The Prevalence of Domestic Violence in the Workplace and How to Address It

Picture of Andrea Lebron By Andrea Lebron

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domestic violence in the workplaceStatistics relating to domestic violence in the workplace are often out-of-date and generally unreliable. Nonetheless, the issue undoubtedly exists, and businesses have a legal obligation to address the impact of domestic violence on victims, as well as the financial motivation for doing so.

Most reports relating to domestic violence in the workplace rely on data produced more than ten years ago for the Bureau of Justice Statistics Workplace Violence Report 1993 - 2009 (PDF). In the report, one small section relates to the victim/offender relationship of reported crimes, and shows that women are twice as likely to suffer workplace violence perpetrated by an “intimate partner” as a man. However, if you read the small print beneath the data, both calculations are based on ten or fewer reported incidents; which - over a sixteen year period - would suggest the data is unreliable.

A more feasible estimate of the volume of domestic violence in the workplace appears in Hope Tiesman's study of workplace homicides among U.S. women and the role of intimate partner violence published by the U.S. Library of Medicine. Although drawing on an even older source of data, Ms. Tiesman estimates 13,000 acts of violence are committed each year by intimate partners against women at work; which, if the Bureau of Justice Statistics figures are to be believed, implies a further 6,500 acts of domestic violence in the workplace against men - bringing the annual total close to 20,000 cases.

Why These Statistics May Still Underestimate the Extent of the Issue

In previous blogs, we have periodically discussed the underreporting of non-fatal injuries and illnesses in the workplace and how discrepancies of up to 48% existed in California between the number of injuries reported and the number of worker's compensation claims. However, with regard to domestic violence, the situation is further complicated by perceptions of what domestic violence consists of, and the unwillingness of both employers and victims to report domestic violence in the workplace. Let's look at the first lines of three different definitions of domestic violence to start with:

From Merriam-Webster

  • The inflicting of physical injury by one family or household member on another.

From the U.S. Department of Justice

  • The term “domestic violence” includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim.

From Legal Dictionary

  • An abusive, violent, coercive, forceful, or threatening act or word inflicted by one member of a family or household on another.

Note how Merriam-Webster defines domestic violence as “the inflicting of physical injury”, and the U.S. Department of Justice definition implies physical injury by including the terms “felony or misdemeanor crimes” and “violence”. Many acts of domestic violence are non-physical. Under the Legal Dictionary definition, domestic violence can include psychological, emotional, and financial acts, and even include threats of abuse. It´s no wonder domestic violence in the workplace goes underreported, because many people - in some cases the victims themselves - fail to recognize it.

An Unwillingness to Report Domestic Violence in the Workplace

An unwillingness to report domestic violence in the workplace exists at both employer and victim levels. From an HR perspective, while some employers don´t want to get involved because they perceive domestic violence as a “family matter”, others have concerns about digging into employees´ personal lives and the confidentiality issues that accompany disclosure. There is also the risk that responding in the wrong way to employees who report they are suffering from abuse may invite lawsuits - either from the victim or their abuser.

One interesting - and relatively reliable - source of data about domestic violence is the Violence against Women Report (PDF) that was published as part of the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted in 1992/3. Over 100,000 women were interviewed during the survey; and, of those who suffered domestic violence by an intimate partner, only 55% (injured) and 46% (non-injured) reported the incident to the police. When asked why they were willing to reveal the abuse to researchers, but not to law enforcement officers, the three most common reasons given were:

  • The private nature of the event.
  • The stigma associated with being a victim.
  • The belief that reporting the abuse would not stop it.

It is important to note the Violence against Women Report covered domestic violence in all circumstances, not just in the workplace. However, building on that data, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted its own survey in 2013 and found that 19 % of (surveyed) businesses had experienced a workplace domestic violence incident in the past year. The survey also found that 65% of businesses do not have policies to deal with workplace domestic violence, or the consequences of employees who bring household domestic violence to work with them.

The Legal Obligation and Financial Motivation to Address Workplace Domestic Violence

Employers have a legal obligation to prevent all definitions of workplace domestic violence under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act that stipulates employees should be protected from the “threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site”. State employment laws may also further enforce this rule. Therefore, inasmuch as employers may invite lawsuits for responding the wrong way to reports of abuse, they may also invite lawsuits if they fail to address workplace domestic violence at all.

Possibly more of a motivating factor for addressing workplace domestic violence is the financial cost of not addressing it. Businesses pay a price for workplace domestic violence in lower productivity and higher absenteeism, plus they may also incur medical-related costs, higher employee benefit costs, increased insurance premiums, and increased sick leave expenses. Furthermore, when a domestic violence incident occurs in the workplace, the incident disrupts the productivity of other employees. It has been estimated that the total cost per year of workplace domestic violence is $1.8 billion.

The bottom line is that it makes legal and financial sense to address domestic violence in the workplace along with any other type of workplace violence. It also makes sense to address the consequences of employees who bring household domestic violence to work with them, as these too can have an impact on productivity and the quality and quantity of work being produced by the entire workforce. Many employers will also acknowledge a moral obligation to provide the best level of care for employees.

Solutions for Addressing Domestic Violence in the Workplace

Many HR professionals advocate abuse awareness training and the implementation of policies and procedures to address domestic violence in the workplace. Although raising awareness of domestic violence is undoubtedly a good thing, especially if employers commit to reporting incidents so the scale of the issue can be accurately quantified, raising awareness in itself is not going to overcome the unwillingness of victims to come forward and seek help. For that to happen there needs to be a complementary solution that is both discrete and effective.

One of the most widely used solutions in these circumstances is an anonymous tip texting app. Abused employees can use the apps to confidentially and anonymously seek help from HR departments, while colleagues of the victim can also contact HR departments to raise concerns with complete confidentiality. Anonymous tip technology is proven to increase engagement and encourages employees to share critical information - not only about domestic violence, but also about other threats such as bullying, insider theft, and drug abuse.

In some cases, these solutions integrate seamlessly emergency notification solutions that can simultaneously warn employees about a potentially malicious partner on premises, and alert security personnel (and law enforcement if necessary) to a potential act of violence. All three solutions are quick and easy to implement, and are the best way to support policies and procedures to address domestic violence in the workplace. 

Workplace Violence Ebook

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Written by Andrea Lebron

Andrea is Rave's Director of Digital Marketing, a master brainstormer and avid coffee drinker. Andrea joined Rave in August 2017, after 10 years of proposal and corporate marketing at an environmental engineering firm. You'll find her working with her amazing team in writing and producing blogs like this one, improving your journey to and through our website, and serving you up the best email content. When she's not in front of a keyboard, she's chasing after her three daughters or indulging in her husband's latest recipe. Andrea has a Bachelor's degree in Marketing/Management from Northeastern University and an MBA from Curry College.

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