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Talking Frankly About Domestic Violence

April 1, 1995
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
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No one knew. Not her family, not her friends, not her colleagues. But for four years Melissa Morbeck, a benefits administrator, hid a terrible secret. Her husband beat her.

Then, Super Bowl Sunday 1991, everything changed. That day, when he battered her savagely, she realized he would kill her if she didn't get out. No longer was she willing to hide the bruises and broken bones, or to cover up the reasons for hospital visits. No longer would she rationalize why he did it. She knew she had to leave. But she was terrified for her life.

Over a period of four years, Morbeck recalls being beaten approximately 25 times. And only once, five months before she decided to leave her husband, did anyone even ask. Her supervisor was smart enough to pick up on cues—distraction, absenteeism, general upset—and asked her directly if her husband hit her. Undaunted when Morbeck denied it, her boss told her she should consider leaving him if he was harming her.

"It took a tremendous toll on my job," says Morbeck. "I lost days of work, even many weeks of work, because of physical injury. There was a tremendous loss of productivity because of the great emotional strain and stress I was under. I spent so much energy trying to hide. It took a toll on my level of responsibility and on the respect of co-workers around me."

The day after the Super Bowl she walked into work, grabbed her supervisor, and said, "We're going to HR. He beats me. I'm leaving him... and you're going to help me."

She says, "Basically, I knew it was life or death." Convinced that he would kill her if he discovered she was leaving, she secretly spent a week planning her escape. Only two people knew: her supervisor and the head of human resources. Morbeck had no idea where to go or what to do except for one thing: she realized she had to leave the area.

She had no credit cards, no checking account, no network of resources. "I begged the bank manager to cash my check because I didn't have an account," says Morbeck. "I took $350 and taped it to the inside of the tire of my car so he couldn't find it. I had to commit my plan to memory because I couldn't write anything down."

She turned to the two women at work for support. They kept her secret, made sure she was safe every day, gave her overtime work, and provided her with an advance paycheck. They told co-workers she was going to a seminar the day she was actually leaving town. "The people I worked with were compelled to do something for me without ever realizing the gift of life they gave me. They helped me in any way they could—and none of my co-workers found out what really happened until 10 months later," when she returned briefly to sign divorce papers in court.

Morbeck shares her terror with millions of others. The Office of Criminal Justice calculates that three to four million women are battered each year. Indeed, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office, domestic violence is the most widespread cause of injury for women 15 to 44—surpassing car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. And although women in traditional relationships are the most common victims of domestic violence, this social disease strikes down others as well. Men are abused by female and male partners, parents and siblings beat children, youngsters abuse elders and even roommates can strike each other in anger.

The broken bones and scarred psyches of domestic violence don't remain at home, either. Domestic violence takes a shocking toll in the workplace—in lost productivity, increased health-care costs, absenteeism, and sometimes workplace violence. One estimate by the Bureau of National Affairs rings up a price tag to corporate America at $3 billion to $5 billion annually—a piece of change too hefty to ignore. "Everybody in our society pays very dearly for domestic violence," says Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colorado). "We pay for it in health-care costs, absenteeism and by perpetuating a culture of violence."

Probe deeply enough and you'll discover that organizational leaders know something is wrong. In November 1994, Personnel Journal posted the results of a fax poll of HR professionals. A full 78% of them said that domestic violence is a workplace issue. Furthermore, they have seen a 17% increase in the reporting of family violence incidents (see "Is Domestic Violence a Workplace Issue?").

In another recent survey, "Addressing Domestic Violence: A Corporate Response," conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide for New York City-based Liz Claiborne, Inc., as part of Claiborne's ongoing awareness campaign, 57% of corporate leaders surveyed believe domestic violence is a major problem in society; 33% said it affects their balance sheet; and 40% are personally aware of employees in their companies who have been affected by it. Nevertheless, even with that knowledge, only 12% of these senior executives say that business should play a major role in addressing the issue. Says Schroeder, "No one wants to see it as his or her problem. Everyone's nervous about overstepping the bounds of privacy, but that's exactly why we haven't dealt with this issue as a society. We're geniuses at avoiding it."

