started.)

If you or a co-worker experience domestic violence, find out whether your company offers any of the following accommodations: leave for judicial proceedings, medical treatment/recovery, counseling, relocation or obtaining other types of assistance; temporary or permanent work location or hours changes; flexible work schedules; and changes in security processes. (If you are a manager, you may want or need to provide these.)

If you’re advocating for developing one for the first time or revising a current policy, make sure it includes how an employee’s work performance issues that are caused or exacerbated by an abuser’s behavior will be addressed. This is an important empowerment tool for survivors because it reduces the likelihood that abusers can further victimize partners by disrupting their work life.

Keep in mind that your company may have additional legal obligations to employees experiencing domestic violence. EEOC guidance outlines that employees affected by domestic violence may require accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and certain employment decisions impacting these employees may also violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many states also have specific laws governing employer responsibilities or employee rights that will further guide organizational policies, including the requirement to provide leave for employees impacted by domestic violence and protection against discrimination.

Whose job is it to address domestic violence in the workplace?

The most effective policy in the world will mean little if no one knows their roles and responsibilities, or if employees are unprepared to take action.

Because an abuser’s tactics for exerting power and control can impact every facet of an employee’s work life, we have learned that providing effective support and safety to an employee requires a collective effort. We recommend workplaces assemble a standing, multi-disciplinary team to advise, inform and take action. This team can not only assist organizations with their planning and prevention efforts, such as proactively developing domestic violence policies and protocols for response and support well in advance of an incident, but also serve as a rapid-response team that can be immediately mobilized to address a situation.

Important internal members of the team include human resources and benefits professionals as well as staff from the security, IT, legal and facilities departments. This team’s work should be informed by, and may include participants from, outside community agencies that address domestic violence, benefits and employee assistance plan providers, workplace wellness professionals and local law enforcement.

Ideally, these team members will receive specialized training on an ongoing basis together so that they are prepared to act before the need emerges. Shared training also builds trust among team members and allows each person to understand the expertise others bring to the table–all important factors when a high risk situation emerges and employee safety is on the line.

How should employers share this information with employees?

Your company needs to be sure that those who have a responsibility for addressing this issue in the workplace have the training they need to fulfill those roles. We strongly believe however that universal mandatory training for all employees is the best-practice approach.

This is a place where there is a lot of room for growth in workplaces today: The SHRM survey we cited earlier also notes that only 20 percent of employers were delivering domestic violence training to their employees. But training is important for a variety of reasons.

Requiring training sends the message to employees that the company cares about this issue, and is investing in their employees’ well-being and safety. Universal training is also the most effective approach to ensure that persons who are experiencing domestic violence know what options and resources are available to them without stigma or shame. Since domestic violence often impacts several employees in an organization beyond the targeted partner, coworkers may also be harassed by an abuser in an effort to shame or threaten their partner or to retaliate against that colleague who has provided support or protection, or find themselves facing an abuser who has come to the work site—so it is critical for all employees to know the warning signs of potential violence, how to respond to harassment, how to seek assistance and how to support others.

If your workplace doesn’t yet provide specific training on domestic violence, ask about it! Let your manager know that this issue is important to you. The messaging here is simple and powerful: We care about your safety and well-being. We recognize that domestic violence may affect those who you care about, your coworkers, or perhaps you personally. For these reasons, we’re training everyone to better understand this issue as well as how we will support employees who are experiencing domestic violence or its effects, and build your skills to effectively respond to violence and support those in your work and personal life who experience violence.

Companies should reinforce this training by making it easy for employees to access information and sharing additional resources throughout the year. One great example of this approach is the University of Michigan’s Abuse Hurts website, which offers specific guidance and support to employees based on their role and links to institutional and community-based resources for help.

Domestic violence is not just a “domestic” problem. You have the opportunity to be a champion for actions that will increase the safety, well-being and productivity of every employee in your organization by seeking to empower and support those who are subject to abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner.

About and

Holly Rider-Milkovich is the Senior Director of Prevention at EVERFI. She brings over two decades of experience in sexual violence prevention and response and in higher education to her role. 
Elizabeth Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP is the Senior Director of Harassment Prevention at EVERFI.