Intimate Partner Violence Poses Unique Threat to Retail—But There Are Ways to Prevent a Tragedy

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Dr. Ron Wallace, a criminal justice professor for American Public University System, has studied the intersection of intimate partner violence with the workplace—and he has also dealt with it firsthand. Long ago, working as a parole analyst, Wallace’s assistant was being threatened by her spouse. The fear that he could show up armed at their workplace, to take aim at his wife and bystanders, was substantial. The office took basic security precautions, including distribution of a BOLO (be on the lookout) profile of the spouse, and tragedy was thankfully avoided. That same threat exists every single day for large retailers—whether they know it or not, Wallace warns.

“Protecting workers from intimate partner violence (IPV) requires self-disclosure,” said Wallace. So raising awareness is both the most basic and most important element in an LP department’s response to the threat of IPV spilling into the workplace, he said.

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“You have to begin with that education piece. You want to do everything you can to get the word out to staff that you want to help [victims of IPV],” said Wallace. “Include the topic during new employee orientation; send an email out to all staff; hang a poster in the breakroom; make it the subject during team meetings or in periodic meetings with staff.”

Research funded by the Department of Justice, Study of the Effects of Intimate Partner Violence on the Workplace, reveals the risk. “When current and lifetime victimization rates are combined, we find staggering prevalence rates. Over 29 percent of employed men and 40 percent of employed women report having been abused at some point.” And victimization frequently occurs at work, according to the study. Some 18.8 percent of current employee victims said that some form of IPV—threats, stalking, physical aggression, being hurt, or sexual abuse—had occurred on their work premises.

Domestic Violence Awareness

Unless a retailer conducts a targeted effort to raise awareness of IPV, leadership is unlikely to ever know of employees who are victims of abuse at home. Yet they will nonetheless suffer the proven consequences of it, which can include low employee morale, lost workdays, higher medical costs, lower productivity, increased tardiness, and expenses from hiring temporary employees or paying overtime to make up for absent workers. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which provides a good opportunity to highlight the issue with staff. A senior leader could byline an article on the company’s internal website or in a corporate newsletter, for example.

To effectively encourage victimized employees to come forward, an awareness campaign should use different avenues of communication, advised Wallace. “Not everyone reads every email, or reads breakroom posters, or is present on the day of a meeting,” he said. “So it’s important to use multiple channels in providing information and to conduct repeated outreach.”

Retailers should strive to show all employees that management believes IPV is an issue that is important and relevant to the workplace, and should communicate assistance for IPV victims through training, security support, and policies. Awareness campaigns should also give staff direction on coming forward. “Be very clear in those communications about whom [victimized employees] need to go to,” advised Wallace. “I recommend giving them several options—a manager, HR, and others—as they might not be comfortable going to one person or another.”

Because a victim of IPV will usually inform a coworker before management, it’s important to make these colleagues understand their role in IPV reporting and workplace violence prevention. “He or she should know to encourage the victim to come forward. Often, the victim doesn’t realize how dangerous the situation is because he or she is not far enough removed from it,” said Wallace.

Policy and Procedures

When an employee does come forward to report a domestic issue, a retailer’s policy will provide the structure for handling it, which makes it integral to managing the IPV threat. “You absolutely need a policy in place, one that identifies how you’re going to handle these situations, while at the same time leaving some flexibility because each situation is different,” said Wallace. “If a tragic event happens, people and the media are going to be asking questions: ‘Where did it go wrong?’ ‘You mean you didn’t even have a policy?’”

A retailer’s policy statement should indicate its mission to protect workers’ physical safety, as well as ensure their job security. Confidentiality is another critical element, according to Wallace. In concert with the employee victim, LP professionals need to develop an appropriate safety plan, which may require alerting select personnel. However, this plan should be on a need-to-know basis. You will typically need to involve a worker’s supervisor, said Wallace. “So if a sales associate sees the partner, they can leave the floor to seek safety. The supervisor will know they went to a secure location and aren’t just leaving their job.” A manager or supervisor may also serve a vital security role, and be the first person to see an assailant on the premises, he added.

Wallace notes that for public businesses like retail stores, protecting employees from IPV is uniquely difficult, which makes a thoughtful employee safety plan all the more critical. “You need to review the location and existing security measures and identify what you can do to help that employee,” said Wallace.

Each situation is different, but LP departments might choose to:

  • Temporarily reassign a floor associate to a more secure, back-of-house area;
  • Investigate legal remedies, such as seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief on behalf of the employee;
  • Assess feasibility of providing “panic buttons” so employees can call for help;
  • Identify a safe place to hide a worker should his or her abuser come to the workplace;
  • Provide advance warning and photographs to loss prevention staff and select others in case the stalker/partner tries to enter;
  • Assign LP agents to more frequently make contact with a victim employee during the course of work; and
  • Discuss the feasibility of other actions with HR and supervisors, such as fluctuating the employee’s work hours, changing their phone extension, relocating them, or providing a paid leave of absence if the threat is acute.

A safety plan should extend beyond a retail store’s four walls, advised Wallace. A review of 500 incidents by Peace at Work titled “Domestic Violence Assaults in the Workplace” found that most domestic violence assaults in the workplace occur in the parking lot at the start or end of shifts.

Wallace said LP associates might take a cue from their security counterparts in hospitals, who frequently operate security escort programs to help staff get safely to and from their vehicles or public transportation. “[Assailants] are looking to isolate the employee, so if somebody is with them, it significantly lessens the risk of attack. They will tend to pull off,” said Wallace. Other security options include providing employee victims with specially assigned parking spaces, permitting them to park close to an entrance, increasing security patrols of parking lots, especially during shift changes, or requesting patrols by local law enforcement at the beginning and end of the victim’s shift.

The Stakes Are High

The challenge of protecting workers from IPV at work is more difficult in retail than just about any other industry—but that can’t prevent LP departments from addressing the threat. Wallace advised that the stakes are too high—extending even further than worker safety to the very reputation of a company. “For retailers, it really is a hard situation, because you’re an open business. But if you don’t try to address it and put measures in place, and then that worst-case scenario occurs, there’s going to be a lot of questions you will have to answer for. Even small events can gain national media attention and drag down a company.”

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