Domestic Violence is Also a Workplace Issue

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I, and probably many people, used to think of domestic violence as something that happens behind the closed doors of the home.

But that thinking may be outdated.

It seems to me that domestic violence is increasingly leaving the confines of the household and spilling over into the workplace. Here are just a few examples:

In July 2010, in Albuquerque, Robert Reza shot his girlfriend, Adrienne Basciano, after confronting her outside the manufacturing plant where she worked. He then forced his way inside and killed two workers before turning the gun on himself. Police said Reza’s motivation was a child custody dispute. Fortunately, Basciano survived, although she lost a lung.

In Surrey, British Columbia, in July 2011, Ravinder Bhangu, a 24-year-old newspaper worker, was killed at her desk by her estranged husband, Manmeet Singh, who attacked her with an axe. A male co-worker who tried to save her was injured. Singh is currently awaiting trial.

In October 2012, Radcliffe Haughton, a former Marine, opened fire in a Wisconsin spa where his estranged wife Zina worked. He killed her and two co-workers, and wounded four other women. He then killed himself.

At a hearing just three days earlier, Zina had begged the court for protection, saying her husband would surely kill her. The judge ordered Haughton to stay away from her for the next four years.

Even the recent shootings involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher involved a workplace—although in this case the attacker’s.

Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, at her home before driving to Arrowhead Stadium and shooting himself in the head in front of Chiefs’ staff members.

But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately.

According to “Workplace homicides among U.S. women: the role of intimate partner violence,” a study by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University, “intimate partner” violence resulted in 142 homicides among women at work in the U.S. from 2003 to 2008, which represented 22% of the 648 workplace homicides among women during the period.

Other key findings from the paper, which was published in the April 2012 issue of Annals of Epidemiology:

  • More American women died on the job as the result of domestic violence than at the hands of a client, such as a student, patient or prisoner, or of a current or former co-worker.
  • Firearms, knives and other sharp objects were the top items used in workplace homicides against women.
  • The risk factors associated with workplace-related intimate partner homicides include occupation, time of day and location.

The lesson from these tragedies and statistics is that the criminal justice system may not adequately protect victims of domestic violence.

For example, the order of protection obtained by Zina Haughton that required her husband to stay away from her didn’t stop him from killing her at work. Victims of domestic violence may need the assistance of their employers in enforcing such orders and ensuring that their attackers aren’t permitted to enter the workplace.

In light of this reality, at least one country has started taking a different approach.

In Canada, some provinces have started treating domestic violence as a safety issue that employers need to address, at least to the extent that it impacts the workplace.

For example, in 2005, Ontario nurse Lori Dupont was murdered by Marc Daniel, her ex-boyfriend and a doctor at the hospital where she worked. He later committed suicide.

Daniel had been behaving unstably and had threatened Dupont. But although hospital administrators knew about the situation, Dupont and Daniel were scheduled to work together on the day she was murdered.

In response to the outcry over the Dupont murder, Ontario changed its workplace safety law to require employers to take reasonable precautions to protect workers if they become aware, or should reasonably be aware, that domestic violence that would likely expose a worker to physical injury may occur in the workplace.

Two other Canadian provinces have taken steps to address domestic violence in the workplace, although neither went as far as Ontario.

In response to Bhangu’s death, WorkSafeBC [of British Columbia] released the Domestic Violence in the Workplace Tool Kit in March 2012. The kit provides advice on how to recognize the signs that workers may be affected by domestic violence and offers strategies to help avoid situations where such violence could affect the safety of workers and the workplace.

Manitoba recently launched its own toolkit, “Family Violence and the Workplace: It’s everyone’s business,” which also gives employers information and resources on domestic violence, including recognizing possible signs of abuse and understanding how to help workers who may be affected by such violence.

And in the U.S.? According to Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, several jurisdictions require state agencies to adopt workplace policies on domestic violence. Others have passed laws, issued executive orders or established government task forces to create voluntary model workplace domestic violence policies.

Corporate America has also started to recognize that domestic violence can be a workplace safety issue that employers must address.

The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV) is a national organization founded by business leaders. Its goal is to reduce the costs and consequences of partner violence at work and eliminate it altogether.

So what can employers do to protect the objects of domestic violence—and their co-workers—from being victimized in the workplace?

CAEPV recommends that employers take the following six steps to create a workplace domestic violence program:

  1. Put together a multidisciplinary team to oversee the process;
  1. Develop a corporate policy addressing domestic violence;
  1. Provide training, especially for managers, on how to recognize the signs of a potential victim of domestic violence, how to respond when an employee comes forward as a victim, and whom to refer such employees;
  1. Build awareness of the issue through workplace communications such as newsletters, payroll stuffers, posters and email.
  1. Get workers’ help to ensure a violence-free workplace;
  1. Expand communications to the community, stakeholders in the industry and other organizations.

The sad fact is that changes in the law to better protect the victims of domestic violence seem to occur only in the aftermath of a tragedy.

I hope that employers can learn from the experiences of other companies and take some proactive steps to keep any victimized employees safe on the job.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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