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Helping Domestic Violence Survivors in the Workplace

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I was attacked one Sunday night just over 10 years ago. We were separated only a few weeks at the time. He returned to the house while me and our children were sleeping. I was startled awake to find him standing over me. The physical attack began within moments after I woke up and lasted for what felt like an eternity. Aside from seeing stars and tasting blood, I only remember thinking I needed to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping toddler and infant.

On Monday morning, I had to figure out what to say when I called work. It would be several days before I could go back to the office because of the scrapes and bruises to my face.

Should I lie and say I was sick? What if they asked for a doctor’s note? Although I knew I needed medical attention, at the time, I didn’t want to leave my house and risk being seen by anyone or having to explain to a doctor what happened without revealing the truth. I wasn’t willing to risk or deal with the fallout of revealing the truth to anyone beyond my most inner circle.

But I had to call work and tell them something. I was the HR person! No call – no show to work wasn’t an option … So I picked up the phone, called my boss and told as much of the truth as I could get out without breaking down completely from pain, fear and shame.

It was harder than telling my parents.

My company allowed me to work from home while I recovered. My boss checked on me daily to make sure I was OK. He cleared my calendar of all face-to-face meetings for another week or so after I came back so I wouldn’t have to see people and they wouldn’t see me. He reminded me of our Employee Assistance Program, which I would eventually put to use.

And he never mentioned it again.

Related: The Art of Centering Marginalized Voices

To this day, I still wonder what he was thinking and feeling during that time. I wonder if he noticed the bruises that couldn’t be covered and the make-up over the ones that could. Maybe someday I’ll find the courage to ask him.

I’m thankful that he allowed me to keep my dignity and my job during a very dark, difficult moment in my life. I’ve tried to pay that kindness forward ever since when circumstance allowed me to.

Most places I’ve worked have no policy or process in place for dealing with victims of domestic violence. The law in some states are starting to catch up by passing Sick & Safe Leave laws that provide job leave and security for victims and family members who help them — but that only exists in 7 states so far … When 1 in 3 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, this is a misstep and missed opportunity. Domestic violence has a huge impact on our workplaces because of the effect on absenteeism, tardiness and mental focus. And over 75% of victims admit to being harassed, threatened or menaced by their abusers while at work.

In the organizations that are dealing head-on with the issue of domestic violence, this is what I’ve seen that works:

  • A specific policy and reporting procedure for domestic violence and sexual assault victims and their families. The procedure should allow the individual or their family members to contact the HR department directly to report the issue, provide any documentation and requests relating to time off to protect confidentiality and avoid legal risks by manager mishandlings. Arizona, California, Washington DC, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey,  and Washington as well as many cities and municipalities have Safe Leave Laws which prescribe how domestic violence and sexual assault related leave should be handled. These laws are a great guide to start in developing your own policy.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These are easily setup through your medical insurance carrier or broker for nominal fees. The EAP allows an employee and their dependents to seek counseling, financial, legal and sometimes housing assistance when needed. It is unlikely a large percentage of your employee population will need or use it. But for those who need it and do use it, it may change or save their life.
  • Donated Leave Bank for Emergencies . We all have employees who hoard or run the risk of losing vacation time that cannot be rolled over. Create a program that gives the option to donate to a leave bank so other employees in need can use for emergency circumstances. Or send a generic announcement for leave donation requests when needs arise. Consider allowing employees to borrow against the bank for wage advances as well. More than 50% of domestic violence victims say a large part of why they stay is due to financial constraints and considerations. Don’t compound that problem.
  • Add procedures for domestic violence incidents in your workplace to your safety policy and procedure. It is not uncommon for workplace violence to be tied to domestic situations. Make sure there is a procedure in place for protecting everyone from abusers. Take a look at your building and surrounding area too from time to time to make sure access, lighting, etc. do not leave your employees open to attack or stalking.
  • Enforce your code of conduct. For every domestic violence victim, there is a perpetrator. Consider adding standards which require employees to report arrests, incarceration or convictions while employed. Knowing they could be exposed or lose their job as a result of an incident might be enough to deter an individual from crossing that line. This approach is one where you should get employment attorney guidance before creating and as needed to enforce.

If we are serious about eradicating domestic violence, we have to take as firm a stand on it as we would any other act of violence or moral turpitude in our workplace. And we have to support the victims and their families as they come forward to face the abuse and rebuild their lives. Otherwise, the cycle will not be stopped, the abusers will never get justice or help, and the victims will never become survivors — or better yet, overcomers and conquerors!

I am living proof that when you show someone in a difficult and dangerous domestic situation a little grace, kindness and professional opportunity, they can break free and move beyond it.

Don’t be afraid to offer help and guidance to help domestic violence survivors and their families. It is worth it.

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