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Domestic Violence Goes to Work: What Employers Can and Must Do To Protect Their Employees

Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.




Why Employers Must Care About Domestic Violence

The effects of domestic violence (DV) don’t stop at the door to the workplace. To the contrary, domestic violence is everyone’s problem: not only is it morally reprehensible, it affects profitability and safety.

  1. Domestic violence costs employers between $3 to $5 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs.
  2. Employees miss 175,000 days of work per year because of domestic violence alone.
  3. 13,000 acts of domestic violence against women occur in the workplace every year.
  4. 94% of corporate security directors consider the spillover of domestic problems into the workplace as a potentially high-risk security problem.[9]
  5. Up to 52% of victims of domestic abuse have lost their jobs because batterers typically engage in behavior that makes it difficult to work.[5]
  6. Forty-seven percent of senior executives polled said that domestic violence has a harmful effect on the company's productivity.[10]
  7. A large majority of EAP providers surveyed have dealt with specific partner abuse scenarios in the past year, including an employee with a restraining order (83%) or an employee being stalked at work by a current or former partner (71%). [4]
  8. There are also extensive hidden costs. Victims may experience mental anguish and severe depression after an attack, which may impinge on their ability to work. Even if there is no single major battering event an abused spouse:

Executives are at Risk, Too

Managerial and executive employees are equally at risk of being victims of domestic violence. This possibility may be overlooked by some employers and Human Resource departments because the vast majority of the United States government’s efforts target lower-income individuals.

Domestic violence cuts across all strata of society. Individuals in high-tech fields, executive suites, law and architecture firms, new media design workshops, and so on must be made aware of the extent of the problem. Victims in these workplaces—and there are more than most people would guess—should know that their psychological and physical pain and their fear are not being ignored. All employees, regardless of income level, have the right to protection at their workplace.

Protecting the Victim of Violence in the Workplace

Minimizing the effects of DV on a specific organization by removing its victims is illegal. It is also impossible, since many DV victims are good at hiding their condition. Hiding is particularly easy when so many of us are very poor at noticing the signs of distress.

Consider, for example:

These numbers do not include the millions of individuals subject to verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse. These categories of abuse include frequent put-downs that erode self-esteem, non-stop criticisms, insults, mind games, lying, passive aggressive behaviors, yelling, and the negating of the victim's experience.

These statistics suggest that even if you think you don’t know anyone who is being abused, you are probably wrong. Look around again, realizing you don’t know what is going on behind closed doors.

    Laws and Legislation Affecting Employers

    Note: The information in this section is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed or used as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for current information relevant to your specific situation. 

Provisions and laws are based on the understanding that the workplace is a prime target for domestic violence since it may be the only place where the perpetrator can gain access to the victim. Moreover, perpetrators deliberately abuse their victims during work hours because they know that victims fear losing their jobs if their employers realize what is happening. For a summary of Federal and New York State Laws pertaining to domestic violence, see Appendix B.
Stacey Dougan, Assistant General Counsel at Greenberg Traurig, notes these general legal considerations for employers [3]:

    Protecting All Employees

Be Proactive

A proactive approach to domestic violence should include designing and implementing a specific domestic violence in the workplace policy. This will not only protect your organization from liability, it will protect your employees, and help victims of domestic abuse feel supported.

Your policy should, at a minimum:

A more complete approach might:

A model policy statement for employer use can be found through the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence at http://www.opdv.state.ny.us/workplace/statepolicy.html. Examples of programs developed by leading companies (like Verizon, Liz Claiborne, and others) are provided in Appendix A.


Safety Procedures

In addition to having a policy and making that policy known throughout your organization, there are a number of security measures you can take to protect both the victim of domestic violence and all your employees. These procedures will also add protection in the case of a disgruntled former employee seeking to harm the past employer.[10]

Imperative for the Targeted Individual:

Protecting Everyone:


Finding the Right Words

General guidelines are helpful, but what do YOU say when an employee tells you that she is being abused?

There are no hard and fast rules, except one:

Don’t tell the victim what you think she should do to make her relationship "work". She is in that relationship; you are not.

