By Stephanie Hammerwold
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Some of the most heartbreaking situations I have dealt with in HR have involved helping employees struggling to leave an abusive relationship. Domestic violence can manifest itself at work through attendance issues due to an abusive partner forcing an employee to stay home, the emotional scars someone carries to work or even the abuser showing up and being disruptive in the workplace. It is important that employers have a plan to support employees trying to leave abusive relationships.
Staying Safe at Work
Domestic violence can be both physical and emotional and can affect attendance and work performance. There are not always clear signs from the outside that someone is in an abusive relationship. Emotional scars are invisible and physical injuries such as bruises may be hidden under clothing or passed off as an accident. As an employer, you may not know an employee is struggling with an abusive relationship until the employee speaks up and asks for help.
When an employee speaks up about abuse, the first step is to be a good listener. Offer a space free from judgement so that the employee feels safe and comfortable at work. For some people in abusive relationships, work can be a sort of safe haven away from the abuse. As HR professionals and managers, it is important that we support that type of environment. For some, the decision to stay in an abusive relationship may be financial. Perhaps the abuse victim is afraid of losing their job if they speak up and ask for help or time off. Showing the employee that you are supportive is a big step in helping an employee to realize that they have the resources to get out of an abusive relationship.
Some abusers show up at their victim’s workplace. A victim can get a restraining order against an abusive partner. If an employee gets a restraining order, work with the employee to educate their manager and others in the department on calling the police if the abusive partner shows up at work.
How Employers Can Help
Be prepared with a list of community resources that you can refer an employee to. Include shelters, legal support and counseling. Social service agencies often keep a directory of community resources, and I have found that many will provide a copy to employers upon request. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is also an excellent resource for victims of domestic violence. They can connect people with services in their area. Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may also be a great resource. Know what type of help your company can provide as well. This may come in the form of paid time off or flexibility in work schedule while the employee seeks help outside of work.
There is no federal law that addresses leaves of absence for victims of domestic violence, but some states like California have laws in place that include leave for those seeking shelter, legal, counseling or other services related to domestic violence. California’s new paid sick leave law states that domestic violence victims can use sick time to seek services. For some people in an abusive relationship, knowing that they have the option to take job-protected leave may be enough to get them to leave an abusive relationship. Research leave requirements in your state, and include domestic violence leave in your leave policy. Even if your state has no requirement, consider offering it at your company.
Be a Supportive Employer
When I was in grad school, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and learned firsthand the challenges of rebuilding a life after leaving an abusive relationship. Once I moved into a career in HR, I brought that knowledge into the workplace to help employees who came to me seeking help. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 44% of full-time employed adults have personally experienced the effects of domestic violence in the workplace, and 21% of people surveyed self-identified as victims of intimate partner violence. As such, it is important that employers have a strategy in place to address domestic violence in the workplace.
When I worked in the shelter, I was surprised at how many of the women had stories of being fired or forced to quit due to issues related to being in or trying to leave an abusive relationship. Take the time to establish leave guidelines and draft a policy on domestic violence and the workplace. Train managers on what to do if an employee comes forward asking for help. Taking these steps may be the help someone needs to get out of an abusive relationship.