1998 Vision Optimas Award Profile Polaroid Corp.
It reads like a John Grisham novel, complete with court case. But for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Polaroid Corp., it began a real-life drama — one that has saved lives. In 1984 a female employee who worked the evening shift arrived at work late — one too many times. She had been a star performer, but over the past three months, her performance had disintegrated to the point of causing her to be discharged for tardiness. When she arrived this particular evening, her supervisor was waiting in the lobby for her, pointing at his watch.
The employee went out of control. Screaming at her supervisor, she revealed that her husband had begun beating her three months earlier and that the beatings were getting progressively worse.
The supervisor didn’t fire her. Instead, he brought her to Jim Hardeman, corporate EAP manager, for help. Within two weeks, as word spread, seven other women came forward for Hardeman’s help, recounting one horrible experience after another. It was clear to Hardeman that domestic violence was more prevalent than anyone would have thought. It was also clear to him that family violence was bruising workplace productivity and morale.
Hardeman and his staff responded by starting the first battered women’s group (called a self-image group) at the company. In the group, women talked about their experiences and began to help one another make some of the necessary choices to remove themselves from the dangerous situations. Senior management also earmarked $42,000 for local women’s shelters where employee victims of domestic violence could live as they began to piece their lives back together.
When the husband of another employee threatened to kill her a few years later, the EAP staff again responded — this time by whisking her away to a local shelter for help. Following the incident, the company created the Polaroid School of Law Enforcement Imaging to help police officers respond most effectively in these cases — both by being sensitive to the victim and by learning how to document the evidence. With the company’s photographic expertise, it made sense for it to play an additional role in helping to curb the violence by assisting law enforcers in collecting documentation.
The efforts the company and the HR staff in particular had made to address domestic violence were noble and above and beyond Corporate America’s standard response (offering an EAP, at most). But, when an additional incident occurred in 1994, Hardeman knew the company must do even more. This time, a male employee who had worked at Polaroid for 17 years flew into a rage. Claiming he was going to teach the company (and his wife who was also an employee) a lesson, he threatened to hold hostages and kill five employees. Learning that the man already had battered his wife and also had threatened managers and co-workers during his 17 years at the company, Polaroid terminated him immediately.
Unfortunately, the decade-plus violence this man had been committing hadn’t been documented. Managers claimed they had no direction about how to deal with the behavior. Out of fear, supervisor after supervisor had rid himself or herself from the man by promoting him to a different supervisor. The man sued Polaroid for wrongful termination, saying the company overreacted. (He lost the case.)
With this threat of violence on company grounds, it became obvious to Hardeman and others that domestic violence didn’t stay at home. Indeed, literature indicates violent behaviors often begin at home and then crop up in the workplace.
“Suddenly, there was a profound realization that Polaroid had never had a safe work environment,” says Hardeman. News of the threatened hostage-taking spread through Polaroid’s locations across the country and Hardeman easily gathered support to create an extensive program to address domestic violence that would include training, policy development and constant communication. He set his sights on providing a safe workplace.
Creating a safe place to work.
With the support of 15 top senior managers, it took Hardeman just three months to develop a protocol of procedures and a series of training modules for dealing with both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. The goal: to help managers recognize battered employees as well as individuals who might become violent and provide steps for intervention.
Today, Polaroid is a recognized role model throughout the country for helping combat domestic violence. It’s a best-practice study for the Harvard School of Public Health Injury Control Center and is cited in countless papers as the company in the forefront of domestic-violence prevention and intervention. “It has been invaluable to point to examples like Polaroid — major, well-respected companies — as benchmarks, to show that Corporate America is addressing the issue and has had good results,” says Donna Norton, manager of the San Francisco-based National Workplace Resource Center on Domestic Violence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to domestic-violence-prevention education and public-policy reform.
Polaroid’s Domestic Violence Program was a logical addition to its EAP (which is the oldest in the country), and was highly supported by upper management. Immediately after the hostage threat, the company vice president issued a statement making it mandatory for all managers and supervisors to participate in a two-hour training course that was being developed by HR through Hardeman and the EAP. (Over the past three years, 50 percent to 70 percent of the managing supervisors have taken an additional 4-1/2 hour course.)
Training, which is done by Hardeman, the EAP staff and several ombudsmen, starts with a definition of violence and includes teaching about the cycle of violence, and how to identify characteristics of abuse and potentially threatening behaviors. Training participants receive a list of who should be involved when a threat is reported and a detailed outline for a plan of action. Questions about anonymity, interviewing employees who make threats and about how to create a safe work environment as a team also are addressed.
Communicating the importance of the program.
In addition to formal training for supervisors, HR began a series of voluntary lunchtime seminars to communicate to employees. Guest speakers have been representatives from police departments and shelters, victims and advocates. Attendees are educated about abuse prevention, stalking laws, the cycle of violence, safety precautions and the impact of family violence on the workplace.
“We always make the connection [in all communications efforts] that this is a workplace issue that affects productivity and makes it unsafe for other individuals who are working at Polaroid,” says Martin Breinlinger, a company ombudsman who does some of the training.
HR and senior management also developed personnel practices for helping victims of family violence find protected environments, attend court and arrange new housing. Employees can take paid time off for up to three weeks, or extended leaves (up to a year) without pay, and are guaranteed the same position upon return.
The company also protects victims by giving a picture of the abusive party to security. If he or she also is an employee, the person is barred from working in the same building or parking in the same lot as the victim. If the individual remains an employee, he or she undergoes counseling, for which attendance is monitored. In three years, the company hasn’t had repeat offenders.
Moving into the community.
Because domestic violence’s effects are far-reaching (at minimum affecting the workplaces of both the victim and the abuser), HR staffers at Polaroid promoted action within the company to increase public and corporate awareness.
The company donates funds through the Polaroid Foundation to battered women’s shelters in Massachusetts. It contributes to the Jane Doe Safety Fund of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women’s Service Groups Inc. It also participates with the Injury Control Center of the Harvard School of Public Health to study how EAPs can assist women who have been victims, and is an active participant in the Family Violence Prevention Fund.
Possibly one of the company’s most far-reaching initiatives is its Chief Executive Officer’s Project. It’s a challenge by the CEO to the business community in Massachusetts to collaborate and provide services to battered women and their children. It displays an active, ongoing effort to correlate family violence as a springboard for workplace violence.
The Polaroid School of Law Enforcement Imaging, previously mentioned, is another initiative that reaches beyond Polaroid’s workforce. More than 15,000 officers have attended the seminar series.
Along with all of this community involvement, Polaroid continues to be exemplary in its position to combat violence within its ranks. Its message is continuous and clear. At the end of 1997, the CEO issued a document called “Epic.” In it, he states that violence will not be tolerated in the workplace. Everyone in the company received a copy and had to sign and return it. Hardeman’s vision of a safe workplace may be in sight.
Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 82-86.