We once thought that "family problems" should be ignored in the workplace and that it "is none of our business."
We now realize that domestic problems that sometimes turn into domestic violence
can spill over into the workplace. The abuser's stalking, threats,
harassment, intimidation and physical violence can follow a victim to work, affecting the safety of both victims and co-workers.
The impact of domestic violence on the workplace may also include:
- lost productivity,
- increased health care costs,
- absenteeism, and
- employee turnover.
One female employee in Asheville said that when she finally told her boss about her abusive husband, it saved her job and possibly her life.
By the time she told her employer, she had missed 45 days of work. She was emotionally exhausted and most days, too depressed to go in to work.
At that point, she was on the verge of being fired.
That's when she decided to tell her boss, feeling like she didn't have much to lose. When she told her supervisor
that her husband was physically and emotionally abusing her, her supervisor's response was immediate and compassionate.
Her employer put her in a safer work location, provided her with counseling, and let her bring her son to work when necessary. Finally, when she had the strength
to leave her husband and move to another city, her employer safeguarded her new address and location by coding the payroll as if she were still in town.
She said that this was the "best employer she has ever worked for in her life."
Another female employee in North Carolina also told her boss that she was in an abusive marriage. Her employer tried to protect her by screening her phone calls.
It didn't work.
In the spring, she was kidnapped from the office parking lot and killed by her husband.
Before the tragedy, she had shown signs that she was living in terror, said one of the assistant managers where she worked. She had taken out a protective order against her husband, and
started to offer to work longer and longer hours. The assistant manager said she thought the victim was afraid to go home. The manager said, "She was such a sweet person. It really did shock me that her husband
would come to work after her."
The co-worker tells you about the situation:
Keep several things in mind as you try to help. Remember that you are not a trained counselor, so do not go too far in giving advice. You are also not the employee's
boss who may be the only one who can take some effective steps in protecting the victim, planning for office safety, and referring your co-worker for professional counseling.
With these things in mind, you
can certainly help. The victim may have told only you so far, so your reaction may give him or her the courage to seek other help and take effective steps.
Here are some ways to respond:
- Offer support by telling the person that you believe what he or she is saying,
offer to help if the co-worker wants help, and praising him or her for having the courage to tell someone.
- Listen without judging even if you think the person should be handling it differently or that you would handle it differently. Remember,
the victim is probably already being told that he or she is stupid or not doing things right, so don't add to this by being critical. Tell the victim, "It's not your fault.
Nothing you are doing or not doing means that you deserve this kind of treatment."
- Express concern by saying things like "I am afraid for you," "You shouldn't have to be afraid to go home," or "You deserve to be treated well."
- Ask your co-worker what you can do to help. If he or she asks for help, offer to get information on counseling, shelters, safety plans. Encourage him or her to go to the boss, or offer to go with the co-worker to report it, if appropriate.
Here are some ways not to respond:
- Do not say "This is really hard to believe."
- Do not say "I can't believe you put up with this. Why don't you just leave?"
- Do not say "You can't stay in this situation one more day."
- Do not say anything that starts with "You should..." or "If I were you ..."
Finally, be patient. Be available when he or she wants to talk, but let your co-worker decide how often and how much to talk.
By building trust and not pushing too hard, you will help the co-worker more than if you push before he or she is really ready to take the necessary steps.
The co-worker has not told you anything, but you suspect abuse:
You will probably want to try and find out if your suspicions are true to see if you can help in any way.
To do this, you could try some gentle questioning without being
too pushy to see if the co-worker will open up to you.
Make sure that you are in a private setting and then try some questions like these:
- "You seem kind of uneasy around your partner. Is everything okay?”
- "I've noticed that you seem upset lately and have some bruises around your neck. Did someone do this to you?”
If you get some response from the co-worker about a problem,
you can follow the advice in the left column and ask some follow-up questions like these:
- "I am worried about your safety. Do you have any kind of plan on what to to do?”
- "Would it help to tell . . .? to do . . . ?”
- "Can I help you get some information on what to do or where to go for help?”
If you get no response from the co-worker about a problem, accept what he or she is telling you and drop it.
Keep the following things in mind:
- It is often very hard or impossible for some people to discuss personal problems due to embarrassment or fear.
- If your suspicions are still there after talking to the coworker, consider telling your supervisor or
contact Human Resources to find out what referrals they have for domestic abuse situations.
No matter what your co-worker tells you or doesn't tell you, if you think there is some immediate danger
to the victim or to other co-workers, report your suspicions to your boss. The safety of yourself, the victim,
and others must come first in a true emergency.