So far, most workplaces in the United States have avoided the issue. But notable cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial will alter that forever. Already, a few businesses are actively trying to remedy the problem. Although it's just a handful, corporations such as Polaroid, Liz Claiborne and Marshalls are tackling the problem head-on. And human resources professionals are taking leadership roles along with company presidents.

After all, domestic violence is an HR issue. For one thing, many battered women find work their only safe haven. Since their shame prevents them from telling anyone or doing anything to change their home life, the workplace is one arena in which they feel secure—and one area in which they can find help. Obviously, they don't come to work after an emotional incident and function on the job as they might otherwise. At the very least, they're distracted and emotionally spent. They're at higher risk for accidents. They may be unable to conduct important business transactions effectively. And, in some cases, they're magnets, drawing their attackers into their place of business.

Furthermore, the abusers are also in the workplace. And, while there are always exceptions to generalizations, these individuals often are controlling, rigid, self-righteous and aggressive—prompting some experts to say that these abusers create other problems. They may be authoritarian and difficult with their subordinates and colleagues, leading to sexual-harassment claims and lowered morale. Regardless of the gender, these men and women work in all levels of the organizational spectrum, from top positions of authority to entry-level jobs.

Employee Assistance Programs are the most logical first resource to intervene, but they're only the first way in which HR can help. Employee awareness through workshops and seminars, manager training, and communication through company vehicles are a few of the others. Fund raising for local shelters and encouraging volunteerism are two more.

It was the early 1980s. Jim Hardeman, a counselor at a community mental-health center in Plymouth, Massachusetts, already knew firsthand about domestic violence—he'd experienced it as a child. But when a young woman approached Hardeman requesting shelter and food for herself and her 19-month-old child, he had to turn them away because his center didn't have facilities. A week later, he read a newspaper account that the woman had been beaten by her husband publicly on the steps of the post office. No one came to her aid. The police didn't arrest the man, and the woman found a shelter only after she left her community. "I pledged I could never let that happen again," Hardeman says. Within a year, his community mental-health center had started a hot line and was running groups for battered women.

In 1983, Hardeman joined Polaroid Corp. as corporate Employee Assistance Program manager. He soon encountered a similar situation. A supervisor had confronted one of his line staff about her being late. She verbally tore into him. The woman—who had worked at the company for 10 years—shocked her supervisor, who had previously thought they'd had a good relationship. He recommended the two of them go to the counseling office together. Once there, she revealed to both men that her husband had just beaten her, and when her boss confronted her at the door about being late, she couldn't handle anymore. She simply exploded. She added that she knew many other women within the company who were being battered by their husbands or boyfriends.

Within a month, Polaroid's EAP started a support group. It included women from upper management to the assembly line.

Says Hardeman, "As these women revealed their stories, I realized that family violence affected the workplace in more ways than lack of attendance." Eating disorders and major depression were just two of the most frequently cited by-products. "I realized that the company was paying for domestic violence and didn't even know it. Managers were trying to manage people and they weren't managing the [real] issue at all."

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based imaging business also had the support of the president and CEO, I. Macallister Booth, who put energy behind the effort. Soon, internal communications created a video about the group (respecting confidentiality). The company showed the video at all quarterly business meetings.

Members of the Polaroid Foundation visited women's shelters and discovered that several of Polaroid's employees were living there. The company began to donate a total of $42,000 annually to the shelters.

Then, Polaroid developed a relationship with a counseling group for batterers. They began funding and began referring men as the need arose.

The company also began to train EAP staffers to improve its counseling proficiency in regard to family violence. They continued to educate employees about the issue with two-day, two-hour lunch-time seminars. "We really pushed to get as many supervisors and managers as possible," Hardeman says.

