April 16th, 2009 | 6:00 am

Addressing the Elephant in the Boardroom: Domestic Violence in the Workplace

filed under Office Politics

iStock_000005294363XSmall_1_.jpgby Andrea Newell (Grand Rapids, MI)

“My life seemed a quintessential New York success story. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Smith College and married an Ivy League graduate. Everyone thought I had married the perfect man. We lived in a brownstone just off Fifth Avenue and belonged to a country club. I was on the management track at Time, Inc. and my husband worked across the street at one of the city’s leading investment banks. My life was a perfect hell. My husband regularly tied me up, beat me, pushed me down the stairs and out of windows, locked me out of our home, isolated me from family and friends, and blamed me for literally everything. He also tried to prevent me from going to work by cutting up all of my clothes,” says Brooke McMurray, a former publishing executive at Time Incorporated, where she launched and marketed more than 30 magazines including People, Time, Sports Illustrated and Fortune. While her professional accomplishments are bright and impressive, her personal story is dark and chilling. And she is not alone.

A female VP consistently excelled at her job at U.S. Life (now part of AIG). She was well-liked by her coworkers and management alike. She was also battered for nearly 20 years before she sat down with her boss and asked for help after her husband had tried to strangle her the night before. She knew she also had to tell her coworkers or one of them might unknowingly let her enraged husband into the building. She gave a picture of him to security to protect not only herself, but also her colleagues.

When her boyfriend punched her, a female bank employee told coworkers she was mugged. She never told anyone that he took her car keys so she had to run all the way to work, obsessively kept track of her whereabouts and checked her work messages. She hid the abuse all the while she was working her way up to VP for community relations at a bank that became JPMorgan Chase. She kept quiet even as she filed for a restraining order and lodged a police complaint, only feeling safe enough to share her story once her partner had been deported.

In March of 2008, a vivacious, beloved partner in a commercial real estate company in Chicago was ambushed by her estranged boyfriend and shot in the back as she walked from her office to her car. A popular game designer at Microsoft (formerly a Harvard-educated public defender) was shot by her husband in the parking lot of her apartment building as she was leaving for work in July 2008.

Every workplace has its own perceived personality when it comes to sharing personal information. Some environments are stringently businesslike, but even in the friendliest, most relaxed atmosphere there is at least one topic that coworkers don’t traditionally stand around the coffee machine and chat about: the time they spend suffering abuse at the hands of their partner. On top of the suffocating stigma, many executives feel that domestic abuse is a private problem and does not belong at work. For victims, work becomes a safe haven from mistreatment and a place where they experience kindness and respect. They keep the abuse a secret because they don’t want to be seen differently, and most are afraid of losing their jobs or damaging their careers. For an abuser, money is a powerful weapon, while independence is the enemy. Employment gives victims both, so abusers constantly try to sever that relationship. This compulsion is what causes problems at work, impacting productivity, absenteeism, turnover, healthcare costs, and workplace safety.

Domestic violence is defined as “abusive behavior in an intimate relationship, often aimed at gaining power or control over a partner. Tactics include emotional and verbal intimidation, economic domination, harassment, stalking, physical or sexual violence, and threats. Domestic violence victims and offenders are from all ethnic, socioeconomic and educational groups.”

Brooke McMurray finally escaped her nightmare marriage and today is on the board of directors for Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading victim assistance organization. She speaks out about the devastating effects of domestic violence both at home and at work. “Today some companies still say that addressing domestic violence is none of their business. I say not only is it their business, it’s good business,” McMurray states.

Safe Horizon created SafeWork, a “national movement to empower corporate America to address domestic violence in the workplace. Through education and training, research, public awareness and innovative initiatives, we help companies keep their employees safe and protect their bottom line.”

While domestic violence has been lurking in the shadows, it has also been taking a huge financial toll on businesses. It is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

According to SafeWork:

Bill McComb, CEO of Liz Claiborne, a pioneer against domestic violence for nearly two decades, says, “We have a responsibility here. More leaders in the business community need to understand this issue. The key is, companies don’t have to get into the business of domestic violence counseling. They need to get in the business of letting women know that the workplace is a safe haven.” Liz Claiborne developed a simple system: “Recognize. Respond. Refer.” Learn to recognize the signs a coworker may be trouble, respond by inquiring about their well-being, and refer them to the appropriate resources for help.

No longer is it acceptable to turn a blind eye in the name of respecting a coworker’s privacy. Other companies are recognizing the problem and responding accordingly. Allstate offers training to help victims create and maintain financial independence. Verizon Wireless trains all employees and sends a clear message that it will do its best to protect them, whether it is to change email addresses and phone numbers, monitor harassing voicemails, approve a leave of absence, assign a closer parking spot, or change schedules. In 2008, Verizon handled 100 cases internally, 225 more through its employee assistance programs and even relocated 20 employees for safety.

SafeWork can help companies educate and train employees about the signs and effects of domestic violence. In 2007, SafeWork partnered with the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV) to create SafeWork 2010 – a call to arms for CEOs to acknowledge the impact of domestic violence on the workplace and take steps to address it. The goal is for 200 CEOs to take the SafeWork pledge by 2010. CAEPV is the only national organization established by business leaders and dedicated to domestic violence issues in the workplace. In November 2008, CAEPV hosted S2 – Safer, Smarter Workplace, the first annual national conference for employers and employee assistance program (EAP) providers to come together and determine how to assist the victims. Participants included the Gap, Kaiser Permanente, Liz Claiborne, Macy’s and Verizon Wireless, with EAP providers Ceridian, CIGNA, Magellan Health Services and OptumHealth, among others.

It is becoming increasingly important to act since the current economy is only exacerbating the problem. The National Domestic Violence Hotline documented 17,000 more calls in 2008 than in the previous year, with victims reporting that the tough financial climate is causing more outbursts by their abusers. At the same time, feelings of social responsibility are blooming and, increasingly, employees want to work for a company that shows it cares. Education and action can help victims receive help sooner and move toward solving the problem. This will, in turn, alleviate the financial impact, but more importantly, it can change the way employees see their company.

3 comments

  1. Kim Wells

    Thank you for this great article about the issue of domestic violence and its impact on the workplace. Thank you also for highlighting the great work that members of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV) and SafeWork 2010 are doing to address it. It is not difficult for employers to do something about an issue that impacts 21% of their full-time workforce. And in this economy, it is more important than ever.

  2. Tammy Ayers

    This is an excellent article that points out that domestic violence has no lifestyle limitations. With the economic downturn, it’s all the more important to point out the likely increase in discussions erupting into violence as a result of constrained finances, work pressures or lack thereof, and personal responsibilities.

  3. Amy Huffman Oliver

    THANKS for highlighting this issue! I work in the domestic violence field and victims are so often protrayed as low income. These are great examples of how domestic violence affects women of all education and income levels and I’ll use it it in the trainings I offer for businesses on how to effectively encourage employees to come forward and address the problem proactively.