I Think One of My Employees is A Victim of Domestic Violence

Given the statistics, it is entirely likely that, at some point, one or more of your employees is or has been a victim of domestic violence. How will you handle it if you suspect this is the case?

There are several issues here, each wrapped tightly around the other, but I’m going to try and separate them out and discuss them separately.

First, you can support your employee while maintaining the safety of the workplace. First of all: ask him or her, indirectly, if everything is all right or if s/he needs assistance. Reassure him/her that the conversation is confidential and that you will respect his/her answer. Be prepared for a ‘everything is fine” answer, many times victims aren’t sure who to trust, and it can take some time before s/he feels she can open up to you. (As well, many victims feel intensely ashamed of their circumstances and it can be difficult to admit that the abuse is happening.)

Modeling positive behaviors can help the victim trust you: sharing positive experiences with your own spouse, for example. Become an example of what healthy boundaries look like, and how nice life is when you have safety and sane, kind, respectful love. You can also, when appropriate, do this more directly when in a personal discussion. An example might be talking about that nice, kind, respectful thing your significant other did that otherwise might not be noteworthy.

You can also begin to take notes, perhaps on a calendar or in the ‘journal’ function in Outlook of days your employee comes into work looking, or acting, injured. Having this unofficial record can help him/her if s/he chooses to go to court to seek relief or protection.

Second, there’s an issue of safety in your workplace. Domestic violence can easily bleed into the workplace, creating a safety risk for everybody. But firing an employee because s/he might bring danger is the worst response – all you do is signal that you don’t care about your employee’s well-being and that you lack any sensitivity.

Take a look at your policies and procedures with the aim of protecting all of your employees from violence – random or intentional. Do you have good outside lighting and close parking for night workers? What about a security guard? Are employees trained to ask strangers what their business is and to not let people they don’t know wander around the workplace?

  • Do you have a policy for dealing with violence in the workplace?
  • Do not tolerate, on any level, jokes about abuse. They aren’t funny except to morons, and they undermine trust and a sense of safety for many employees.
  • Consider posting pamphlets from a local DV shelter in the break room and maybe send out an email with contact numbers and information to everyone in the company. (A college professor once wrote the local DV hotline number on the chalkboard and made sure everyone wrote it down. She then explained that by having everyone right it down, it meant that the people who needed it didn’t feel exposed at being ‘the only ones’ writing down the information.)
  • Do you have an employee assistance program that can help in this situation? Maybe you want to set one up.

By doing this work, you continue to model appropriate expectations about safety for all of your employees. If anyone asks you about it, you can say “All of my employees deserve to have a safe workplace, so I’ve been making sure I have done all I can to make that happen.” Safety is not something domestic violence victims feel they deserve – creating an example for him/her of what the world looks like when you *don’t* think you deserve abuse can be very positive.

The third issue I see is a moral/ethical one: Are you obligated to do something?

I suspect when you ask if you should do something, you are actually asking (because most people are): “Should I take on the responsibility of trying to get them out of this?” and I may surprise you when I say that my firm answer is: no. You are responsible for managing your company in a productive way that supports yourself and your employees. You are not, in any way, shape, or form, responsible for the lives of your employees. No matter how good, or how bad.

*THEY* are responsible for getting out of their bad situation -- you cannot take that responsibility from them. If you try you will likely be disappointed when s/he returns to her abuser, is not grateful, doesn’t listen, doesn’t understand, and/or doesn’t see your good intentions. You can try, and you will likely be disappointed when s/he gets into another abusive relationship.

Abusers strip their victims of any control they have over their lives, any belief that their own thoughts matter, that they can operate independently, or make their own decisions. If you try and take away their right to make their own decisions – good or bad -- all you’re doing is telling the victim to swap their current position of powerlessness for one that seems nicer.

That said, you might also want to spend some time right now thinking through, in advance, how you’ll deal with certain situations if they come up. If s/he leaves the abusive partner and asks for help in finding a new place to live, what will you say? What will you do? If the person you suspect is an abuser shows up at work (not in a violent way, but just a “dropping by” way), how will you interact? What if s/he wants to shake your hand? What if s/he wants to chat?

One final thing I want to say that needs to be considered: Victims of abuse are the only ones who have a valid, worthwhile assessment of their safety level. They know their abuser best, they know the triggers and the signs of impending violence, and they know how to de-escalate when possible. They know what resources the abuser can call upon as well as what the abuser is likely to do, how violent s/he’s likely to get. They’ve had to learn all of this to survive.

When you begin making decisions *for* an abuse victim, you risk violating his or her safety in ways you can not predict. Because of this, I strongly advise against making decisions on behalf of an abuse victim.

The most important thing you can do is restrict your actions to maintaining safety and boundaries. Avoid making decisions based on assumptions about your employee’s life and what you believe is safe and appropriate. You don’t know what’s happening with him/her — you only know that there are parts of his/her personal life making it into the workplace.

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