Protecting Staff from Co-worker's Violent Boyfriend

Q: Help, we have a wonderful staff member who is involved in a domestic violence situation and her boyfriend has threatened to come to our office to harm her . . . what should our nonprofit do to protect her and the other staff?

With one in four women in the United States experiencing domestic violence during their lifetimes (reference), this situation may arise at some point for many nonprofits. It's good that you are paying attention before an incident occurs. As just one example of what can happen, just last month three employees were killed in a workplace shooting in Albuquerque that was sparked by a domestic dispute.

Before we get to steps you should take immediately, let's start by defining domestic violence in the workplace: "violent behavior perpetrated against an employee while the person is working or conducting organizational business by a person that has a personal relationship with the employee." Violent behavior can include:

  • Physical, sexual and/or psychological behaviors that harm or are perceived as likely to harm
  • Frequent harassing phone calls
  • Unwelcome visits to the workplace that annoy or scare the employee and/or disrupt the work environment
  • Stalking
  • Physical assaults or threatening behavior such as loud outbursts

Steps to take immediately:

  • Assess the level of threat by asking if the potential perpetrator owns weapons, has a history of behaving violently against the employee or others, has an arrest record for domestic violence or other violent crimes, and so forth.
  • Ask the employee whether he or she has obtained a restraining order. If so, make a copy and, with the employee's knowledge, inform the police department of the restraining order.
  • Consider getting a "no contact and restraining order" in addition to the individual's restraining order. (Not all states allow employers to obtain such orders so check your state law first.)
  • Make receptionists, security guards and nearby staff aware of the perpetrator and instruct them how to respond (for example, who to contact) if the person enters the facility. If there is a restraining order in place, law enforcement can be called if the perpetrator visits.
  • Alert your organization's legal counsel (or one available through an association or your insurance carrier) and ask for guidance. For example, it is important not to spark defamation issues.
  • Encourage the employee to obtain knowledgable assistance, perhaps through a social worker, a local domestic violence counseling agency, and/or through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Remember that if a potentially violent individual enters the workplace, it is not only the domestic violence target who is endangered. Create a safety plan; some of the options include:

  • Set up an escort for when the employee leaves the building for her car.
  • Adjust the employee's work schedule, location, or assignments if appropriate.
  • Establish pre-arranged exit strategies.
  • Install a "panic button" or electronic panic button for the employee and/or the receptionist.
  • Provide the employee with a global positioning device so you can quickly identify her location on your premises.
  • Install additional secuity measures such as scamers and silent alarms.
  • Request that the local police regularly patrol your parking area.

The supervisor's role

In this situation, the employee's supervisor should openly show empathy and conern for the employee's well-being. Keep in mind that targets of domestic violence can be both men and women. Examples of dialog for a supervisor include:

  • I am concerned for your safety
  • I believe what you are telling me
  • You are not responsible for your partner's behavior
  • You don't deserve to be treated this way
  • I will support you and your decisions.

Supervisors should be clear that their role is not to intervene or provide counseling, but instead to encourage and assist the employee in getting help from HR, an EAP counselor, or other qualified person.

In this particular situation, the employee has herself raised the issue of domestic violence. This may not always be the case. Supervisors should also have training in recognizing the signs of domestic violence, such as:

  • Getting many, many phone calls at work after which the employee seems distraught or upset
  • Employees in nearby cubicles hear shouting, crying, and other unusual sounds during phone calls
  • The employee has lost productivity, frequently seems distracted, has trouble concentrating
  • The employee dresses too warmly for the weather, such as wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck on a hot day, possibly to cover up bruises.

Remember that these signals are not necessarily related to domestic violence, but they are evidence that warrant further investigation by the supervisor.

Action by co-workers

Beyond the specifics of the question that sparked this column, a common question is what action should a co-worker take when an employee has confided in him or her about domestic violence but doesn't want to speak to her own supervisor? When domestic violence spills into the workplace, the staff, clients, volunteers and others near the targeted employee can be hurt as well. As a result, it's important for the co-worker to raise the issue in order that all employees can be protected.

