Over the past decade, the topic of domestic violence has become more frequently seen in the media. Admittedly, our first thought when considering domestic violence is probably not how it relates to the safety of the workplace. It is thought that domestic violence typically occurs outside of the workplace, and an employer is under no legal obligation to address such issues. However, one third of female deaths in the workplace in the US between 2003 and 2008 were directly related to domestic violence. If domestic violence crosses over into the workplace, an employer may be held liable if he or she does not protect his employees.

It is the employer’s priority and legal obligation to protect the employees while in the workplace. If a risk is presented to the workplace and those inside it, the employer must take certain steps to address the risk posed to employees.

In What Situations Should an Employer Get Involved in a Domestic Violence Issue?

An employer has no legal responsibility to intervene in cases of domestic violence as long as they occur outside of the workplace, and do not pose any threat to employees in the workplace or the workplace as a whole. If, however, a worker’s partner makes a threat that could mean potential harm to employees in the workplace or comes to harm the employee at the workplace, an employer is legally obligated to mitigate any associated risks.

How to Determine If Your Employees Are at Risk?

As an employer, if you learn of a potential risk, you must first assess the risk presented. This includes evaluating all elements of the situation. Ask:

  • What threat was made?

  • Who would this threat impact?

  • What can I, the employer, do to minimize the risk posed to employees at risk?

  • How likely is this threat to turn into a reality?

  • Does this threat involve the well being of a minor?

  • What is the best way to approach the situation at hand?

How Can an Employer Eliminate or Minimize Risk?

An employer should take the time to establish a policy and procedure to deal with situations surrounding domestic violence threats. The policy and related procedures should cover what to do when a risk presents itself, and a procedure to deal with such risks. The procedure should include steps to deal with imminent risks as well as non-imminent risks. A procedure could include a step-by-step process outlining what to do if you learn of an imminent threat (ie. Evacuate the building, notify the appropriate authorities, ensure employees directly linked to the threat are well protected, etc.).

How and When Should an Employer Inform Employees of a Risk?

Informing employees can be a difficult task in some cases, as a certain level of confidentiality must be observed. It is essential that you as an employer balance your obligation to keep employees safe with their right to confidentiality. Generally, not all staff must be notified of a threat, only those who are likely to encounter the individual that poses the risk, or are directly at risk. As an employer, if you learn of a potential risk, first inform the appropriate staff. Employees should be well trained in:

  • How to recognize the potential for domestic violence. Share the typical warning signs that something might go wrong. If a victim has attempted to leave an abusive relationship, it is often to the workplace that the abuser first comes looking

  • Most companies have associated support systems for employees to assist them in dealing with some types of household issues like domestic violence, family counceling, and other programs. Inform your employees of these programs, and ensure that the information is easily accessible

  • All employees should be trained in policies and procedures relating to workplace threats. This includes appropriate knowledge of the evacuation plan and lockdown procedures

  • Employees should be aware of who they must notify first if they learn of a potential threat

Proactive, Not Reactive Safety

Reactive safety is not preventative, and does nothing to protect the workers before an incident occurs. If an employer is notified that one of his or her employees has made attempts to leave an abusive relationship, there are a number of proactive measures that an employer can take to keep a victim safe. These could include:

  • Having an emergency contact number available for if the victim becomes unreachable

  • Provide human resources staff or security with a photo of the abuser

  • Modify the employee's work schedule or location if possible

It is estimated that one in four women experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. This means that one fourth of the female staff of a company might be a victim of domestic violence. A statistic such as this is difficult to ignore, and demands attention. Does your company's domestic violence prevention and response plan fit the bill?