October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and domestic violence may often impact the workplace. In fact, high-profile employers have recently been propelled into the national spotlight on domestic violence issues.
Ohio State University fired assistant football coach Zach Smith after a court granted his now ex-wife a protective order based on allegations of stalking, trespassing and harassment. The University also suspended head coach Urban Meyer based on a report concluding that Meyer had failed to properly handle allegations and accusations of Smith’s domestic abuse that he knew about for years. Despite Meyer’s protestations to the contrary, there was credible evidence in Meyer’s possession, including texts, photos and documents from the victim herself showing that he was aware of the abuse and failed to properly report it.
Similarly, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently took full responsibility for what he described as a “horrible mistake in hindsight” for retaining an employee after two separate domestic violence incidents against a fellow Mavericks employee came to light.
So what lessons can be gained from these awful situations? What does an employer need to know about domestic violence at work and how to keep its workplace safe for victims and co-workers and minimize the risk of liability for domestic violence?
1. Develop and Implement Policies and Procedures
It is important for an employer to adopt policies and procedures addressing workplace violence, domestic violence, workplace safety and harassment and to ensure that such policies are made part of the employee handbook. Applicable policies include:
- A workplace violence handbook statement;
- A workplace violence prevention policy;
- A domestic violence leave policy;
- A domestic violence policy; and
- A sexual harassment policy.
These policies and procedures will notify employees and supervisors of:
- The steps to take in case of an incident of workplace violence;
- How such acts should be reported;
- How victims’ concerns should be addressed and managed; and
- How to keep the workplace safe and secure.
2. Provide Training
An employer should provide training to all employees and supervisors on domestic violence and workplace violence, stressing that violence is a serious issue that must be reported. An employer should be sure to convey that all complaints will be kept confidential and retaliation is prohibited. An employer also may want to provide workplace violence prevention safety training and active shooter drills in case a threatening situation arises.
Additionally, it is absolutely critical to provide training for supervisors and employees on the signs of domestic violence or abuse including:
- Markers of physical harm or visible bruises;
- Frequently showing up late to work or leaving early;
- Excessive absences;
- Exhibiting increased stress, anxiety or emotional withdrawal;
- Decreased productivity and ability to concentrate; or
- Other behavior changes affecting workplace performance.
Supervisors should be trained on issues of confidentiality and employee privacy and how to handle any domestic violence issues in a sensitive manner to avoid putting the victim in an even more dangerous situation. Information should only be shared on a need-to-know basis.
3. Take Action if on Notice
Once an employer is aware that an employee may be a victim of or perpetrator of domestic violence, it is crucial for the employer to take action.
It is important for an employer to report any incidents to the authorities and provide a victim with help and the resources he or she needs since very often work may be the only safe space for a victim. Further, under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, an employer is required to keep its workplace safe for all employees.
On the other hand, if an employer is on notice that an employee may be a perpetrator of domestic violence, it is important to take action and investigate:
- When and where the abuse took place;
- Whether it was a one-time event or repeated events; and
- The nature of the alleged conduct (i.e., physical, verbal).
Further, the employer should evaluate:
- The job duties and responsibilities of the alleged perpetrator;
- Whether the alleged perpetrator is in a supervisory or management role; and
- To what extent and in what manner the individual interacts with co-workers, third parties and the public.
If an employer is certain that domestic abuse has occurred, the employer should attempt to report it to the authorities and do everything in its power to make the conduct stop. An employer cannot afford to ignore warning signs of domestic violence since it may impact the workplace.
4. Be Willing to Provide Leave and Time Off
It is absolutely critical for an employer to provide victims of domestic violence with the assistance and support they need, including leave and time off for doctor’s appointments, court appearances or social services. A number of state laws even require an employer to provide leave and time off to domestic violence victims.
Similarly, federal or state family and medical leave acts may provide time off to treat injuries from domestic violence if the injuries rise to the level of a serious health condition. Additionally, victims may be entitled to leave as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar state or local laws if the individual has suffered an injury resulting in a qualified disability.
An employer also should be willing to provide domestic violence victims with:
- Assistance with the legal process and obtaining a restraining order against the perpetrator;
- Flexible work arrangements to manage childcare issues;
- Changes to benefit plans; and
- Access to health care and psychological services.
An employer should work to create a caring and supportive environment where domestic violence victims can receive the assistance they need. However, supervisors should make sure to avoid giving advice or making judgments as domestic violence is a very sensitive issue, and there is a need to tread carefully.
5. Provide Accommodations and Make Workplace Changes to Enhance Safety
If an employer is on notice that an employee is a potential victim, it may need to provide accommodations that protect the health, safety and welfare of the victim and co-workers and make workplace changes to prepare for a potential act of violence.
Reasonable accommodations may include:
- Changing a victim’s work schedule;
- Transferring a victim to another location;
- Changing parking arrangements;
- Separating a victim and a perpetrator if both work for an employer;
- Allowing alternative work hours; or
- Changing an employee’s work phone number or email.
An employer also may consider increasing security measures in the workplace such as:
- Changing locks or key cards;
- Hiring additional security guards;
- Alerting law enforcement as to the identity of the perpetrator;
- Improving overall security; or
- Installing panic buttons.
What steps does your organization take to address domestic violence at work? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.