Domestic Violence: What Workplaces Don’t Know Can Hurt Everyone

workplaces domestic violence - employees working together man and woman

I recently came across an article written by an employment lawyer who counsels employers to adopt policies “asking employees to keep their personal lives as far as they can from work,” contending that “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to employees’ personal lives, including workers who are victims of domestic violence.

This is an unrealistic and dangerous approach to addressing workplace violence. Since domestic violence often escalates, and abusers know the work schedule and workplace of their intimate partners, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you” is an inaccurate and dangerous mantra. Turning a blind eye to the realities of domestic violence and its impact on workplaces endangers all employees and sends a dreadful message that survivors of domestic violence don’t deserve compassion and support.

In my role with Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence, a National Resource Center funded by a Department of Justice grant through the Office on Violence Against Women, I talk with managers, supervisors, and workers about how domestic violence impacts their workplaces. During these discussions, I am often asked “What does my coworker’s private life have to do with me and our workplace?”

It’s a fair question, and I understand why it’s asked. I have never experienced domestic violence, and did not inquire about my colleagues’ experiences in previous positions. I have had my share of life’s ups and downs, but have always attempted to separate my private burdens from my professional responsibilities. On days when I struggled with relationship troubles or other personal challenges, I strived to put my best foot forward and mind my own business at work. This culture of keeping private matters out of the workplace was my default, and tends to be the default for us all.

However, once I joined FUTURES I began to learn about women who had to go work after being kept up all night by a verbally or physically abusive boyfriend or spouse. My eyes were opened to families having no choice but to put on a brave face at work or at school after spending the night hiding from their abuser in an emergency shelter. I have read numerous incident reports of workplace harassment and stalking, beginning with incessant phone calling, escalating to showing up to the job site unannounced, and culminating with violence that caught bystanders in the crossfire. I have spoken with workers terminated for needing a day off to attend to a physical injury caused by their abuser, or to visit a courthouse in order to obtain a restraining order.

Survivors cannot easily leave domestic violence at home. In reality, an employer’s “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” policy translates to “choosing to ignore endangers everyone much more.”

Regardless of whether an employee voluntarily discloses that they’re experiencing domestic violence, there are many other ways an employer may become aware that something is going on. Furthermore, domestic violence is one of the most difficult, private, and heart-wrenching traumas to disclose. Discouraging disclosure only adds to the complex feelings of isolation, embarrassment, shame, denial, and self-blame that many survivors already suffer.

Turning a blind eye does not insulate workplaces from the impacts of domestic violence. When a worker is exhausted, distracted, less than productive, absent, or terminated because they are experiencing domestic violence, they may be denied the economic mobility necessary to leave their abusers. At best, employers bear the significant costs of inefficiency, absenteeism, or the expense of having to hire and train new workers. But at worst, employers may lose the most valuable human resource: the life of an employee.

For over a decade, Workplaces Respond has helped employers develop policies, protocols, and trainings that respect the privacy, agency, and dignity of survivors. We believe that a workplace culture of compassion and support, exhibited by meaningful acts such as non-intrusive words of support and the availability of resource materials, helps survivors access the help they need while protecting and advancing their employer’s interests.

With 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence at some point in their lives, domestic violence likely impacts every workplace. Together, we can shift workplace defaults of silence and isolation toward workplace cultures of support and resilience.