Q: Help, we have a wonderful staff member who is involved in a domestic violence situation and her boyfriend has threatened to come to our office to harm her . . . what should our nonprofit do to protect her and the other staff?
With one in four women in the United States experiencing domestic violence during their lifetimes (reference), this situation may arise at some point for many nonprofits. It's good that you are paying attention before an incident occurs. As just one example of what can happen, just last month three employees were killed in a workplace shooting in Albuquerque that was sparked by a domestic dispute.
Before we get to steps you should take immediately, let's start by defining domestic violence in the workplace: "violent behavior perpetrated against an employee while the person is working or conducting organizational business by a person that has a personal relationship with the employee." Violent behavior can include:
- Physical, sexual and/or psychological behaviors that harm or are perceived as likely to harm
- Frequent harassing phone calls
- Unwelcome visits to the workplace that annoy or scare the employee and/or disrupt the work environment
- Physical assaults or threatening behavior such as loud outbursts
Steps to take immediately:
- Assess the level of threat by asking if the potential perpetrator owns weapons, has a history of behaving violently against the employee or others, has an arrest record for domestic violence or other violent crimes, and so forth.
- Ask the employee whether he or she has obtained a restraining order. If so, make a copy and, with the employee's knowledge, inform the police department of the restraining order.
- Consider getting a "no contact and restraining order" in addition to the individual's restraining order. (Not all states allow employers to obtain such orders so check your state law first.)
- Make receptionists, security guards and nearby staff aware of the perpetrator and instruct them how to respond (for example, who to contact) if the person enters the facility. If there is a restraining order in place, law enforcement can be called if the perpetrator visits.
- Alert your organization's legal counsel (or one available through an association or your insurance carrier) and ask for guidance. For example, it is important not to spark defamation issues.
- Encourage the employee to obtain knowledgable assistance, perhaps through a social worker, a local domestic violence counseling agency, and/or through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Remember that if a potentially violent individual enters the workplace, it is not only the domestic violence target who is endangered. Create a safety plan; some of the options include:
- Set up an escort for when the employee leaves the building for her car.
- Adjust the employee's work schedule, location, or assignments if appropriate.
- Establish pre-arranged exit strategies.
- Install a "panic button" or electronic panic button for the employee and/or the receptionist.
- Provide the employee with a global positioning device so you can quickly identify her location on your premises.
- Install additional secuity measures such as scamers and silent alarms.
- Request that the local police regularly patrol your parking area.
The supervisor's role
In this situation, the employee's supervisor should openly show empathy and conern for the employee's well-being. Keep in mind that targets of domestic violence can be both men and women. Examples of dialog for a supervisor include:
- I am concerned for your safety
- I believe what you are telling me
- You are not responsible for your partner's behavior
- You don't deserve to be treated this way
- I will support you and your decisions.
Supervisors should be clear that their role is not to intervene or provide counseling, but instead to encourage and assist the employee in getting help from HR, an EAP counselor, or other qualified person.
In this particular situation, the employee has herself raised the issue of domestic violence. This may not always be the case. Supervisors should also have training in recognizing the signs of domestic violence, such as:
- Getting many, many phone calls at work after which the employee seems distraught or upset
- Employees in nearby cubicles hear shouting, crying, and other unusual sounds during phone calls
- The employee has lost productivity, frequently seems distracted, has trouble concentrating
- The employee dresses too warmly for the weather, such as wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck on a hot day, possibly to cover up bruises.
Remember that these signals are not necessarily related to domestic violence, but they are evidence that warrant further investigation by the supervisor.
Action by co-workers
Beyond the specifics of the question that sparked this column, a common question is what action should a co-worker take when an employee has confided in him or her about domestic violence but doesn't want to speak to her own supervisor? When domestic violence spills into the workplace, the staff, clients, volunteers and others near the targeted employee can be hurt as well. As a result, it's important for the co-worker to raise the issue in order that all employees can be protected.
In fact, some organizations have official policies that require an employee with knowledge of a domestic violence situation to bring it to the attention of his or her own supervisor or to the HR department.
In closing, nonprofits should be proactive about preparing to address domestic violence as a workplace concern. It is not a matter of whether your organization will experience a domestic violence situation; it is simply when it will occur. The key to success is being prepared.
W. Barry Nixon guest-authored this Ask Rita in HR colum; he is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence in Orange County, California. Barry is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a trained mediator, Security Specialist, Trauma Response Specialist, and has consulted to Fortune 500 companies as well as numerous public entities. He has written three books on workplace violence including Background Screening and Investigations: Managing Risk in the Hiring Process from the HR and Security Perspective. On a lighter note, he enjoys spicy ethnic foods of all kinds and flavors, and recently rejoiced at finding good rifsttafel in California, an Indonesian rice dish he discovered while living in Holland.
P.S. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Click here for resources and more information.