Domestic Violence in the Workplace: Why It Matters and How to Stop It

As a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity School in El Cajon, California, Carie Charlesworth probably thought that she was doing the responsible thing by telling the school’s principal about the possibility of her violent ex-husband showing up at the school. Following ‘a trail of restraining orders and 911 calls,’ according to one San Diego reporter, Charlesworth’s concerns escalated earlier this June when she was forced to call the sheriff’s department three times in a day, and she went to her supervisor with her concerns. These fears were warranted – her ex-husband was spotted in the school parking lot later that day, sending the school into lockdown and ultimately leading to his arrest on two felony charges.

But it was too late for Charlesworth and her four children, all of whom attended the school. The family was placed “on an indefinite leave,” and despite her husband’s arrest, Charlesworth was eventually fired from Holy Trinity and forbidden from teaching at any diocesan school. While Charlesworth has gone to the media with her story in an attempt to bring public attention to her situation, and will be filing a lawsuit with uncertain likelihood of succeeding, she is currently jobless and facing her abusive ex-husband’s imminent release from jail. Unfortunately, Charlesworth is not alone – both in experiencing domestic violence at her workplace and in losing her job for domestic-violence-related reasons.

Why Employers Should Care about Domestic Violence

At the point where almost one-third of American women report being physically or sexually harassed by a partner at some point in their lives, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that domestic violence has very real implications for American workplaces. At the very least, domestic violence permeates the workplace because victims simply cannot escape its effects. Abuse causes its victims to arrive late to work or miss days of work due to injuries, and when they are present, victims frequently have difficulty concentrating or performing their duties to the best of their abilities. As of 2003, the annual cost of lost productivity as a result of intimate partner violence was estimated at about $728 million; this violence has a sizable impact on companies’ bottom lines (and here’s a handy cost calculator where companies can see exactly how much IPV will cost them). On top of direct costs to productivity, companies often have to foot direct medical expenses due to IPV, which generates $4.1 billion in direct medical and mental health care service costs each year. This all, of course, is just factoring in the costs incurred on victims – abusers also lose time and productivity, and frequently use company resources like phone lines to continue their harassment.

What should be more frightening to employers, though, is the fact that domestic violence frequently intrudes into the workplace in a much more tangible and dangerous manner. A study found that 74% of employed female victims of domestic violence were harassed by their partner while at work. And these intrusions do get violent. 24% of total workplace violence is related to personal relationships, and one-third of the women killed in workplaces between 2003 and 2008 were killed by current or former partners – making domestic violence homicides the second-leading cause of female workplace deaths. These homicides often don’t end with just one death, either; abusers will sometimes attack coworkers or bystanders as well.

It’s clear that any company or organization which cares about the rights of victims, protecting its other employees, saving costs, or some combination of the above should also care about developing a coherent, effective, domestic violence policy. But it’s also clear that many, many employers are completely off-the-mark.

Missing the Mark

It’s possible to grant that Holy Trinity School officials thought they were doing the right thing for their employees (and in this case, their students) when firing Charlesworth. So too, probably, did the 60% of employers who fired an employee experiencing domestic violence in a 2005 study in Maine. And the employers who fired 130,000 stalking victims in the twelve-month period between 2005 and 2006. Firing the victim actually seems to be a pretty common reaction to the potentiality of workplace domestic violence. Get rid of the victim, get rid of the incentive for the violent abuser to come knocking at the front door, and everything will be fine, right? But this heavy-handed approach fails to account for the fact that when an employer fires a victim instead of utilizing an effective domestic violence policy, it makes things worse for the victim and the workplace itself.  

First of all, it puts the victim in a huge amount of danger, both psychological and physical. There’s the obvious injustice of blaming the victim of a crime for something that’s entirely outside her control, especially since in many workplace domestic violence cases the victim has already sought some form of separation from or recourse against the abuser. The ‘this is your fault and you deserve to take the fall’ signal that a termination sends revictimizes the victim and reinforces the idea that the abuse was somehow her responsibility to avoid. But beyond the psychological harm that firing a victim may exact, it also cuts off her sense of financial security in such a way that she finds herself less able to extricate herself from an abusive situation in the first place. Three-quarters of victims report staying with their abusers longer because of economic concerns; severing a victim from any financial stability she previously had makes it even less likely that she’ll leave in the future. Any employer who recognizes a situation of domestic violence and responds by firing the victim takes a crucial opportunity for support, guidance, and referral to useful agencies and turns it into a tool of the abuser. Maybe employers don’t have a legal responsibility to consider the interests of their employees to this extent, but it certainly seems that in certain cases – situations of domestic violence included – they have the moral obligation to look beyond the bottom line and help an employee in trouble.  

On top of that, firing a victim of domestic violence could be bad for that company or organization as well. Legally, it’s possible that termination on the grounds of someone being a victim of domestic violence constitutes a Title VII equal employment opportunity violation – at least in certain, very clear cases. And Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island have legal protections specifically to prevent this kind of situation. Several other states have similar laws in the works, and it’s possible that in five or ten years, future Holy Trinity Schools will become few and far between. One wrongful death suit, related to a company’s negligence in protecting an employee from a violent former partner, cost the company $850,000. Companies already have a legal incentive to deal with domestic violence in an effective and victim-friendly way, at least in some states.

The main reason why employers should care about helping victims of domestic violence, though, is this: they can be practically certain that there will be more. Any problem that affects one-third of the female population is bound to appear again, and by firing the first victim to come forward, an organization simply sends the signal to the next victim that she will meet the same fate if she ever lets her secret out. At the very least, any employee whose productivity is affected by domestic violence will simply silently drain company funds, instead of connecting with a supervisor for support and possibly getting the help she needs to break free. And the next Carie Charlesworth, instead of giving the school principal warning to send the school into lockdown if her abuser shows up, might stay silent until he appears one day to threaten her in front of her students – or worse.

What Needs to Change

At first glance, this seems like a conundrum. Surely, you think, I’m not suggesting that the Holy Trinity School should just have left itself open to a potentially violent intruder who has consistently violated legal orders in the past. But that’s exactly the problem – employers who fire victims often do so because they think they have no other choice than endangering the safety of all of their other employees, when there actually are other possible courses of action.

This is not to say, of course, that any workplace domestic violence strategy is completely foolproof. But it does seem self-evident that some routes may be more effective than base termination. A victim can take paid leave while seeking civil protections or criminal charges. She can go to counseling in an effort to regain lost productivity and confidence. She can work out a safety plan with her employer that will not put anyone’s lives at risk. Here is a model domestic violence policy for employers to adopt, which gives victims financial guarantees while seeking help and encourages an open environment where no one is afraid to ask for support. And here are some guidelines for employers to keep victims and the rest of their employees safe from potential incidents of violence: make sure security is aware of possible issues; encourage employees to include the workplace on any protective orders; consider altering the employee’s work schedule; and so on. A combination of victim-friendly employment policies and stringent responses to possible threats can help keep everyone in the workplace safe, without the cost of endangering a victim.