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Developing Workplace Domestic Violence Policies

According to the American Bar Association there is a noteworthy relationship between domestic violence and safety in the workplace. In an attempt to make workplaces safer, and organizations more aware, the American Bar Association put together a list of specific steps that employers should take to help keep their employees safe.

They note that having an employer who is educated and accommodating to workers who experience violence or abuse can provide options for safety and independence like no other community service can. Workplace domestic violence policies makes good business and legal sense for your employees and for organizations in your community who will learn from your example.

Steps to Developing a Safer Workplace

1. Adopt a policy specific to domestic violence and move beyond general awareness.

Employers should adopt a policy that specifically addresses domestic violence. General workplace violence policies do not address the unique aspects of this kind of violence. Also, having an overall "zero tolerance for violence" policy may sound good, but it could bring trouble. For example, employers who fire an employee for any act of violence could find themselves in court defending against unlawful termination or discrimination. "Zero tolerance" policies can also have the unintended consequence of making a victim think twice about calling police or seeking a protection order if doing so will result in their partner being fired. This can also subject the victim to retaliatory violence as well as threaten the financial stability of the entire family. Relatedly, employers should move beyond general awareness about the issue. Putting a domestic violence safety plan on the website, or posters in the restrooms are great starts, but the more meaningful work comes with developing, adopting and implementing a specific domestic violence and the workplace policy.

2. Train all employees on the policy.

A policy can only be effective if all members of the workforce understand it and are trained on it. Different types of training may be in order for managers and supervisors, human resources, legal and line staff. Employers should retrain regularly and make sure the training is skill-based. Supervisors and co-workers alike must understand how to respond in an informed, non-judgmental and helpful way and to help an abused employee, consistent with company policy.

3. Be consistent and be vigilant -- protect victims and hold offenders accountable.

A policy is critical to ensuring uniform responses to domestic violence in the workplace; it helps reduce employer liability and helps to prevent violence. It also shows employees that their company cares about their welfare. If the employer does not consistently follow the policy in either supporting victim safety or holding all perpetrators fully accountable, the policy will be little more than feel-good window dressing. Employers should take care to develop, implement and regularly monitor policy effectiveness and work to maintain broad support for it.

4. Comply with all local, state and federal laws.

This tip is particularly important for multi-jurisdictional employers, as there is a plethora of laws affecting domestic violence victims and the workplace. These include Federal laws such as Family Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Occupational Safety Health Act. More than 40 states and locales have enacted legislation specifically directed to domestic violence in the workplace. These laws include anti-discrimination, leave provisions, and unemployment compensation protections. There also are local ordinances, enacted in locales such as New York City, New Orleans, Miami Dade County, Florida, and Los Angeles. Traditional statutory and tort law remedies also may govern an employer's response to victims of domestic violence.

5. Maintain a safe and secure workplace, including data systems.

Since September 11th, employers have become more conscious about security in the workplace. Victims know well the tactics abusers use and abusers often act predictably, thus aiding employers in preventing workplace violence. Abusers may threaten an employee at work or may use company email and other systems to stalk and harass victims. Employers should work closely with employees, in-house security and local law enforcement to create safe environments, be able to respond quickly to a violent incident or threat.

6. Audit your personnel handbook.

The employer should make sure that its domestic violence in the workplace policy is consistent with its other personnel policies and the employer's philosophy. For instance, if an employer has a strict leave policy, consider whether that will conflict with a domestic violence policy that encourages a victim to seek help in the justice system and meet with her lawyer, go to court to obtain a protection order, and assist in the prosecution of her abuser. Consider whether a company's "anti-fraternization" policy will discourage an employee from coming forward if an office dating relationship turns violent.

7. Audit your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

It is a mistake to assume EAPs understand and can respond appropriately to victims of domestic violence. The employer must investigate to confirm that its EAP supports its domestic violence in the workplace policy and offers both the victim and the perpetrator assistance consistent with that policy. For instance, an EAP that sends a victim and perpetrator to "couples counseling" would be antithetical to an employer's message that the abuser alone is responsible for his violence, as couples counseling can be ineffective as well as dangerous to victims. The EAP should be very familiar with all community services for victims, such as local domestic violence programs and local batterer intervention programs.

8. Make benefits victim/employee-friendly.

Over 22 states prohibit insurers from discriminating against domestic violence victims and employers should check the underwriting history of their company-retained insurers. Employers should actively strategize with individual employees who are victims as well as with human resources, security and local domestic violence programs on how they can make their benefits, including leave, insurance, transfer policies work for victims.

9. Protect confidentiality.

Employees may not come forward and talk to their supervisors about abuse, unless they are assured that this information will remain confidential. A policy that states: "Confidentiality will be maintained to the extent possible" is not reassuring to a person who is trying to decide whether to reveal very personal information, and whose safety is compromised if sensitive information is not kept confidential. The domestic violence workplace policy, and related guidelines, should detail the path information will take when a victim tells her supervisor or a co-worker about her situation and seeks help. The victims should also told of who will be informed (e.g., security, her supervisor, a specific response team) if someone is making threats to her at the workplace or may show up there. Employees should be informed if or how their revealing information about domestic violence will be used, such as if the company's insurer will be told or if revealing this information will affect decisions regarding promotion.

10. Link with community programs.

Local domestic violence programs exist to advocate and support victims of domestic violence. They are the local experts who can help victims explore options for safety for herself and her children. They are also great resources for training development and co-training with employer trainers. The employer should refer employees to local services and not undertake the responsibility of safety planning, and victim advocacy. A supervisor or co-worker's best-intentioned advice can be dangerous and advice coming from an employer can appear to be coercive. The employer should be link to resources, not the resource itself. The employer's role in safety planning should be limited to considering ways of enhancing victim's sense of security at work, e.g., providing a different parking space; installing locks or changing office location. Further, employers have a great deal to offer to support local programs' work, from loaning a board room for meetings, to helping to raise awareness about the domestic violence programs' work.

You can find out more about Domestic Violence in the Workplace issues through the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence's website This link will open a new browser window..