Ending the silence on domestic violence in the workplace

May 1, 2009
If domestic violence hasn't infiltrated your workplace yet, be thankful, but don't erroneously believe it can't or won't.

by Tim Twigg and Rebecca Crane

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: domestic violence, workplace violence, domestic abuse, Tim Twigg, Rebecca Crane.

If domestic violence hasn't infiltrated your workplace yet, be thankful, but don't erroneously believe it can't or won't. Women are the majority in the dental profession and, if the statistics tell us anything at all, at least one member of your team may be at risk, either now or in the future.

The statistics are alarming:

  • 85% of women are affected by domestic violence.
  • An estimated 13,000 acts of domestic violence are committed in the workplace each year.
  • Homicide is the leading cause of death in the workplace.
  • 20% of domestic abuse threats and 72% of stalking incidents occur at work.
  • Domestic violence costs employers an estimated $3 billion to $6 billion per year in lost work days, productivity, medical or mental services, and employee turnover.
  • It will cause approximately 50% of victims to lose their jobs due to impaired performance.

Painful enough as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to the heartbreaking stories of survivors — individuals who suffered for years in silence and who were fearful of their lives, fearful of losing their job, fearful of asking for help, fearful of walking away, and fearful that someone would discover their painful secret.

What used to be thought of as “a private family matter” has quickly become a matter of the law. Sweeping across our nation are state-mandated laws protecting individuals who are victims of domestic violence.

Failing to acknowledge domestic violence and assist employees who need it is no longer an approach that employers can take. It has now become an employer's obligation to take proactive measures to ensure that employees who may be caught in a domestic violence situation will be helped, not ignored.

Victims

Domestic abuse knows no bounds. Victims may be any age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, and education level.

Although our brains may be somewhat hardwired to believe that a female is always the victim and the abuser is always male, this is a mistake. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says men are the victims of about 2.9 million intimate partner-related physical assaults each year. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that of all the nonfatal violent acts committed against men between 2001 and 2005, 4% were perpetrated by their intimate partner.

Symptoms of abuse

Anastasia L. Turchetta, a registered dental hygienist, who herself is a domestic abuse survivor, defines some of the ugly forms that abuse can take:

  • Physical abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, denying medical or dental care, forcing alcohol and/or drug use
  • Sexual abuse: Coercing any sexual contact or behavior without consent
  • Emotional abuse: Chipping away at the individual's sense of self-worth and self-esteem — verbal or nonverbal
  • Economic abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by controlling financial resources both during and after the relationship
  • Psychological abuse: Causing fear by intimidation, threats to harm self, partner, children, and pets. Forcing isolation from family, friends, school, or work. Destroying personal property.

Warning signs

According to Ms. Turchetta, who speaks nationally on the subject, appearances can be deceiving, especially in our profession. Signs of physical abuse, such as bruises, can be hidden quite easily under our scrubs and lab coats as the abdomen, upper arm, and thigh are less conspicuous target sites. Notice the frequency and inquire about it.

Employers should be on the lookout for warning signs that may be indicative of an employee experiencing domestic abuse to appropriately address the situation. Listen for excuses that seem to be well rehearsed or for recurring “clumsy accidents.” There are various warning signs, and the following list is not all-inclusive:

  • Frequent or sudden tardiness and absences
  • Lack of concentration in performing daily work duties
  • Poor judgement and errors apparent in accomplishing work-related tasks
  • Sudden decrease in productivity
  • Sudden change in behavior
  • An increase in requests for time off
  • Cold-weather clothing in hot weather to cover bruises
  • Frequent injuries, with the excuse of “accidents”
  • Frequent, harassing phone calls from the partner
  • Fear of the partner, references to the partner's anger
  • Depression, crying, low self-esteem

Reaching out

Fear of being judged by employers may cause employees to remain tight-lipped about their situation, thus employers may not know whether or not an employee is a victim of domestic violence. Since domestic violence often turns into a serious threat to all employees' safety at the workplace, employers shouldn't wait until someone steps forward or displays warning signs of abuse.

  • Provide information about local domestic abuse resources and services conspicuously throughout the practice so that employees can discreetly avail themselves of it.
  • Host brown-bag lunches for local authorities to conduct domestic violence training.
  • Train managers on how to appropriately respond to employees impacted by domestic violence.
  • Contract with an Employee Assistance Program equipped to handle domestic violence. Ensure all employees have confidential access to the program.

Taking a more supportive and proactive approach will often create an environment in which employees will open up and communicate about problem situations.

Legal obligations

Many legal obligations exist and have for many years. First, there is a broad regulation from OSHA that states employers are required to provide a safe workplace for all employees. Second, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects individuals who have to take a leave of absence for a serious health condition, and harm caused by domestic violence will likely fall under this category. Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other related state laws protect people from discrimination if they are disabled and unable to perform a major life activity such as working.

At the time of this writing, 15 states have enacted some form of new laws specifically targeted at domestic violence protection, and more states are likely to follow. The newly enacted laws confront domestic violence on two fronts: one protects people from discrimination; the other provides protected leave.

Anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from discharging, discriminating, or retaliating against an employee who is a victim of domestic violence or who is taking measures to protect himself or herself by getting restraining orders or other injunctive relief.

Employers residing in states with these regulations must establish a stand-alone policy targeting domestic violence, and firmly state that employees will not be discriminated against or lose their jobs if they are victims. Even if it is not required by law, it is an extremely wise policy to include.

The protected leave of absence requirement varies from state to state. The bottom line? Employers who are subject to these laws must provide protected leave for some duration of time and must hold the job while the employee is out. Leave is generally without pay, except when an employee has paid leave time, such as vacation, that can be used.

Employers should become educated on what their individual state laws require and ensure that policies and procedures are in place to ensure compliance. It should be stated that nothing prevents an employer from establishing policies and procedures that exceed any law in an effort to assist employees as much as possible.

If you need assistance in interpreting the requirements or benefits established by these regulations, contact us or your attorney. We can also assist in helping employers incorporate a voluntary domestic violence policy.

Conclusion

Domestic violence is a legal landmine that awaits unsuspecting employers. One misstep could cause the employer to become vulnerable to claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, safety violations, and wrongful termination. Caution must be exercised when confronted with a domestic violence situation, and appropriate technical assistance with domestic violence experts prior to taking any adverse action is advised.

Victims face a plethora of challenges, and effective workplace programs can greatly assist them in the healing process. Compassionate, proactive employers will be rewarded by retaining valuable employees, significantly reducing liability risk, and creating goodwill with their workforce and community.

Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen & Associates, and Rebecca Crane is a human resource compliance consultant with Bent Ericksen & Associates. For 30 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resource and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. To receive a complimentary copy of the company's quarterly newsletter or to learn more about its services, call (800) 679-2760 or visit the Web site at www.bentericksen.com.

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