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When domestic violence comes to the workplace


We think we know our employees, but in reality, we only know as much about their lives outside the workplace as they want to tell us. What they’re not saying could put the safety of the entire office at risk, so it’s more important than ever to be proactive and have a plan.

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Domestic violence is defined as any form of maltreatment that takes place in a romantic relationship between adults or adolescents. One in every four women will be the victim of domestic violence at least once in their life, as will one in every seven men, according to the CDC. And friends, family, and co-workers often have no clue what happens behind closed doors.

Most people will say that what goes on in a person’s home is nobody else’s business. But do employers have a need to know when an employee is in an abusive relationship? Do employers have a right to know?

At most practices I’ve worked with, it is common for an employee’s spouse or significant other to drop by the office unannounced and make themselves at home. Access is easy, and nobody is surprised or threatened by his/her presence. Unfortunately, to the unknowing office staff, this visit may be for a different reason.

Documentation on cases where violence started in the home and escalated into the workplace with catastrophic outcomes is not difficult to find.

I think of the nursing home in North Carolina, where the husband of an employee came into the facility heavily armed with the intent of shooting his soon-to-be ex-wife. When he realized he couldn’t get to her in the locked memory care unit, he turned his rage on the residents and employees. He killed seven and injured three others.

I think about the beauty salon in Wisconsin. The owner’s husband walked in, killed his wife and two others, and wounded four others before taking his own life.

I think about the manufacturing facility in Indiana. A husband learned that his wife, an employee at the facility, was having an extramarital affair with a co-worker. The husband walked into the plant, shot and killed his wife and her lover, then turned the gun on himself.

There are unfortunately so many more stories, but the point remains the same: The workplace is not the haven of safety we would like to think it is despite how well we think we know our staff.

Thankfully, employers are not helpless. Here are three ways you can promote awareness, gather information, and proactively take steps to minimize the risk of domestic violence at the workplace.

Develop a written workplace domestic violence plan.

There are several federal laws and/or agencies that address workplace violence and domestic violence, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In fact, OSHA Guideline 3148, Guideline for the Prevention of Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers, requires you to have a written workplace violence prevention plan in place. The plan should encourage workers to come forward and advise management of their situations.

However, from the workers’ perspective, this can be a very private and often embarrassing topic to discuss. They may think that coming forward may be the hardest thing to do, assuming they recognize they are the victim of domestic abuse. It is imperative they know that what they are share will be treated as a confidential manner. Employers must also realize that there are laws that protect employees, and employees must be assured they will not be penalized for seeking assistance in the workplace.

You would be well advised to seek legal advice on developing or amending your plan. The final written plan must then be shared with all practice employees.

Provide training

Information on domestic violence is readily available. Most social agencies have programs on the topic, and many of them will gladly send a guest speaker to present at a staff meeting, often at no cost.

Managers and supervisors should be trained in how to recognize and respond to signs of domestic violence among employees. Early recognition is often key to averting an event.

Domestic violence should be frequently mentioned at office staff meetings. Employees should also be encouraged to confidentially report any incidents of domestic violence in the home as well as any change in their relationship status if they feel it may put them or others at risk.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers are well qualified to assist. Many practices have an EAP available to their employees as a workplace benefit, so that EAP provider will be an excellent resource in developing your program and providing training.


Keep domestic violence top of mind

Employers who are committed to safety realize that domestic violence is always a potential risk. When employees are the victim of abuse in the home, it is highly unlikely that they are thinking about safety in the workplace. Their focus will likely be on safety and survival at home.

That’s why it’s even more important to remind employees that they could be putting their co-workers and patients at risk. A study about handwashing found that people often won’t do something for themselves, but they will take action to protect others. Help protect all your employees by frequently discussing the workplace risk of domestic violence.

Domestic violence, like any form of workplace violence, is something we hope we never have to deal with. Yet, like all forms of tragedy, it can happen anywhere, anytime, and to anyone. Employers must recognize the risk and take proactive steps to minimize the likelihood of occurrence.

Steve Wilder is President and COO of Sorensen, Wilder & Associates, a healthcare safety and security consulting group based in Bradley, lll. Steve has 35 years of healthcare risk management experience and works with hospitals, senior living communities, physician practices, medical spas, and clinics across the nation. He can be reached at 815-933-5977 (24 hour crisis hotline: 800-598-2931) or by email at

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