Domestic Abuse: Organizational and Employee Impact
©2001 Leslie Mickles

edited 4/13/14


"Details of mistreatment of women flow to us from every culture -- monogamous and polygamous -- and each one is an indication of how deeply entrenched sexual inequality is in human history" (Martin, 1981, p. 28). "Wife beating was an accepted part of marriage in many countries until as late as the nineteenth century" (Statman, 1990, p. 6). In early American law the "rule of thumb" indicated that a husband was allowed to beat his wife as long as he used a ". . . switch no bigger than his thumb" (Martin, 1990, p. 3 1). In reviewing the history of domestic abuse, Statman points out that it was not until 1895 that the United States passed a law to provide women with protection from abusive husbands. This law, the Married Women's Property Act, allowed women to file for divorce if their husband was convicted of assaulting them (Statman, 1990). Despite some beginning legislation and recognition of the problem, as of 1970 there were still no women's shelters in the United States Also, as of 1981 Pennsylvania still had a law that made it illegal for husband's to beat their wives after 10: 00 PM and on Sundays (Statman, 1990).

In the last 31 years, the problem of domestic abuse has received increasing attention as a social, moral and legal problem. Newer still is the concept that domestic abuse is an issue to be addressed by the business world. During this past century, and especially since the end of World War II, women have left the home and taken on a significant role in the workforce. As with all employees, these women brought with them issues related to their home life. Business & Health (1996) reported that, in a national survey, 9 out of 10 employees agree that personal problems or family stressors negatively impact productivity. Domestic abuse was among the 6 reasons cited for seeking counseling through an employee assistance program (Business & Health, 1996). With nearly 4 million American women abused every year, at an annual loss of $3 to $5 billion dollars, can the business world afford to ignore the issue anymore? For years the corporate world has hidden behind the excuses claiming "It's risky.... It's no one else's business .... It's hard to distinguish whether it's actually abuse" (Woodward, 1998, p. 117). ". . . . However, corporate America has come to view domestic abuse as a workforce issue - one that warrants serious attention" (Woodward, 2000, p. 117).

In February 2001, Neumann College sponsored an educational program on domestic abuse. Several speakers, including Delaware County District Attorney Patrick Meehan, spoke out on the need for corporate America to face the problem. Patrick Meehan, Judge Osborne of the Court of Common Pleas, and other panelists, spoke on the need for companies to be more flexible in accommodating the victim's schedule for court appearances, and to establish human resource and security policies that assist the victim and promote her safety. This paper will focus on the organizational impact of domestic abuse, with specific attention to business productivity, profitability, and security. Additionally, this paper presents a review of the literature on how organizations can assist the victim and maintain security for all of the remaining employees. ). Since, research reveals that the vast majority of the victims are female the feminine pronoun will be utilized throughout this paper.

What is Domestic Abuse?

To understand this situation fully, one must understand the dynamics of domestic abuse. Although the terms spousal abuse, partner abuse, battered woman syndrome are frequently used in the literature, the term domestic abuse is the one that most accurately corresponds with the legal definition. Other terms, such as spousal abuse, or partner abuse are somewhat non-inclusive of all of the victims, since not all victims are spouses or partners. Domestic abuse laws apply to individuals who are married, previously married, involved in an intimate relationship, previously involved in an intimate relationship, have had a child together, or are related by heredity or marriage (Martin, 1981

Domestic abuse involves a very complex pattern of behaviors beyond just the physical violence. The abuser maintains power and control over his victim in a multitude of ways including controlling access to finances, restricting or destroying the victims connections with friends or family, using children as means to threaten the victim, sexual abuse, mentally abusive behavior and physical abuse or threats of abuse (Walker, 1989). The physical beatings are only one part of this complex pattern of control over the victim. It is not simply a matter of packing one's bags and leaving. The abuser has created a situation that makes it extremely difficult to get away. Additionally, victims experience a type of brainwashing or learned helplessness (Statman, 1990).