The following general guidelines may facilitate the conversation.

  1. Be there for her.

2. Recognize her needs for privacy and safety.

3. Reassure her that she cannot be fired if her partner is abusing her, nor will it change her insurance coverage.

4. Assume that she has already given this matter a great deal of thought, and tried more techniques than you could probably think of.

5. Tell her you don’t need to know details she doesn’t want to tell you, but that you are here to help her feel as safe and work as effectively as she can.


If she is alluding only vaguely to abuse, you can ask her if she feels safe at home and at work. You may want to ask specifically about work factors only:

You can refer to your policy manual if you have one; or to a workplace safety plan such as the one found at http://www.nowldef.org/html/issues/work/DomVio/safetyplanning.shtml provided by NOW’s Legal Defense team; or you can brainstorm solutions together.

7. Affirm that you value her as an employee. Try to find specific examples of things she’s done well recently.

8. Be gracious, not abrupt, in closing.

Putting Abusers out of Business

In a sufficiently large company, some employees will be batterers, or may psychologically abuse their partners. Employers may not discriminate in hiring or assignments against people suspected of abuse. However, the prominent display of materials that express support of the victim may help, in at least a few cases, diminish some of the abuse by batterers who might think that their behavior is condoned by society.

It is also advisable, if possible, to establish and publicize programs for abusers. When an employee perpetrates domestic violence against a co-worker on company property in company time, the employer should take disciplinary action (or potentially face liability issues.) The abuser should then be referred to the EAP or a treatment program for batterers .


Some links your organization may find useful:


Battered women employed: NOW Legal Defense Fund suggestions for protecting yourself at work.


A self-help guide for the battered employee.



Model Policies:

Policy statement for agencies from the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence in New York State.



General Information:

Workplace Impact: Fact Sheet.


National Workplace Resource Center on Domestic Violence.


Legislation, laws, and other corporations’ responses to domestic violence. http://endabuse.org/newsdesk/papers/workbrief.php3

A compilation of employers’ concerns and mandates from an attorney’s perspective. http://www.gtlaw.com/pub/alerts/2001/dougans_09.asp


Links to a variety of New York State and National web sites of interest to those concerned with defeating domestic violence. http://www.opdv.state.ny.us/workplace/index.html


APPENDIX A: Prevention, Outreach, and Education: Examples from Leading Companies

Nationwide, companies are responding to the need to prevent domestic violence from interfering with productivity, to protect their employees, to educate them, and even to assist batterers who want to stop. [2] Some examples (see http://endabuse.org/ newsdesk/papers/workbrief.php3 for more details an other organizations):

Verizon Wireless. Through its HopeLine® program, the company focuses primarily on putting wireless products and services to work to combat domestic violence. Verizon Wireless also has established a culture of awareness and assistance at all levels of the organization and works to inspire businesses throughout the nation to join the fight against domestic violence.

Blue Shield of California has provided in-business domestic violence prevention sessions across the state. Blue Shield has produced workplace organizing kits and a video on domestic violence and the workplace response. The company is highly visible in supporting local shelters, co-sponsoring a march and resource fair, and supporting employees who serve on shelters' boards of directors. They have also developed interventions to support physicians in their efforts to screen and treat victims of domestic violence.

Liz Claiborne, Inc. Liz Claiborne's "Women's Work" program includes employee outreach, local awareness campaigns in targeted communities, and national outreach. Campaigns have included billboard, and television public service announcements, some using featured college football players, and a radio PSA series featuring high-profile male recording artists.

Marshalls, Inc. created the Marshalls Domestic Peace Prize, a fund to which employees may donate during the annual giving campaign, which periodically awards $10,000 grants to innovative programs working to prevent domestic violence.

Acme Materials and Construction. Employees of this Spokane, Washington-based construction company, with a mostly-male staff, adopted "graduates" of a transitional program for battered women and their children, giving each family toys, clothes, household items, and gift certificates for food every Christmas.

Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo."Mintz Levin", a large law firm with offices in Boston and Washington, DC, provides all employees with information, training and free legal assistance when needed, on domestic violence issues. They also provide pro bono legal assistance to battered women.

American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME has conducted trainings for all of its members nationwide. District Council 37 in New York City offers comprehensive services to its union members living with domestic abuse, including both legal and social work service benefits. The social work staff provides crisis intervention, counseling, housing relocation, and mediation on domestic violence job-related issues.


Appendix B: Specific New York and Federal Statutes

Note: The information in this section is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed or used as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for current information relevant to your specific situation. 

The following general New York and Federal statutes relate to domestic violence and the workplace. (Other states may have also passed their own laws.)

Labor Law Section 593(1): Amends the labor law to provide that in cases where a victim of domestic violence voluntarily separates from employment as a result of the abuse, unemployment benefits may be paid.

Penal Law Section 215.14: As of 1996, it is a crime for employers to penalize an employee who, as a victim or witness of a criminal offense, is required or chooses to appear as a witness, consult with the district attorney, or to exercise his/her rights as provided in the Criminal Procedure Law, the Family Court Act, and the Executive Law. The law requires employers, with prior day notification, to allow time off for victims or witnesses to pursue legal action related to domestic violence.

Insurance Law Section 2612: In New York State as of 1996, insurance companies and health maintenance organizations are prohibited from discriminating against domestic violence victims. The law specifically outlaws designating domestic violence as a preexisting condition and denying or canceling an insurance policy or requiring a higher premium or payment where the insured is/has been a domestic violence victim.

Occupational Safety and Health Laws: State and federal occupational safety and health laws require employers to maintain a safe work environment. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) has a "general duty" clause that requires employers to provide a safe and secure workplace free from recognized hazards. There is a corresponding similar state law provision.

State and federal laws related to firearms: Under New York law, a person who is the named respondent or defendant on an order of protection may have to surrender his firearms while that order is in effect. Under federal law, it is a crime for that same person to possess a gun while an order of protection is in effect. It is unlawful for a person convicted of a domestic violence-related crime to possess a gun.

Violence Against Women Act ’99: Like Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 1994, VAWA 1999 is a comprehensive package that contains many provisions aimed at stopping violence against women, with several that address domestic violence in the workplace. A national clearinghouse on domestic violence as it affects the workplace is planned.

Currently pending before Congress is the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act, which would require private employers to make certain accommodations for employed victims of domestic violence.[3]




[1] AFSCME Guide (1996). Domestic Violence: An AFSCME Guide for Union Action. AFL-CIO.

[2] Corvo, K. & Johnson, P.J. (2002). Vilification of the "Batterer": How blame shapes domestic violence policy and interventions. Under review.

[3] Dougan, Stacy (2002). Greenberg Traurig Alert. http://www.gtlaw.com/pub/alerts/2001/dougans_09.asp. Retrieved June 8, 2002.

[4] Family Violence Prevention Fund (2001). Working to End Domestic Violence: American Workplaces Respond to an Epidemic. http://endabuse.org/newsdesk/papers/workbrief.php3 Retrieved June 8, 2002.

[5] Gemignani, J. (2000). Missed opportunities in the fight against domestic violence. Business & Health 18(9)October: 29-35.

[6] Johnson, P.R., & Gardner, S. (1999). Domestic violence and the workplace: developing a company response. Journal of Management Development 18(7), 590-597.

[7] NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (1999). Battered women employed: NOW Legal Defense Fund suggestions for protecting yourself at work.

http://www.nowldef.org/html/issues/work/DomVio/safetyplanning.shtmRetrieved May 18, 2002.

[8] Reynolds, L. (1997). Fighting domestic violence in the workplace. HR Focus 74(11), p. 8.

[9] Roper Starch (1994). Worldwide study for Liz Claiborne, Inc., in Greenberg Traurig Alert, http://www.gtlaw.com. Retrieved June 8, 2002

[10] Security Director's Report (2001). Domestic violence costs much more than you think. Report 01-11, November.

Copyright 2001 ZevGroup. Further information about the contents of this report is available upon request from Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.