The seminars include representatives from the police department, an area shelter, victims' witness office, Polaroid's security and legal departments, as well as people from the EAP. They look at a wide range of issues: confidentiality, workplace safety, protocol for handling employees who have been abused, abuse prevention laws (such as getting restraining orders and stalking laws), and the impact of family violence on the workplace.

Passion for combatting the problem grew rapidly at Polaroid. Soon, the women's action committee of senior-level women took on family violence as their cause. They volunteered to work at shelters, walked to raise money, and became board members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Battered Women.

"Before, it was hush-hush and women were too ashamed," says Hardeman. "Finally, it was out in the open and people were listening to their counterparts talk about domestic violence and the lack of services for victims." The company continued to respond. Personnel policies evolved to accommodate women who needed time off to seek safety, attend court appearances, and find new housing. Flexible work hours, short-term paid leaves and extended unpaid leaves (with guarantees of the same position upon return) were designed.

In 1991, Polaroid started the Polaroid School of Law Enforcement Imaging. This series of seminars trains law enforcement professionals in effective field and lab photography techniques. More than 15,000 professionals nationwide have been trained. As an adjunct, in 1993, the company began offering a seminar on domestic violence injury documentation. This is a crucial component. "We initiated this program because we knew that if police departments could take pictures of the women's bruises, their wounds, the shattered things in their homes, they could use this as evidence to prosecute and remove the woman from having to testify against her husband or boyfriend. We know this is a critical period when many women are intimidated or murdered," says Hardeman. He adds that Polaroid was inundated with calls from all over the United States.

The program grew. "Most often, emergency rooms and primary-care physicians are the first contact for battered women. Physicians and nurses weren't equipped or trained to document the women's traumas," Hardeman says. The company developed a program called HealthCam, in which emergency rooms collaborate with police departments to prosecute the batterers. A camera takes close-up pictures and contains a grid inside the lens of the camera that measures the size of wounds.

In September, 1994, CEO Booth initiated a project to encourage the business community to get involved in the fight to end family violence. He sent a letter to CEOs in Massachusetts urging them to join Polaroid's effort. He asked them to adopt a women's shelter, give financial support, encourage employee volunteerism and advocacy, and provide education and workplace policies to help staff deal with domestic violence. The shelters will help with the educational component and with policy development.

In addition, Polaroid is pairing with the Injury Control Center of the Harvard School of Public Health to quantify the effects of domestic violence on the workplace and study how Employee Assistance Programs work with these women. They will gather data and identify ways EAPs have responded.

In 1991, Jerome R. Rossi, president and CEO of Marshalls Inc., volunteered at a shelter for battered women and children. Always one who could put people at ease—no matter what their age, children or senior citizens—he felt assured he'd be able to chat with the people at the shelter. However, that was to change.

One day, there was an 11-year-old girl standing nearby as he entered the shelter. He went up to the little girl and said, "How are you doing, Sunshine?" She ran away from him and cowered in the corner. Dismayed over the incident, Rossi asked the director what the problem was. He'd never had a child run away before. The director told him that the girl had been abused by four men and always hid in a corner every time a man came into the room.

"I said to myself, no child in this world should have to live like that," says Rossi. "I sat in my car for a long while. It was such a difficult time, I felt like I was trying to swallow a watermelon. When I came back to my office, I closed my door—which I never do—and just sat there for two hours. I said, 'This isn't going to happen to little kids.'"

"I decided I was really going to devote myself to this cause," says Rossi. At the office he brought the issue up at a committee called "Marshalls Makes A Difference" (MMAD), one of the committees responsible for volunteerism at the Andover, Massachusetts-based retailer. He felt it was important because, when children are abused, often their mother is abused as well. And, if the mothers are being abused, they are more likely to abuse their children.

At the meeting, Rossi asked for comments from around the table. "The passion level was like a ground swell. You realize that almost always someone has a connection to a personal situation."

In addition, Marshalls realized that 80% of its customers and more than 80% of its associates are women. So it took up the fight. It began an educational campaign, first by educating its 24,000 associates through newsletters and regular memos from Rossi that included phone numbers and addresses for state coalitions for battered women.