Perhaps employers think that it doesn't occur amongst their employees. Keep in mind that the only risk factor for being a victim is simply being female (Statman, 1990). Other than being female, there is no one common denominator. "In fact, most sociologist agree that seeking a common denominator puts the blame for this epidemic on the victim" (Statman, 1990, p. 8). Domestic abuse is not limited to a particular socioeconomic class, ethnicity or religion as some myths suggest (Statman, 1990). Despite what people might believe, many victims are well-educated individuals from wealthy upper-class society. Victims have been known to hold jobs as psychologists, physicians, lawyers, pastors, and teachers. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that it is the well-educated, wealthier class females who are more secretive because of the social stigma attached, and the possible threat to their husband's career (Walker, 1989).

Keep in mind that the physically abusive behavior often does not manifest itself until after the marriage or intimate relationship has been established. In many cases, the violent behavior develops or increases in intensity with a woman's pregnancy (Jerierski, 1994). Jerierski (1994) reports on a 1993 study that indicated I out of every 6 infants are discharged to a home where the mother was abused during the pregnancy. Additional studies indicate that 23% of women undergoing prenatal visits are battered ( Warshaw, 1993).

The syndrome is incredibly more complex than can be presented in this brief synopsis, but it is important to have some basic understanding of the problem prior to exploring its impact on the corporate world.

Why Should Organizations Take Action

The impact of domestic violence on the female workforce is well documented. According to Gemignani (2000), 1998 data indicated that three out of every ten women were kicked, punched, choked or in some other way abused by their spouse or partner. Research reveals that 22%-35% of women seeking care in emergency rooms are abused (Warshaw, 1993). Some might argue that what happens in one's home between spouses is their business, and is not an issue for an organization or employer to address. People continue the argument by saying that the victim can make her own decisions to stay or leave. For years organizations have proposed multiple reasons as to why it is not their concern. The literature gives three major reasons why an organization may wish to address the issue of domestic abuse amongst the employees. Administrators may choose to get involved in assisting the employee out of a sense of moral or ethical obligation, fiscal responsibility or overall organizational security. The financial impact on organizations is extensively documented. Ninety six percent of abuse victims experienced work problems resulting from the stress, and a forty percent increase in unproductive time has been documented (Business & Health, 1999, p. 15). "One-half of employed, abused women missed three days of work per month, sixty four percent were late, and seventy five percent used company time to deal with court appearances and other violence issues, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (Business & Health, 1999, p. 15). Woodward (1998) quotes data from the Bureau of National Affairs that indicates that in 1990 between $3 to $5 billion dollars was lost as a result of reduced productivity, health care costs and absenteeism, by victims of domestic abuse (p. 118). A significant portion of this reduced productivity is attributed to the fact that victims of domestic abuse miss 175,000 days of paid work time annually (Woodward, 1998, p. 117).

In 1998, U.S. General Accounting Office declared that as many as ". . . .5 2% of victims have lost their jobs because batterers typically engage in behaviors that make it difficult to work" (Gemignani, 2000, p. 29). Gemignani (2000) quotes Donna Norton, of the National Workplace Resource Center, as saying that a batterer ". . . . will try to get the victim fired to increase dependence on him" (p. 29). Marianne Balin of the Domestic Violence Initiative at Blue Shield of California reminds us that ". . . . economic security is a major reason why battered women go back to their abusers" (Gemignani, 2000, p. 32). The battering syndrome is one of power and control, with economic control being only one component. The batterer limits the financial means of the victim so that she is unable to get away from him. When a business chooses to deal with an abused employee, by terminating her rather than offering assistance, they have only served to assist the batterer to achieve his objective.

The violence can also have a direct impact on the work enviromnent, as the batterer's violence may spill over into the victim's workplace (Lynch, 2000). Seventy four percent of employed battered women are harassed at work (Woodward, 1998, p. 118). The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has observed a steady increase in the cases of deaths due to homicide on the job. The incidence of workplace violence increased ten-fold between the 1980s and 1990s. Beginning in 1993, homicide became the leading cause of death on the job for women (Neumann, 1998). The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence cites the 1993 Bureau of Labor Statistics which indicates that twenty percent of those women murdered while at work were killed by their partner. [On-line:]. The American Institute on Domestic Violence reveals that "Partners and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year" [On-line:]. Additionally, a survey of security directors disclosed that ninety four percent perceive domestic violence as a high risk issue in the workplace [On-line:].

