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Domestic Violence No Longer a Private Problem

September 3, 2004
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Behavioral Training, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article

M artha Rodriguez had a good 15-year track record at Harman International Industries Inc. until a turning point in late 2001. The assembly-line veteran and audio-equipment maker at JBL Professional, a Harman subsidiary in Northridge, California, began reporting late for work and often had bruises on her face and arms. Suspicious that she might be a victim of domestic violence, her boss, production supervisor Christine Lucas, called Rodriguez into her office to discuss attendance and punctuality. During the discussion, Rodriguez spoke about her personal problems for the first time.

    "My husband is into drugs and verbally and physically violent with my children and me," Rodriguez related. "He waits for me after work and threatens me. He has even tried strangling me." Rodriguez was afraid she would lose her job if her employers found out. She says it wasn’t until after she attended a two-hour session at work that was designed to educate managers and employees about domestic violence that she felt she could discuss her problems. "At the training, I realized that I value myself and my children and that resources are available to help people in my situation," Rodriguez says. "I felt confident I would not be fired if I came forward."

    The Family Violence Prevention Fund, a California-based nonprofit organization, reports that one in three women in the workforce is a victim of domestic violence. The agency says there were 1.7 million reported attacks on women in the workplace between 1993 and 1997, making homicide the second leading cause of death for women at work, after transportation accidents. Harman executives, struck by the numbers and the impact on employees, decided that the problem must be addressed in the workplace. Other companies, especially those that employ large numbers of women such as clothing giant Liz Claiborne Inc. and retail chain Macy’s West, have done the same.

    "Employers have a corporate responsibility to maintain a safe environment at work, if not out of concern for their employees, then out of a legal responsibility to them," says Barbara Erickson, Macy’s West’s manager for benefits and unemployment insurance. Seventy percent of Macy’s 30,000 employees across 144 stores are women.

    A 2002 Liz Claiborne survey of 100 senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies says that while 5 out of 10 corporate leaders believe that domestic violence has harmful effects on productivity, physical safety, attendance and employee turnover, only 12 percent agree that their companies should address the subject. In fact, FVPF reports that 7.9 million workdays are lost each year because of domestic violence. This adds up to more than $700 million in lost productivity annually. Beyond that, injuries related to domestic violence lead to health-care expenses of about $4.1 billion, most of which is paid by employers. "If you have employees who are stressed because when they go home, they will be beaten up, of course this affects your bottom line. It’s absurd to think otherwise," says Lynn Harman, corporate counsel for Harman and daughter of executive chairman Sidney Harman. The company has 3,257 employees, a third of whom are women.

    Sidney Harman spearheaded the company’s domestic-violence initiative after a treasured employee was killed by an abusive husband in 2001. "A Northridge employee who had been with us for 24 years was worried about her ex-husband, who was about to be released from prison," Lynn Harman says. "We helped her to a safe house, but a few days later, he waited for her on her return from work and ran her over with his car repeatedly. This sent shock waves through our whole company."

    Harman says the company’s two-stage domestic-violence-prevention program, which centers on education and training, has cost less than $100,000. The project began with a handful of company employees who volunteered to be trainers and to work with an FVPF consultant to learn about the symptoms of domestic violence. Once trained, these employees became conduits between victims of domestic violence in the workplace and local agencies with the resources to help them.

    All 3,257 Harman associates were involved in the second stage, in which the in-house volunteers explained the company’s domestic-violence-prevention policy and the response protocol. Employees were assured that victims of abuse do not lose their jobs, and managers were told to show sensitivity in handling a potential victim’s performance appraisal. Harman’s in-house security staff also reviewed safety standards at each of its facilities to ensure there were emergency phone lines in bathrooms, locked doors in parking lots and adequate lighting on the grounds. Safety cards and posters supplied by local domestic-violence agencies were placed in lunch areas and restrooms.

    The training was completed in June 2002 and the program was launched. Harman managers in Utah, Indiana and Michigan say they have handled six domestic-violence cases in each facility. Before the training, fewer than five Harman employees in total had sought assistance in such cases. "The EAP was always there in terms of the legal, financial and security assistance," says Paula Stern, human resources director at Harman’s Northridge facility. "But it was only because of the awareness training we had that as managers we understood domestic violence as a workplace issue and what to do to reach out to a victim."

"Employers have a corporate responsibility to maintain a safe environment at work, if not out of concern for their employees, then out of a legal responsibility to them."

    With Stern’s help, Rodriguez has used the company EAP to obtain a restraining order and psychiatric care for her husband, herself and the children. Stern says there have been five to seven cases like Rodriguez’s since the training began.

    At Liz Claiborne, the campaign against domestic violence began a decade ago as a public-service message. In 2002, Dennis Butler, vice president for associate relations, received a distress call. "An HR generalist called in to say he had a rising star whose performance was declining; she was having problems with coworkers and showing signs of physical abuse. We had no idea what to do and realized we needed a plan to help our own employees," Butler says. The New York-based clothing giant has 13,000 employees, 70 percent of them women.

    With the help of existing consultants, the company set up Domestic Violence Response Teams at numerous corporate and retail sites over a 12-month period. The teams consist of two representatives each from human resources, the legal department and security who are trained on the domestic-violence policy. As part of the subsequent response protocol, the teams offer to screen a victim’s incoming calls and visitors and provide the employee with an option to relocate to another facility. "Since the program began one and a half years ago, we have dealt with over 40 cases," Butler says. He adds that the program uses existing corporate resources and incurs no additional expenses. Butler is eager to share his company’s experience with others. In January, he delivered a speech entitled "Domestic Violence Is Your Business" at a conference held in Tel Aviv.

    Macy’s West’s domestic-violence-prevention program came from the outside, following an outreach exercise by the Blue Shield of California Foundation. The foundation works with company health and safety and benefits teams, providing free consultation and materials to promote domestic-violence prevention, and links firms with local nonprofit organizations that handle actual cases. Since its launch in February 2003, 26 senior Macy’s executives have undergone two hours of training, and several hundred store employees have received abbreviated half-hour sessions. Macy’s also has a response team that takes action when a person identifies herself as the victim of abuse or is referred by a manager. "Because of the very nature of our business, in which there is a high flow of people, we have to focus on developing a ‘safe plan’ to handle situations," Macy’s Barbara Erickson says. "The cost for us is the time employees are taken off the floor and a small donation to each of the local nonprofits that train our stores. Against this, the cost of not responding is the after-the-fact damage to a company’s business and the legal and emotional damage to an employee."

    Marianne Balin is program manager for Blue Shield Against Violence, the arm of the Blue Shield of California Foundation that conducts the employer outreach. She says the foundation’s goal is to make domestic-violence prevention a standard business practice in California. So far, more than 100 organizations have signed up for training assistance, including the San Francisco Giants, Marriott International, the California Department of Justice, the California State Automobile Association and several unions. Most of the organizations the foundation works with have workforces that are predominantly male. Balin says the target audience includes potential abusers. "I have had two incidents where men have called me after a training session to say, ‘Please help me. I think I am the abuser you were describing in the session.’ "

Workforce Management, September 2004, pp. 60-63 -- Subscribe Now!

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