In fact, some organizations have official policies that require an employee with knowledge of a domestic violence situation to bring it to the attention of his or her own supervisor or to the HR department.

In closing, nonprofits should be proactive about preparing to address domestic violence as a workplace concern. It is not a matter of whether your organization will experience a domestic violence situation; it is simply when it will occur. The key to success is being prepared.

W. Barry Nixon guest-authored this Ask Rita in HR colum; he is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence in Orange County, California. Barry is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a trained mediator, Security Specialist, Trauma Response Specialist, and has consulted to Fortune 500 companies as well as numerous public entities. He has written three books on workplace violence including Background Screening and Investigations: Managing Risk in the Hiring Process from the HR and Security Perspective. On a lighter note, he enjoys spicy ethnic foods of all kinds and flavors, and recently rejoiced at finding good rifsttafel in California, an Indonesian rice dish he discovered while living in Holland.

P.S. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Click here for resources and more information.

Comments (21)

  • Other than the minor typos and spelling errors, I thought the article was informative. However, one issue was not covered and seems critical given what might happen: what staff should do when the perpetrator enters the premises with gun in hand. Victor

    Aug 24, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I strongly recommend the following book: "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker. Overall it is about avoiding violence and keeping ourselves safe. It talks about domestic violence and violence in the workplace and something the author refers to as pre-incident indicators. But the number one thing I received from the book was about validating my instincts. I know many of us in our professional roles use instincts along with skills, expertise and experience to guide us; this book allows us to be unapologetic about it while simultaneously learning to identify the above mentioned indicators. And helps the reader be aware of patterns and act accordingly before it may be too late.

    I have been in the nonprofit sector for over two decades and in the earlier part of my career, faced many potential and some actual violent incidences with program users, families and staff and had coworkers in situations similar to that mentioned in this article. I wish I had that book then. Along with the tips mentioned in this article, I would have done a lot less guess work and felt more confident at the outset about handling certain situations well.

    Nov 17, 2010
  • I think someone is having a bad day with proof reading....the article on DV in the workplace has spelling/typo errors and I agree with Victor.....there needs to be a plan when perp enters with weapons drawn...marilynn in albuquerque

    Aug 25, 2010
  • You are right about typos. We take pride in Blue Avocado as a professional publication -- edited, copy-edited, and fact-checked. This article slipped through our processes. The typos are now corrected, and thank you for bringing this to our attention! Jan

    Aug 25, 2010
  • Here in Ontario, Canada, our provincial government takes this issue very seriously. As of June 15, 2010, employers have had increased responsibilities to keep employees save. The link takes you to the provincial website with information and resources useful to employers and employees everywhere. Susan Fletcher (I don't work for the provincial government, I just think this is an important initiative!)

    Aug 25, 2010
  • A story.
    When an employee's former boyfriend was released from jail after setting her house on fire, we were all nervous.

    Poor as we were, I hired a security guard to sit at her desk , fully visible from the hall. I asked for a man who was unarmed but large and uniformed. ( BTW were these requests discriminatory? I wanted visible intimidation above all.)

    After a few days with no contact from the boyfriend , I let the guard go but kept the employee out of sight.

    When I informed the board chair in the spirit of 'just in case,' he was critical. 'I was alarmist and spent money we could ill afford. ' This from a man who worked in the executive office of a major bank; not exactly an unprotected environment!

    I did not apologize.

    I didn't know all the legal steps recommended in the article other than the employee herself needing a restraining order, however, I think visible intimidation would have still been necesary no matter what else we did.

    Aug 25, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Good day, Deborah Strauss! Thank you for your comment. The thing that struck me most about your story is that you took action and since nothing happened your actions can be credited with contributing to the safety of the employee. Now with regards to the "intimidation factor," while it can be a deterent, the stark reality is that in this time and age with the ready availability of weapons simply being 'big' is not the deterent it use to be. As for your CEO what would he have said if you did nothing and the boyfriend came in to harm the employee.? He probably would have asked why didn't you do something. Please note that the number one reason employers don't take action to prevent workplace violence is because they do not beleive it will happen in their workplace. In the end, you did the right thing.