Ohio Casualty Group emphasized that " Women who are victims of violent workplace crimes are twice as likely as men to know their attackers and can experience everything from harassment, threatening phone calls and e-mails, to stalking and violent confrontations" (Business & Health, 1999, p. 15). Jane Randel at Liz Clairborne reports that their company experiences between five to ten cases annually of abusive husbands attempting to access the victims while at work (Woodward, 1998). Each episode of workplace violence carries with it a financial as well as emotional cost. On average each episode of workplace violence costs a company $250,000 in decreased productivity, increased employee stress, and turnover (Flynn, 2000). The total cost to employers has been estimated to be as high as $36 billion. (Flynn, 2000, p.68). As serious as these statistics are it is likely that they are significantly underestimated, since victims of domestic abuse tend not to report their ordeal. A supervisor at the Polaroid corporation once asked a battered female employee why she had not come forward and sought assistance. The employee responded by saying "How could I tell you that I was a nobody at home when I'm a somebody at work?" (Woodward, 1998, p. 118). Also, many women, as demonstrated by the fifty two percent termination rate, justifiably fear for their jobs.

With this increased emphasis on ethics, one might think that organizations would perceive assisting a battered employee as the right thing to do. The business world has experienced an increasing focus on the importance of ethical practice, as manifested by the formulation of organizational ethics or codes of conduct. Schroeter (1999) defines ethics as ". . . . what one should do given certain circumstances . . . with a focus on beneficence and nomnaleficence (p. 669). She goes on to stress that . . . an organizational code of ethics should be more than just on paper.... It should pervade the organization" (Schroeter, 1999, p. 670). Beth Lindamood a workplace violence expert for Ohio Casualty Group, stresses that companies should establish policies or codes of conduct proclaiming a zero-tolerance policy towards violence in the workplace (Business & Health, 1999). An increasing number of companies, including Verizon, include such a statement in its Code of Business Conduct (Gemignani, 2000).

Organizations Recognize the Problem: Historical Developments

For years many employers felt that they had no choice but to terminate the abused employee so as to maintain general safety, and calm in the workplace for the remainder of the staff (Gemignani, 2000). Organizations were able to terminate the abused victims without any worry of legal action, primarily because there were no laws protecting the battered woman's rights. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had no provisions, which would specifically protect the rights of the battered woman. Not until the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act were employers required to provide a safe workplace(Gemignani, 2000). OSHA guidelines state:

Employers can be cited if violence is a recognized hazard in their workplace and they do nothing to prevent it. Therefore, if the company has received notice that a former partner has threatened to harm an employee or has made attempts to harm an employee at work, the company will have a duty to protect the employee. This duty extends to their threatened harm, or any other harm that could logically flow from the threatened harassment, such as injury to other employees who attempt to protect the threatened employee. [On-line:]

The Polaroid Corporation was one of the first companies to establish a program to assist its employees experiencing domestic abuse. In 1984, the Polaroid Corporation established a support group for six female employees who were victims of battering (Woodward, 1998). The corporation also supported domestic abuse prevention efforts by helping to fund shelters for battered women. In 1994 the Polaroid Corporation was forced to deal with a situation every company hopes never to have to face, when five employees were taken hostage by the husband of a battered employee. In the end all of the hostages were rescued unharmed, but the corporation made multiple changes in its polices from the lessons learned.

These changes included collaboration with community organizations working in the area of domestic abuse, to develop extensive educational programs for employees on recognition of abuse and how to assist the worker. Additionally, Polaroid evaluated, and modified the plant security so as to increase the safety of the employees, especially the victim. Most business literature suggests that the first step in addressing this problem is a policy banning workplace violence. This should be done in the form of a corporate code of conduct or human resources policy, which specifically addresses the issue of domestic violence (Woodward, 1998). Many businesses are developing innovative strategies to assist the victims of domestic abuse.

