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Workplaces Begin Addressing Domestic Violence

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, so it’s unrealistic to think that it’s not a workplace issue, one expert says.

Employers who think that domestic violence is not a workplace issue might think twice after talking with Meghan Williams, an insurance company manager who credits her bosses with helping her flee an abusive relationship.

Williams was in her late 20s with little work experience when she joined Prudential Financial Inc. in 2007, but she proved to be skilled at her job, earning the praise of her managers and soon after, a promotion. She appeared confident at work, but at home she lived in fear of her fiancé who was verbally abusive and eventually, began hitting her and make threatening phone calls to her at work. Williams, now 36, said she was living a double life and the strain threatened to undermine her career.

“I was so severely depressed that I wasn’t even functional,” said Williams, who often came to work bruised and exhausted after all-night arguments. “I was like a zombie, going through the motions.”

Luckily, Prudential had policies and procedures in place to help. After telling her supervisor about the abuse, she was referred to Newark, New Jersey-based company’s president of health and wellness who is also a domestic violence expert.

Prudential is among a handful of companies like Verizon, Liz Claiborne and Allstate Insurance that have policies and programs to address domestic violence, an issue that has been generating great interest in part because of recent incidents of alleged domestic assaults by players in the National Football League, assertions that hundreds more were covered up and public outrage over the organization’s handling of current and past cases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, so it’s unrealistic to think that it’s not workplace issue, according to Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, vice president of health and wellness at Prudential Financial and a domestic violence specialist.

“If a company doesn’t have any incidents it means that they aren’t paying attention,” he said. “It’s a pandemic that strikes about 4 million people a year, and it’s getting worse.”

Nearly one-third of women killed on the job died at the hands of a personal relation, according to at 2012 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Yet, many employers are reluctant to address the problem because they are uncomfortable talking about it or afraid to pry into their employee’s personal affairs, according to Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence in Bloomington, Illinois.

“People will say, ‘I know that it happens but not here and not to people like us,’ ” she said. “Number one, yes, it does, it’s just that you may not have asked the question, and number two, in that climate people aren’t going to go to the C-suite to ask for help. This unfortunate incident with the NFL has been a great spotlight for this issue by showing that domestic violence can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter what your degree or your background is.”

Wells said public awareness of the issue has been growing in recent years, in part because of highly publicized cases involving athletes and celebrities, and so have attitudes among employers.

“I’ve seen the HR position change dramatically in the last decade from, ‘Why should I care about this?’ to, ‘I know we should do something but I don’t know what we should do,’ ” she said. “Companies are afraid that their job will become domestic violence counselor, which it doesn’t. We don’t want employers to be domestic violence counselors, but we do want them to acknowledge it when it’s happening.”

In addition to safety concerns, domestic violence experts cite an effect on health care costs and productivity. According to the CDC, domestic violence can cost employers $1.8 billion in lost productivity. While awareness may be growing, only about 35 percent of companies report having a formal workplace policy that addresses domestic violence, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.

Mike Mason, chief security officer at Verizon, which along with Prudential is a member of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, said in addition to formal policies, employers must help to eliminate the stigma surrounding victims of domestic abuse.

“People are afraid to speak out because feel there will be judgments made about them and we need to change that,” said Mason, who joined the company in 2008 after a long career with the FBI. At Verizon, about a dozen employees currently have protective orders against an intimate partner, Mason said, a fact that he views as a measure of success.

“People will say, ‘You’re an intelligent lady, you make a great income, you have a master’s degree — how could you let this happen to you?’ ” he said. “This is America’s dirty little secret.”

It was shame that kept Williams from speaking out, but she believes that sharing her story at work may have saved her life.

“Ken was there for me when no one else was,” she said of Dolan-Del Vecchio. “He did everything he could to help me. I got a restraining order against my fiancé and he finally left the house. A few years ago, I met a great guy and now I’m engaged.”

 In 2011, she shared her story in a company-wide video to raise awareness of domestic violence.