Editor’s Note: Leslie G. Van Der Have is a Board Certified Family Law Specialist and is a member of the Litigation and Family Law Practice Groups at Ward and Smith, P.A.

Often when we think of domestic violence, we think of violence at home, or perhaps the societal and familial costs caused by domestic violence. However, domestic violence is spilling over into the workplace at an alarming rate. Carefully considering and implementing policies and preventive measures can reduce costs, absenteeism, and lost productivity, and can enhance workplace safety and the well-being of your customers and employees.

What is Workplace Violence?

There are several identified categories of workplace violence; this article focuses on workplace violence as it relates to personal relationships, such as violence directed toward one of your employees or customers who is a current or former intimate partner of the abuser. Unfortunately the examples are plentiful, as demonstrated by horrifying incidents of workplace violence appearing increasingly in the news over the last decade. Examples include an employee who used a work cell phone to call and threaten a coworker with whom he had a prior intimate relationship; a survivor of domestic violence who fled her abusive relationship and was being followed by her abuser at work; an employee’s estranged husband who attacked the employee in the employer’s parking lot, leading to severe injuries; and the employee’s former partner who gained access to the employee’s workplace with a weapon and killed the employee and coworkers.

Workplace violence is defined by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assaults, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” It may include domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, and/or stalking, and can run the gamut from threats or offensive language to homicide and mass murders at the workplace. Two examples of widely-reported acts of domestic violence coming to work in North Carolina include Robert Stewart entering the Pinelake Nursing Home Facility in Carthage and shooting and killing a nurse and several elderly patients as he searched for his estranged wife at her work station, and, in 2004, when, despite a restraining order, Randy McKendall parked outside his wife’s office at UNC’s Hedrick building, waiting for her to arrive, and, when she did, shooting and killing her and then killing himself. This occurred in the presence of a dozen or so coworkers just prior to the start of the workday.

Why Should Employers Care?

The answer is simple: employers should care because it affects the bottom line. The prevalence of workplace violence is astounding and severely impacts employer costs, employee absenteeism, employee retention, employee productivity, and the overall health and safety of the workplace.

In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) estimated that the annual cost for direct medical and mental health care services and lost productivity from paid work and household chores resulting from intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking totaled $5.8 billion in 1995, with total productivity losses accounting for nearly $1.8 billion of that figure. When updated to 2003 dollars, the 1995 cost of intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking came to more than $8.3 billion. And in 2011 dollars, it would be more. Much of these costs are paid for by employers. The CDC estimates the annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence to be $727.8 million (in 1995 dollars), with more than 7.9 million paid workdays – the equivalent of more than 32,000 full time jobs – lost each year.

According to a 2006 study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Bureau”), in 2005, nearly one in four large private industry firms (defined as having more than 1,000 employees) reported at least one workplace incident of domestic violence, including threats and assaults. A 2005 study from the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, using data from a national telephone survey of 8,000 women about their experiences with violence, found that women experiencing intimate partner violence victimization reported an average of 7.2 days of work-related lost productivity and 33.9 days in productivity losses associated with other activities. According to the Bureau, spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-boyfriends/ex-girlfriends were responsible for the workplace deaths of 321 women and 38 men from 1997-2009.

A 2005 phone survey of 1,200 full-time American employees found that 44 percent of full-time employed adults personally experienced effects of domestic violence in their workplaces, and 21 percent identified themselves as victims of intimate partner violence. A 2005 study of female employees in Maine who had experienced domestic violence found that 98 percent had difficulty concentrating on work tasks; 96 percent reported that domestic abuse affected their ability to perform their job duties; 87 percent received harassing phone calls at work; 78 percent reported being late to work because of abuse; and 60 percent lost their jobs due to domestic abuse. In a 2005 telephone survey from the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, 64 percent of the respondents who identified themselves as victims of domestic violence indicated that their ability to work was affected by the violence. More than half of domestic violence victims (57 percent) said they were distracted, almost half (45 percent) feared getting discovered, and two in five were afraid of their intimate partner’s unexpected visit at work (either by phone or in person).


What Can Employers Do?

A partnership of eight national organizations led by Futures Without Violence (formerly known as the Family Violence Prevention Fund), which is funded by the United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, recently developed a resource center and website for employers to address the issues of workplace violence. The website, www.workplacesrespond.org, allows employers to develop and download a workplace policy addressing workplace violence that is comprehensive and specific to the employer’s workplace.

This tool is a good start, but it is also important for you, as an employer, to consult with legal counsel in order to address the legal ramifications of the policies and procedures, or lack thereof, and areas of employer duties and liabilities that should be addressed. Since this article is intended to be only a general overview, it does not address your company’s specific duties and liabilities in light of your history, present security, and many other considerations.

There are many specific issues that you should consider in developing policies and procedures to combat domestic violence in your workplace, including:

• Accommodations for your employees, such as time off to seek legal protection;

• Threat Assessment, to identify key times of concern. For example, internal flagging for times when one of your employees is about to attend, or has just attended, court for a domestic violence protective order, a child custody disputed trial, or a divorce;

• Threat Management through education, training, and increased awareness, including education of your employees about signs and symptoms of victims and abusers, causes of domestic violence, and actions that victims and employers of victims can take to protect themselves against domestic violence;

• Policy Development and Establishment of Response Plan. Such a plan should create an “atmosphere of disclosure” and take threats seriously;

• Determine the Role of Human Resources, such as when referrals to Employee Assistance Programs may be appropriate; development, implementation, and monitoring of Internet usage policies to prevent issues relating to cyber-stalking and harassing email communications; development of law enforcement contacts and related policies in the event that you need to request increased patrol or police presence;

• Consider forming a Threat Management Team to develop and monitor all of these related policies and response plans (which may include representatives from human resources, security, and your general counsel);

• Security Assessment in order to assess and improve areas of vulnerabilities, including an alarm system, access, visitor screening, surveillance, and physical aspects of your workplace such as lighting and landscaping;

• Create a Response and Emergency Plan of Action. This includes making and practicing a 911/Evacuation Plan, activation of grief counselors for your employees, handling media/public relations in the event of an incident, and continuation of critical company operations; and,

• Support community efforts to end domestic violence.


Act today! As Esta Soler, President of Futures Without Violence, observed: “Too often in the past, employers have come to us after an employee who was a domestic violence victim is murdered at work, or a stalking victim is raped outside her workplace. In these situations, employers are left to wonder what they could have done differently, and colleagues are traumatized or terrorized. With [the implementation of certain] tools, employers can act before tragedies occur, helping to prevent them and to keep workplaces safe and productive.” Although there are many issues to consider and policies to develop and implement, the potential savings in terms of actual dollars and in terms of human life and health is invaluable.

© 2011, Ward and Smith, P.A.

Ward and Smith, P.A. provides a multi-specialty approach to the representation of technology companies and their officers, directors, employees, and investors. Leslie G. Van Der Have is a Board Certified Family Law Specialist and a member of the Litigation and Family Law Practice Groups where she represents clients in a broad range of family law matters. Comments or questions may be sent to LGV@wardandsmith.com.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.