Companies can take steps against domestic violence

In March, a Publix cashier in Orlando was fatally shot by her estranged husband in front of customers and other employee, a horrific example of what can happen when domestic violence extends to the workplace.

One in four women nationally will be a victim of intimate partner violence in her lifetime, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention—and the majority of those women work outside the home.

“Even if a woman has left home and is living in a safe house, the partner knows where she works,” said Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and chief executive officer of Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV), an Atlanta non-profit organization.

“Killing is the ultimate act of power and control of an abuser faced with a partner who has left or threatened to leave him. It’s the attitude of ‘If I can’t have you, no one can,’” said Spraetz. “Homicide makes the news, but there are so many incidents of domestic violence in the workplace. It’s a lot more commonplace than you think.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 18,700 incidents occur a year.

The PADV will host its eighth annual When Domestic Violence Goes to Work conference on April 29 at the Loudermilk Center, in Atlanta.

“Our aim is to help employers take a proactive approach to this issue by developing practices and policies that will protect their employees and save them money,” said Spraetz. The CDC estimates that domestic violence costs companies collectively more than $8 billion annually in health care, absenteeism, lost productivity and employee turnover.

“We all think it can’t happen to us, but it does happen. Nearly 50 percent of the company representatives at last year’s conference said they had had an incident,” said Spraetz. “Talking about the issue and recognizing the warning signs are the first steps to averting a costly and potentially dangerous situation.”

Verizon Wireless has made domestic violence awareness and prevention a part of its company culture for more than a decade.

“We focus our community service efforts on this issue because it is such a pervasive problem. Our leaders have chosen to address it internally, as well as make it a focus of our community service and volunteer efforts,” said Caran Smith, regional manager of public relations for Georgia and Alabama with Verizon Wireless.

Verizon Wireless began by creating a safe environment where workers feel safe disclosing what is happening to them.

“Our code of conduct is a living, breathing document that employees review and sign every year, and it states that we have zero tolerance for work place violence,” said Smith. “Our policies encourage domestic violence victims to contact the police, Verizon security and their supervisors without fear of stigma or judgment.”

To make sure that supervisors knew what to do when employees came forward, the company enlisted Safe Horizons, a victim-assistance agency in New York.

“Training begins with a 20-minute video of an employee dealing with domestic violence and the impact it has on everyone. That leads to an open conversation about how to resolve problems in ways that keep the employee, her coworkers and the company safe,” said Smith. “You can’t just charge out of the office and go help someone pack. You have to know what you’re doing and where to refer people so that they can get the help they need.”

Verizon Wireless has taken endangered employees out of its company directory, changed phone numbers and email addresses, alerted internal security and relocated workers to safer locations. Smith is encouraged that more people feel safe to come forward.

Extending its efforts into the greater community, the company runs the HopeLine program. Verizon Wireless stores collect unused phones from customers. The company recycles them or refurbishes them, and gives the phone to agencies and shelters for use by domestic violence victims. Money made from the recycling also goes to the cause. To date, the company has collected more than 7 million phones and donated more than $7.9 million to organizations, like PADV, who are engaged in domestic violence awareness and prevention.

“Our employees are proud of the fact that we’ve taken on this tough issue,” said Smith. “We believe more companies should address it. With one in four women being affected, companies are dealing with it whether they know it or not.”

In addition to the conference, PADV offers companies brochures and other resources, and will do lunch and learn workshops on site.