Human Resources

Employers have role in helping victims of abuse

Sometimes the workplace is the only place where victims feel safe.

November 8, 2013
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The tentacles of domestic abuse reach into many areas of the workplace, costing U.S. employers $5 billion annually, according to a family violence expert.

Becky Diffin, director of supportive housing for the West Central Michigan YWCA, said it’s vital that employers foster an environment where employees are open to seeking help when they’re in physically, mentally or emotionally abusive relationships.

“Quite often, when someone is in an abusive relationship, the abuser has isolated the victim from other family and friends, and as employers, you may be the only source of help or information available to the victim,” Diffin said last week at Women In Successful Enterprises’ annual Giving Back event.

“It is not uncommon for an abuser to track the victim’s every movement, monitor phone calls and screen emails. Time at work may be the only time a person has to talk about the abuse happening at home. Obviously, this is important to talk about, not only from a safety perspective but also from a liability and cost perspective, as well.”

Diffin said the cost associated with domestic violence results in higher health care costs, missed workdays, and lost performance and productivity in the following ways:

  • Every time a woman is assaulted by her partner and survives the attack, she misses an average of seven days of work.
  • Domestic violence victims lose nearly 8 million days of paid work, the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.
  • Medical and mental health care costs to victims annually in the United States totals $4.1 billion.
  • Lawsuits for inadequate workplace security average $1.2 million nationwide and settlements average $600,000.

“Researchers from the University of Arkansas found that women who were recent victims of domestic violence had 26 percent more time lost to absenteeism and tardiness than non-victims,” said Diffin. “Approximately one-fourth of the 1 million women stalked each year report missing work as a result of the stalking and missed an average of 11 days of work. Altogether, missed work, low productivity, medical and mental health care costs and lawsuits for inadequate safety procedures amount to nearly $5 billion every year.”

Diffin advised employers to enlist management and human resources staff in developing policies and procedures around domestic violence in the workplace.

“All staff should have training on understanding domestic violence and learning how to recognize the signs of a victim and an abuser,” said Diffin.

Learning what is helpful and what’s not is key, she added. As a word of caution, Diffin said it’s not a good idea for people to feel they must be an expert on domestic violence. They should veer from believing they need to “save” an employee. Instead, they should offer themselves as a safe person who’s willing to listen.

It’s also best not to insist an abused person take action, she said.

“Sometimes what we think may be helpful could potentially put someone in a more dangerous situation or could make the victim feel uneasy and vulnerable with what they have shared,” said Diffin. “Leaving the abuser is not always the safest decision, and if we tell a victim that is what she has to do, we have just damaged the trust that we could have had with her.”

That’s because an abuser in a relationship does his best to control and manipulate the victim, said Diffin. “If we are telling victims that they need to leave or that they need to call the police, in their eyes, we become just like an abuser and we become an unsafe person to talk to.”

Diffin said ways employers can foster an environment that helps abused employees feel open to discuss their violent relationships include consistently giving the message that abuse will not be tolerated in any way, whether through jokes, supervision, policies or procedures. Displaying posters and distributing pamphlets are ways to bring awareness to domestic violence.

Among the services the YWCA and its counterpart, Safe Haven Ministries, offer are counseling, emergency shelter and transitional housing.

“When a person makes the decision to disclose abuse, they are taking a huge leap of faith,” said Diffin. “We need to be as predictable as possible when referring them for services. The more informed a person is about YWCA services and Safe Haven Ministries, the more comfortable it can be for the victim.”

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