Currently, the company continues to improve shelters and is vigorously working to raise money to donate to San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund (FUND), a national, nonprofit organization focused on domestic violence education, prevention and public-policy reform. Recently, for example, the organization developed a National Health Initiative On Domestic Violence, a large-scale program designed to help strengthen the health-care response to domestic violence. Proceeds that Marshalls raises will support the FUND's national public-education campaign as well as an awards program to recognize innovative local programs serving victims.

Marshalls also created a "Business 4 Family" Day on October 4, 1994, in which it donated a percent of sales from its 460 stores to the FUND. It made $115,000. The business challenged other companies to do the same. Among those companies that accepted the challenge are apparel manufacturer VF Corporation, food service company Sodexho and law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

"There are a lot of things companies can do once they recognize this is a very serious problem," says Rossi. "And, they have to recognize that it isn't just a social and moral issue. It's a financial issue. I submit to you that if you were battered last night, you would not do your job as well today."

Susan Kubiak, manager of HR at Angleton, Texas-based Mallinckrodt Medical arrived at her office at 7 a.m. The midnight shift was just getting ready to leave. A worker rushed over to Susan and told her that one of the nurses was hiding out in the nursing office. Susan approached her and discovered the 60-year-old woman was afraid to go out in the parking lot because her ex-husband was waiting for her. He had been driving by her car and harassing her as she walked by in the employee parking lot.

Although Mallinckrodt had hired a security officer who patrolled the lot, and the woman waited for friends to walk out with, her ex-husband was still stalking her, waiting for her and yelling at her as she passed. So, the company found her an alternative parking spot 10 feet from the back of the building where her ex-husband couldn't go because gates barred the way. After two or three weeks, he finally gave up.

"If you're an HR practitioner and you haven't yet had a domestic-violence case, you will," says Kubiak. "I recommend that people investigate the resources in their community. They need to do that in advance. You don't want to have someone come in and ask for help and spend the next 24 hours trying to find resources. By that time, it's usually gone too far. When they come to you, they're literally in crisis."

It was precisely these kinds of situations that led people at Liz Claiborne Inc., a New York City-based clothiers, to take action. "Domestic violence has been an ugly issue that's supposed to be kept private, and there's still that belief that it can't touch me, that it doesn't happen here," says Wendy Banks, senior vice president for marketing at Liz Claiborne. "The truth is that it happens all over America and it touches every kind of person in every socioeconomic bracket and every culture. And, its victims are silent and hidden."

This thinking led the company to begin a domestic-violence public-service campaign called "Women's Work," a program they hope will be a lightning rod for social change. It's been in place for three years. "The statistics [on domestic violence] are staggering, and we feel it's our responsibility to help change the course of history on this issue," says Banks.

The company's commitment translates into significant research, such as the Roper Starch Worldwide study and an enormous media public-awareness campaign about domestic violence. As part of the media blitz, Liz Claiborne commissions artwork from emerging artists for multimedia events. It also sells T-shirts and other products with domestic-violence awareness messages and contributes the money to social-service agencies and shelters.

The company has a very active EAP program that offers treatment and support to employees who experience violence in their homes. In addition, the company has instituted a series of family-stress seminars. "It's widely known that stress within the family can affect productivity in the workplace," says Banks. While the stress seminars are voluntary, "we actively encourage everyone to come. We try to give them models for dealing with stress in the family. We also give them a place to get help if they have problems." The seminars discuss the healthy family environment and the dysfunctional family environment, stressors and how to relieve stressors.

"I was in some of those seminars," says Banks. "I saw women furiously taking notes and feeling that they were in a safe place to be able to discuss this with a counselor. We brought it to the table and felt it wasn't something that should be hidden. There were clearly women who waited until the end to go up and talk to the counselor.

"We believe it's our responsibility to give back to the people who have helped make us successful. Our largest constituency is women, and domestic violence is the largest cause of death and injury to women in America today. If we can help to enlighten other corporations to stand beside us, we feel there will be much more power. It will take years and huge cultural changes to wipe out family violence." But you need to get it out in the open.