    Sep 03, 2010
  • Good comment, Deborah. One thing: if being visually intimidating was in your view necessary to the job, then asking for someone who is physically intimidating is not being discriminatory. Second, when you are asking a business for a type of person to serve you it is not the same as hiring a person for your staff so you are not bound by the same kind of anti-discrimination regulations.

    Sep 03, 2010
  • Anonymous

    There is also the dilemma of what to do when an employee tells a co-worker that a protective order has been filed but later receives visits from the perpetrator that she appears to welcome. In my experience this dynamic can repeat itself several times, and co-workers can get caught up in a toxic situation, not wanting to overlook or enable a dangerous situation but also not wanting to overstep bounds.

    Aug 25, 2010
  • Anonymous

    The situation you identified is certainly one that we encounter and can be very real. I always tell employees that their primary responsibility is to themselves and to make sure they go home to their families every day. I advised them to not get caught up in trying to interpret is the couple on or off. If a restraining order was filed, it was filed for a reason. A judge requires justification to issue a restraining order. Accordingly, it should always be taken seriously and the employer put on alert. It is better to be 'on alert' and take precautions, even when they might not have been necesarry rather to have dismissed the situation and then something happens.

    Sep 03, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I think that last reply is a good point. Often these "victims" enable the perpretators by not enforcing "no contact" rules. While a superivor can recommend EAP, what else can they do?

    Aug 25, 2010
  • You know what is pretty cool about this? I realized that our company has taken the proper steps in the domestic violence arena!

    Aug 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I would like to use the poster shown on this page, can I buy it? Am I free to replicate it?

    Aug 26, 2010
  • The image of this poster is one of the very, very few instances for our using a graphic for which we don't have permission. We tried very hard but were unable to identify a creator or owner of this graphic. All Blue Avocado graphics are either ones we created ourselves, ones which we purchased, ones for which we have permission, or ones with Creative Commons licenses (these are always credited). So I'm afraid we don't know to whom the rights to this poster belong. It's a great poster, we agree.

    If the owner or creator will step forward, we would love to seek your permission, and to thank you for your work.

    Aug 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Please resist the urge to judge or blame the victim. No one ever deserves to be abused, and no victim ever enjoys the abuse. There are many reasons why a victim may continue to communicate with an abuser even when there is a "no contact" order in place:
    - she (or he) may need his income or health insurance to continue to support herself or her children, or risk becoming homeless;
    - she may be getting religious, family or cultural pressure to preserve the relationship;
    - she may be ambivalent and still love "the old him" who was charming, supportive, etc. and believes he will change;
    - she may have witnessed violence or been abused as a child and is just beginning to understand that domestic violence is not "normal;" or
    - he may be threatening her, and she fears for her life if she refuses to meet him.

    In the end, an order of protection is just a piece of paper and only valuable if the perpetrator respects it. If he (or she) does not, the victim may be continuing the contact in order to reduce the danger to herself or her children.

    It is very common for a victim to leave and return several times before she finally breaks free from an abusive relationship. Studies show that when she leaves is the most dangerous time for her.

    A domestic violence-informed workplace and supportive colleagues can be a powerful resource for a victim to help keep her safe. In addition to an EAP, an employer can refer an employee dealing with interpersonal violence to the local domestic violence victim service provider. If you do not have one, or do not know who that is, you can give her/him the number of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, who can provide information, referrals and support.

    Thank you to those who are already educated & prepared!

    Aug 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I have a unique situation. All of our employees telecommute.
    So when we have meetings, it tends to be at a restaurant, etc.
    I have an employee in an abusive relationship. The legal system has failed so many times to put him back in jail. He has a lifetime revoke on his license, but he got pulled over and they let him go anyway.
    He's violated his probation three times..