In 1997, Verizon came up with a creative way to assist victims of domestic abuse. They sponsored a campaign to collect old cell phones, which would be reprogrammed to allow victims to promptly access 911 if an emergency arose. In the 1990s Dede Barlett, vice president of corporate affairs for Philip Morris Companies Inc., instigated the foundation of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Abuse (Gemignani, 2000). This alliance works to promote corporate awareness of the problem, and encourage the establishment of human resource policies, which assist the victim rather than penalize them. Philip Morris, Inc has also hosted twenty five corporate conferences to increase awareness of domestic abuse and the impact on the workplace (Gemignani, 2000).

The Human Resource Departments of many organizations have not yet developed policies to address the issues of domestic abuse, and the impact on their employees. The 1998 Risk and Insurance Management Society survey revealed that only about half of the members had implemented any program to address workplace violence and although domestic violence is clearly a precipitating factor in workplace violence, not all of these policies specifically address this issue (Germagnani, 2000). "On November 4, 1998, President Clinton directed the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to prepare a handbook on domestic violence for Federal employees and supervisors" [On-line:]. For several years prior to this directive the OPM had been working with federal agencies to develop plans to address the issue of domestic violence in the workplace. They had already discovered that ". . . . domestic violence could spill over into the workplace, with devastating personal and workplace consequences" [On-line:]. The OPM website outlines an extensive plan for addressing domestic violence in the workplace. Although designed for implementation in federal agencies many components could be implemented in private corporations.

In 1999 Senator Paul Wellstone proposed legislation that would ban insurance discrimination, and also amend the FMLA to allow workers time off to deal with problems arising from leaving a violent relationship, extend unemployment insurance to victims and ban employment discrimination against victims of domestic abuse" (Gemignani, 2000 p. 33). This proposed legislation was precipitated by the fact that many insurance companies were denying the victims medical and life insurance because of the high risk of serious injury or death.

In addition to the previously mentioned interventions, several other strategies are recommended by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, the OPM and others. It is recommended that 1) victims provide a copy of the protection from abuse order to the organization's security office along with a picture 2) the employee have the work location included in the protection from abuse order 3) organizations should require all visitors to check in at a central desk which has access to a panic alarm 4) all incoming calls should be screened prior to forwarding 5) companies make accommodations such that victims have parking closer to the building in more visible, well lit areas 6) victims should be escorted to and from their cars by securtiy 7) corporations relocate the victims work area to a more private and secure section of the facility 8) if both parties work in the same building the company should take action to keep the abuser from having access to the victim's work area or parking location (Woodward, 1998).

In addition, Business and Health (1999) recommends instructing employees to openly communicate with their supervisors regarding this issue, encouraging managers to consider changing the employee's work schedule if possible, instructing the employee to save voice mail messages from the abuser, providing referrals to the occupational health nurse or community support agencies, and lastly being flexible to allow the victim sufficient time off for legal hearings. The employer needs to be understanding, since multiple hearings will be required to obtain protection orders and/or prosecute the abuser. Many companies have established employee assistance programs (EAP) that can be quite valuable to these victims as well. Companies should ensure that the EAP is adequately advertised to their staff. At the root of all of these interventions is education. The company administrators, and all of the staff, need to receive ongoing education on the issues of domestic violence, the telltale signs, the fact that the company's goal is to help the employees not terminate them, and what actions should be taken to assist the employee and maintain safety for all (Gemignani, 2000).


With the cost to business in lost time, absenteeism, turnover, medical bills and decreased productivity companies can't afford not to face the issue of domestic abuse. As more and more women enter the workforce, we are finding that the problem isn't staying hidden in the closet anymore. Companies need to evaluate their organizational philosophy and human resource policies and make a decision as to how they can most effectively deal with this issue when it arises amongst their employees. Most certainly, with 3 out of every 10 women having been abused by their husbands, the problem will arise.


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