"Domestic violence isn't an issue of privacy," says Edward Gondolf, associate director of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based National Resource Council on Domestic Violence. "Not only is it not a personal issue, but for workplaces that have managers who ignore this, we're really being accessories to it. We're condoning the actions that occur."

But what can human resources people do? A lot, judging by companies like Liz Claiborne Inc. and Polaroid. Even if you don't engage in full-blown programs, there's plenty HR can do to confront this problem. Begin by creating a list of resources. This should be done before the need arises because, when someone needs a referral, she can't wait.

Then, assert a company policy statement regarding domestic violence. Put people on notice and give them guidance as you do with guidelines for sexual harassment. This is the first step in creating an awareness within the company that domestic violence is a serious problem that isn't to be ignored. Further steps include legitimizing the topic by making domestic violence a topic of conversation at seminars and workshops, and educating managers and supervisors about warning signs and action steps.

Supervisors need to be careful how they ask employees about their situations and how they open a conversation. They might say, "If you're having personal problems, for instance if you're being abused at home, we have a place for you to get help." Supervisors need to appear as supportive and tactful as possible. However, they need to do something. "Lots of times you'll discover that attendance problems aren't really work related; they're family related," says Jackie LaFave-Perkins, assistant vice president, director human resources for Culver City, California-based Lanz Inc. "There's something in the living environment that's making it difficult for them to come to work. When you have someone who starts having difficulty getting to work and seems distracted once they arrive, those are pretty good indicators that something's going on. It's a first-line supervisor's responsibility to be aware and pick up on that signal."

In addition to supervisors, Employee Assistance Program counselors should have specific training in the area of domestic abuse. Also, you need to market the services of your Employee Assistance Program. Be sure employees know what's available. One of the best things a company can do is advertise the EAP program and be supportive of employees using it. Emphasize its confidentiality.

One way to do this is to post the numbers for help lines and employee assistance in the restroom, not on bulletin boards in the hallways. Also, distribute brochures or letters from the CEO to each employee indicating that the company realizes some employees may experience domestic violence. The emphasis should be on creating an environment that says everyone has problems and it's OK to seek help.

Says James Carabetta, director of HR at Wallingford, Connecticut-based Fosdick Corp., which employs 600 people: "As an HR person, I have a responsibility to the organization to provide a staff that's productive. But I also feel a certain ethical and moral responsibility to my employees to give them an environment in which they can be productive. I can't really control their environment outside the workplace, but I can make them aware of the resources that they may want to use."

Adds Esta Soler, executive director at FUND: "Domestic violence flourishes because of silence, because the problem stays hidden and, in some subtle but powerful way, acceptable. We must make this a public concern and demonstrate that we will not tolerate it any longer."

That's why Morbeck refuses to be silent. She speaks at schools, corporations, even jails about the impact and causes of domestic violence. She's active in any way she can be in getting the word out, ensuring that this devastation doesn't remain in the closet and that victims aren't ignored.

She wouldn't have the self-confidence to do these things, however, if it weren't for a company that helped her through her trauma to rebuild her life. Boston-based Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Inc., Advertising gave her a job when she most desperately needed one. It paid her expenses and gave her time off to take care of the legal issues surrounding her divorce.

But more than that, the company—by virtue of its culture of caring for people and building relationships—helped her regain her self-esteem. "The company gave me the opportunity to rebuild my self-esteem by extending compassion, not pity, and accountability for my job. I truly credit HHCC with the role it played in saving my life. It's after you're safe that the tough part of trying to live again happens. HHCC helped me stand and walk towards life when I didn't think I was capable. That is the greatest impact a company, and an HR department, in conjunction with a corporate policy and caring people, can have in altering the life of a victim, of an employee. It isn't the role of a company to enable the confusion and trauma of the employee, but rather be aware of the struggle and transformation that she's undergoing."

Personnel Journal, April 1995, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 62-72.

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