When domestic violence comes to work

Pro football stars Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have been in the news lately, accused of domestic violence. Their situations made me remember in vivid detail several times when employees’ domestic violence problems followed them to the workplace, and at that point their problems became my problems.

Donna’s Story

In one case, I was the HR manager for a manufacturing plant. One of our most productive employees had an attendance problem and I wanted to know how I could help her. When the time was right, I visited with Donna (not her real name) in the smoking area just outside the plant entrance. We spent some time getting to know each other, then I told her I was concerned that her employment was in jeopardy because of her continued absences and late arrivals. When I asked her why she was absent so much, tears filled her eyes as she shook her head and looked away.

As we visited, I studied Donna’s face, and what I saw alarmed me. She had several healed or partially healed scars on her face, and was missing teeth. Her eyes had black and yellow shadows under them and I wondered if she had been beaten. Of course, I had no way to know how long those scars and shadows had been there. Besides, it was not my business, I thought.

And although I knew I was treading on personal ground, Donna was one of our best employees, and I did not want her to lose her job, so I continued to push. Eventually she admitted that she had no way to work except a taxi, and couldn’t afford that very often. Sometimes her boyfriend drove her, she said, but he wasn’t always around and she couldn’t count on him to get her there, much less on time. I gave her some information about the local ride service provided by a non-profit agency, and encouraged her to call them. She thanked me, promised she would call and for several weeks, Donna made it to work on time, and every day.

Then one day she called and told me she couldn’t come to work, and needed my help. When I arrived at her motel room, I was appalled at her living situation, and truly alarmed by her physical state. Her face was battered almost beyond recognition. One eye was black and swollen shut. Both lips were cut and oozing bloody fluid. She could barely speak through a broken jaw. Her right arm and hand were broken. She was obviously in pain. I had to beg, but she finally allowed me to take her to the emergency room for treatment, accompanied by all three of her children. At one point I asked her why she stayed with this man who so badly mistreated her. Her response? “Oh, Pat, ain’t nobody else’ll have me.”

Over a period of several weeks, I was able to help Donna receive the social services she needed to survive and to get herself and her children away from the violent boyfriend. Eventually the offender was arrested, charged and sent to jail.

Lessons I Learned

And I learned several painful lessons myself. First, domestic violence is my business when it affects the employee’s ability to come to work, or to perform her job. Second, every caring person has a responsibility to report violence to the police whenever and wherever it happens. And third, although our company was not a social services agency, I did have information that helped her get back on her feet. It was also clear that Donna’s domestic situation had affected her work, and thus employee morale. When she was able to return to work healed, clear-eyed and smiling, everyone gave a huge sigh of relief.

So I re-evaluated and re-wrote our attendance policy, put social services posters and flyers in the HR area, my office, and the employee break room, conducted mandatory training for employees to encourage them to take advantage of the services available and to let me know when they were in trouble, and trained supervisors and managers on what to watch for and how to identify workers who might be victims of some kind of domestic violence.

I calculated the costs of providing the resources and training, and also calculated the cost of absenteeism and late arrivals, lost productivity and poor morale, as best I could. It was clear there was a real ROI in doing the training and changing the attendance policy.

But ROI or not, we did the right thing, and that was the best payoff of all. Some things just cannot be justified by ROI.

I encourage you to look around your work place and see where some changes need to be made. And pay attention to your employees. They may need your help in ways you never imagined.

For more information about dealing with domestic violence issues at work, visit the Society for Human Resource Management’s website at SHRM.org. And contact us at info@patkelleyauthor.net to discuss how we can help you with policies or training.

About Pat Kelley, MS, SPHR

Pat Kelley, MS, SPHR, is the author of three non-fiction books, including the Second Edition of Hiring Right: A Business Blueprint for Lower Turnover and Higher Profits. She is a retired Human Resources Director with more than 40 years' experience. Certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources, she is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Society for Human Resource Management.
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