    She keeps hoping he'll be arrested and then go to jail and that will keep her from having to deal with the fall out of breaking up with him.

    So what we have happening is that he sits outside her house (her place of work) and calls incessantly, sits outside her hours for hours and hours and hours... if we have a meeting, and she rides with me, he sits down the street from my house..., watching it .... waiting for us to get back. The last time he sat there for 6 hours.....texting her and calling her the entire time...he has showed up at my office (which is at my house and on my private property) when she didn't answer her phone while working from my office on a project.

    I know technically I have no say in her personal life, but her poor choices in men are starting to spill over into my life and work and her work of course. I have had this man on my property in the middle of the night when he can't locate her.... my property is surrounded by woods and he hides, and it's impossible for the cops to locate him. She shows up at work with bite marks on her, bruises, is sick with a lot of "bladder" problems, related to being raped over and over by him... She is a great employee but because he can literally talk her into anything, I cannot give her any management or high areas of responsibility because he will simply not allow her to do her work. She has a work provided laptop and he forced her to give him the password to it last year, so he had been using her machine whenever he wanted. I don't know how to handle this or what the lines are... but where I live you can shoot to kill and ask questions later if you feel threatened, and I feel threatened by him a lot and scared of him showing up. Not to mention he could always show up at my house with my children here since I work from home. Should I just let her go since she obviously will never get rid of him? He literally stalks her all day long. He stays at the end of her drive (she lives with her parents and he is not allowed in their house) and if she isn't outside when she's suppose to be off work all hell breaks loose. Once she has sex with him, he'll drive the 50 miles back to his house. So she has to leave her kids, give him what he wants and then he will go away. We cannot work together at my office because he is there and he will follow her, but not come on my property... but stay close enough he knows if she leaves or does anything he wouldn't approve of. I love her as an employee but I cannot deal with this any longer.

    Sep 05, 2010
  • Anonymous

    If you have tried many of the steps outlined above and still feel there is a danger, how do you feel about an employer asking the employee to refrain from coming to work for some period of time - in the interest of protecting other employees in the workplace?

    Sep 16, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Two suggestions for readers: one, make sure you are familiar with your state laws. In Illinois, there is a law that provides protection for employees who have to miss work in order to go to court due to a DV situation, etc. Second, if you're interested in an additional resource regarding dv in the workplace, check out the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

    Apr 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I applaud the tackling of this subject. It is too easy to think and hope it won't happen to us. Only after some time did my sibling inform me of her unhappy marriage which I had been suspicious of. After it ended there was stalking, at her home, work place. Although it is wise to ask if the person has weapons, it doesn't prove anything though...just because someone didn't have them, doesn't mean they still couldn't get them... In any case my sibling worked for Disney...and I was totally impressed with the way the company handled things in collaboration with their own security force, police and the sheriffs that were on site. They took many of the steps the article suggests, including changing her parking spot to a close-in area that was gated/guarded. With a group effort it works even better. I'd like to think she wasn't in physical danger, but it was hard to shake the concern. In her case because her spouse worked for the same company, he was spoken to and it was made clear any inappropriate behavior would result in his loss of employment... It's a very scary situation and I don't think an employer can be too careful about looking out for staff, especially when exit routes are limited.

    Oct 23, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I agree that the book The Gift of Fear is wonderful. It is a must read for everyone, I think, whether you are involved in a domestic violence situation or not. I also want to point out that a restraining order is a piece of paper. For many people involved in this situations, a restraining order often incites the person to become more violent or follow through on their threats. Consulting with a firm like Gavin De Becker's would be helpful for the victim and for any employer. As employers, we should not, in my opinion, be making these recommendations or decisions without consulting a security professional.

    Oct 25, 2013
  • Anonymous

    In California there is a new law that requires employers to make accomodations to employess who are victims of violence including moving their office, changing their phone number, etc. It will become law in Jan 1, 2014.

    Oct 28, 2013

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