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HR Handled Right

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When the director of my four-year-old’s preschool called to tell me that a teacher’s battering boyfriend had threatened to shoot up the school, I found myself reacting like many employers I counsel. Yes, I was afraid that an innocent person would be harmed. Of course, I was concerned for the teacher’s welfare; shocked that someone I knew was involved in an abusive relationship, and furious at the abuser. And, I am ashamed to admit, I was angry with the teacher.

“What was she thinking?” “Why on earth did she get herself in this mess?” “How could she let her personal problems put my child in danger?” Her personal problems are none of my business, I found myself thinking, understandably but incorrectly. Like it or not, her problem had suddenly become mine.

The odds are, you’re going to find yourself having to deal with a domestic violence situation that has spilled over to the office. Domestic violence often follows an employee to work through harassing phone calls and letters, cyber stalking, and visits by the abuser. If not taken seriously, it can be lethal; homicide by domestic partners accounts for 20% of all deaths among women at work – compared to the 11 percent accounted for by worker-on-worker violence. In this article, we’ll take a look at how human resource professionals can deal with one of the most sensitive issues

Beating Up the Bottom Line

As usual, human resources professionals at the front line have long been aware of the workplace/domestic violence overlap. As far back as 1995, 78 percent of human resources professionals considered partner violence a serious workplace issue (Personnel Journal, April 1995). Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice recently proclaimed the workplace as the most dangerous place in America, employers have been the last to recognize that domestic abuse doesn’t always stay at home.

Luckily, the economic toll domestic violence takes on American businesses is finally getting senior management’s attention. For example:

1. Domestic violence costs American businesses up to $5 billion each year in absenteeism, lower productivity, higher turnover and health care costs.

2. Fifty percent of domestic violence victims who are working women miss 3 days of work a month as a result of the violence, and 64 percent were periodically late.

3. Twenty percent of working battered women eventually lose their job because of it.

4. Ninety six percent of battered working women experienced problems at work because of the abuse.

5. Seventy five percent employed battered women used company time to deal with their violence because they could not do so at home.

Having senior management’s awareness and support of the need to develop an action plan for domestic violence spillover at work is a critical first step; knowing what actions to take is another.

Know Your Legal Responsibilities

The link between domestic violence and the law is often a criminal charge – assault and battery, stalking, etc. While most of the laws relating to domestic violence are criminal ones, there are a few issues addressed in the labor code. For example, some states have laws that prohibit someone with a domestic violence conviction from ever owning or carrying a gun. If you are hiring for a security position it is critical that you conduct a thorough background check before hiring or you could wind up with negligent hiring charge.

Labor Law Section 593(1) provides a “separation for good cause” option for domestic violence victims who leave an employer because of the abuse, meaning she may be eligible for unemployment benefits. Penal Law Section 215.14 requires employers, with prior day notification, to allow time off for victims or witnesses to pursue legal action related to domestic violence. You don’t have to a be lawyer to deal with these situations but, as a human resource professional, make sure you are up to date on national and state laws that could potentially increase your company’s liability in the event a worst-case scenario happens.

Seven Ways You Don’t Have to Be In Social Services to Help

Human resources dealing with domestic violence at work can wind up feeling battered themselves by all the competing interests at stake. The employee/victim often looks to the human resource professional as an advocate who provides protection and, if the abuse is interfering with their work, someone who will fight to help them keep the financial independence that is such a critical part of leaving a domestic violence situation. Senior management has difficulty understanding why human resources is involved in what they perceive to be either a social problem or a personal matter, while the victim’s supervisor wants the employee to do her job – period.

The key to your emotional survival in these stressful situations is to know where and how to marshal available resources so your actions don’t get clouded by the emotions inherent in these situations the competing interests of those involved. Here are seven ways you can begin to create a culture that is

1. Have a domestic violence policy that provides a formal structure for handling some of the competing interests. For example, make sure your policy addresses performance issues related to victims of domestic violence, provides accountability for employees who use company property (mail, e-mail, letters, phones) to harass a family or household member, and outlines the rights of domestic violence victims as they relate to the use of company time and resources to handle domestic violence and/or resulting legal issues.

2. Maintain a list of domestic violence services, including: the phone number and description of local domestic violence service providers, employee assistance, if available, and information on how to obtain orders of protection and criminal justice options.

3. Coordinate with your legal and security departments to develop workplace safety response plans and provide reasonable means to assist victimized employees in developing and implementing individualized workplace safety strategies.

4. Get the word out. Post information on domestic violence and available resources in the work site in places where employees can obtain it without having to request it or be seen removing it, such as employee rest rooms, lounge areas, as inserts in employee benefits packages and/or as part of new employee orientation.

5. If possible, work with supervisors and union representatives to give reasonable leave and adjust work schedules or location of assignment for employees who are victims of domestic violence.

6. Maintain the confidentiality of domestic violence circumstances as much as possible. If safety concerns for other employees make this impossible, tell the employee/victim of the need to breach confidentiality in advance of doing so.

7. Consult your legal counsel and advise your supervisors when disciplinary action is considered against employees who have used company property to commit acts of domestic violence.

A Win-Win

The significant impact on business – from safety issues to economic considerations – encourages employers to recognize that violence is not someone else’s problem. Whether employers are acting out of economic self-interest or not, businesses’ recent move toward understanding and dealing with domestic violence spillover at work is a win for everyone. Or, as my grandmother used to say, sometimes people do good in spite of themselves.

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