Empower Your Workplace to Prevent and Respond to Domestic Violence

When an employee faces the threat of violence, even in his or her personal life, it can easily and quickly become a workplace violence issue.

Whether it is a high-performing employee who suddenly displays a change in behavior due to a violent spouse at home, or an employee who has a stalker waiting for them at their vehicle when they leave the workplace, the signs should not be ignored, and human resources should get involved.

Because personal topics are often uncomfortable to broach in the workplace, HR professionals often overlook signs of domestic abuse out of consideration for staff privacy, and from a fear of making false assumptions. However, worse than the risk of inquiring after the wellbeing of a staff member who turns out to be doing fine, is not confronting a staff member who is experiencing the threat of violence in his or her life.

In addition, relationships in the workplace, particularly in large health organizations, are prevalent and often hidden. These relationships can sometimes turn volatile and affect both individuals’ behavior at work. And even if a violent act doesn’t occur in the vicinity of the workplace, the individual affected by it will undoubtedly be suffering through his or her daily activities, and his or her performance—or worse, patientcare delivery—will suffer as a result.According to Lisa Kim, Senior Program Specialist at Futures Without Violence, “Domestic violence can follow victims to work, spilling over into the workplace when a victim is harassed, receives threatening phone calls, is absent because of injuries, or is less productive due to extreme stress. Domestic violence is a serious, recognizable, and preventable problem, similar to other workplace health and safety issues that affect businesses and their bottom lines.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is $727.8 million (in 1995 dollars), with more than 7.9 million paid workdays lost to it each year. The measurable financial impacts of violence include lost wages, sick leave, absenteeism, and the costs to the medical, legal, and social service systems. The domestic-violence cost calculator (www2.texashealth.org/dv)can help you determine the potential cost of not addressing the issue for your workplace.1

Resources like this and more can be found on Workplaces Respond (www.workplacesrespond.org). The site offers a helpful outline to understanding domestic and sexual violence—as well as stalking—for HR professionals, and includes the following facts:

  • On average, four to five women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends each day in the United States,and women suffer two million injuries from intimate partner violence each year.2
  • The FBI defines a workplace threat as “[a]ny verbal or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as an intent to cause harm,”3 including the following subcategories:

Domestic violence becomes a workplace threat when an employee, or anyone with a familial or intimate relationship with an employee, engages in violent or threatening behavior designed to control or harm the target. Domestic violence usually involves people with a preexisting personal relationship, whether as family members, spouses, or persons with a child in common. Understanding this relationship may help a workplace evaluate and respond to the nature and frequency of the threat posed by the perpetrator.

Sexual violence becomes a workplace threat when anyone who comes in contact with the workplace engages in sexually harassing or criminal acts. Sexual violence can be committed by someone known or unknown to the victim: a family member or former dating partner, co-worker, supervisor, security guard, customer/client, member of the public on company property, or stranger. Crimes of sexual violence are defined differently in every state, but generally include rape, incest, sexual touching, threats, sexual harassment, assaults and battery.

Stalking is often a precursor to or co-occurs with sexual or domestic violence. A stalker can be known or unknown to the victim: a coworker or client, a family member or intimate partner, an acquaintance or a stranger. The threat posed to the victim and the workplace will depend upon the perpetrator and their actions.

  • Addressing the workplace impact of domestic violence (and stalking) requires both prevention and response. Prevention includes creating an environment that is supportive of victim-employees, and where potential perpetrators are deterred from such acts because they know there will be consequences. Responses include:

Addressing any threats or actual violence. Employers may be held liable for ignoring or failing to address potential or actual threats, but when they do address them, they should do so in consultation with the victim and in a manner that is mindful of the victim’s privacy and safety.

Promptly and respectfully respond to victims. Violence and threats to a victim can cause trauma that stays with the victim wherever she or he goes, including the workplace. Listen without judgement; you do not have to counsel them on what to do, but instead offer support and resources. Employers should conduct an investigation, provide such employees with access to appropriate services, and (in some cases) provide accommodations to employees who suffer injuries due to violence, whether or not those injuries were suffered on the job.

Holding perpetrators accountable. Following an investigation, a workplace can discipline or terminate any perpetrator-employees or cancel contracts with vendors whose employees perpetrate such acts.

The onus to effectively respond to domestic or sexual violence is not entirely upon the shoulders of those in human resources. Organizations can form a multidisciplinary response team, including security, union representatives, legal staff, senior management, EAP resources, etc.

While women are more often affected by it than men, domestic and sexual violence can happen to anyone within all ecosystems of the organization, and from upper management on down. Ensuring the wellbeing and safety of all employees protects not only your bottom line, but also your company’s most valuable assets: its people. 



1 Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 2003.

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Workplace Violence: Issues in Response. Quantico, VA: Critical Incident Response Group, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy. 2004. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/workplace-violence

3 Ibid.

Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence is a national initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, spearheaded by Futures Without Violence, which provides information on effective prevention and responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, and other incidents of violence as they relate to the workplace. www.workplacesrespond.org