Shattered Love, Broken Lives

(WOMENSENEWS)–A growing number of corporations and businesses are recognizing that the explosive force of domestic violence knows no boundaries, and, in fact, its shock waves inevitably enter the workplace.

Because abuse is easy to hide, many employers don’t know or don’t see that their employees are suffering. Yet, even the smallest firm employing women may have an employee who is being abused. One out of four women is a victim of physical, sexual or psychological abuse by an intimate, according to recent Justice Department statistics.

Look around the office or the shop floor and start counting.

Many companies choose not to see or to get involved. They are not legally obligated to help, after all. In fact, they may fire a victim of domestic violence–if her work suffers as a result. Domestic violence causes absenteeism, increased health care costs, higher turnover and lower productivity–and these cost American businesses between four and five billion dollars every year, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

However, in what is seen as a growing trend, 28 percent of U.S. companies now acknowledge that employees’ home life accompanies them to work, and the employers are tackling domestic violence in order to assist the victims and improve company morale and their own bottom line.

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is now spearheading an effort to reach out to businesses, large and small, to make them aware of the implications of gender violence to the workplace and to encourage them to adopt policies to support employees who are victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault. (NOW Legal Defense is the publisher of Women’s Enews.)

“More and more, those who deal with domestic violence every day, from district attorneys to advocates, are asking us to speak to groups of employers to provide guidance on how best to assist their employees and provide a safe work place,” says Geoff Boehm, staff attorney for NOW Legal Defense.

Several companies are pioneers in domestic violence policies and are forming coalitions to raise awareness and to develop model policies and best practices. These include John Hancock, Polaroid, The Marmaxx Group, The Limited, McKee Foods, American Express, Liz Claiborne, as well as smaller companies such as VanCort Industries in South Deerfield, Mass. A murder of an employee served as a catalyst for at least three of these firms: John Hancock, McKee Foods and VanCort.

Needed: Childcare, Job-Sharing, Assistance Program, Flexible Hours

A John Hancock employee, Richard Rosenthal, was convicted in 1996 for beating and eviscerating his wife and fellow employee. The tragedy and ensuing turmoil made the company snap to attention about domestic violence.

John Hancock, the Boston-based insurance company, offers abuse victims services under the umbrella of work/life programming, which also includes services for all employees such as child care centers, job sharing, an employee assistance program and flexible hours.

In addition, employees are trained to be alert for warning signs of abuse in a coworker and to be ready with every possible resource–if a victim comes forward. They have been taught how to get a restraining order; they know the phone numbers for the police, local women’s shelters, hospitals, counselors and social workers.

John Hancock offers free pre-legal resources and flexible hours so that employees can attend court hearings and tend to housing and medical issues. The company also tries to ensure a victim’s safety on the premises with security personnel who look out for an abuser who tries to enter, and escort an employee to her car in the parking lot.

Kathy Hazzard, director of work/life programs at John Hancock, first got involved with domestic violence because a close friend of hers was being emotionally abused at home. Then she began to notice victims in her workplace. Hazzard recalled one case in which a woman who was obviously being battered was about to be fired for absenteeism by a manager who wasn’t paying attention to the signs.

“I was called in. We determined that the problem was caused by domestic violence–and the woman was not terminated,” said Hazzard, also the president of Employers Against Domestic Violence, a national, Boston-based group of 70 businesses dedicated to ending domestic violence.

Inside the company and out, Hazzard has had many opportunities to address individual pain and suffering, as well as the impact of violence on the workplace.

Sometimes, a Tragedy Becomes a Wake-Up Call

At the McKee Foods manufacturing plant in Gentry, Ark., employee Ruth Roberts was fatally shot in 1991 by her estranged husband.

Project Ruth, a domestic violence prevention team, was established in her memory. The plant, one of five in the state, employs 1,200 people and manufactures Little Debbie snack cakes and other baked goods. Since it began three years ago, Project Ruth has assisted 25 to 30 employees.

Twice each year, Project Ruth team members distribute educational brochures to every employee, explaining where to direct a domestic violence victim for help, both within and outside the company, how to address a co-worker who might be a victim and how to listen without judging. One suggestion of what to say if an employee thinks a co-worker is being abused: “I’m afraid for your safety. I’m afraid for the safety of your children. I’m here for you when and if you want to leave. You don’t deserve to be abused.”

Brochures list resource phone numbers and those of all the Project Ruth team members. “We have a strong relationship with our local shelter,” said Smith. “They provide counseling on site and we allow employees to go to the shelter during work hours for counseling.”

McKee Foods also trains all employees to be aware of domestic violence. It puts up bulletin boards with news articles about domestic violence and takes part in service projects for the local shelter. “Helping the victim is not the total solution,” said Smith. “If the abuser is our employee, then we have a domestic abuse intervention unit that they can participate in as well.”

Ninety-six percent of the employee victims of violence had some type of resulting workplace problem: lateness, missed days or general diminished performance, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey. But the warning signs are not always there, or they are difficult to spot.

Sherry Morton did not confide in any colleague that she was being abused, nor did she display the typical symptoms in her work as the receptionist at Massachusetts-based VanCort Instruments, which manufactures upscale gift items.

Caring Female Boss Asks: “Why Didn’t We Know?”

But at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1992, company owner Kate VanCort received a phone call with news that Morton and her 18-month-old son had been brutally murdered. They were stabbed to death by her estranged male companion.

“We started feeling, ‘Why didn’t we know?'” said VanCort. “No one knew.”

The effect of domestic violence on a workplace cannot only be measured in lower productivity and lower income. It is painful for people to know that they could have done something to help a coworker, but they didn’t.

VanCort and her employees were emotionally shaken by the murder, so she sought out a therapist who made regular visits to counsel the staff and management. VanCort herself held many meetings to discuss domestic violence and to grieve as a group. “I became more aware of all of our employees, and when I was given information that people might be in trouble, I tried to find help for them,” she said. “It is informal–that’s the luxury of a small company. When people are getting divorced, I’m around them. When people are worried that someone’s not eating enough, I’m around them. People tell me these things and they trust me.”

“Once the silence about domestic violence is broken, leaders become aware how common it is in their companies,” said Donna Norton, director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a San Francisco-based collaboration of companies and unions dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence. “They realize how important it is to address it on an ongoing basis. There’s no going backwards on this issue.”

Elizabeth Randolph is a journalist based in New York.