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Protecting Domestic Violence Victims at Work: What’s Your Responsibility?

“There has been a rapid growth in domestic violence employment legislation at the state and local level, [and] many of these laws explicitly protect domestic violence victims,” warns a study of employer’s legal responsibilities. “The growing state legislation should provide persuasive evidence that employers need to be aware of the potential for litigation based on laws in the states where they operate,” it concludes (“Domestic Violence and the Workplace: The Employer’s Legal Responsibilities,” Journal of Management and Marketing Research).

Many of these laws, like most federal laws that have been applied to domestic violence cases—Title VII, ADA, and FMLA—are for personnel managers to worry about. To protect retail organizations from lawsuits, these professionals may need to ensure that employee victims are allowed to take time off from work without penalty to deal with personal, family, or legal matters related to domestic violence, and keep stores from running afoul of state and local policies that specifically prohibit discrimination and retaliation against victims of domestic violence (either intentionally or unintentionally). These managers also have an important security role to play. According to a new report by the Risk and Insurance Management Society, human resources employees should encourage workers to alert HR if they feel their spouse or domestic partner might intrude on the workplace either physically or through the internet or social media (“Active Shooter Preparedness for Your Organization,” RIMS, 2019).

But executives responsible for ensuring store safety should also take note of this development in the legal landscape. In Hawaii, for example, when employers learn an employee is a victim of domestic violence, they must provide “reasonable accommodations” to protect them. That could include screening telephone calls, installing locks or other security devices, or changing work locations. There is a clear security imperative to be mindful of intimate partner violence in the workplace. In addition to its costs—both actual and intangible by dampening productivity—it is often a factor behind major active shooter events. A 2019 report by the US Secret Service on mass shootings found that one-third of the attackers who terrorized schools, houses of worship, or businesses in the last year had a history of serious domestic violence (“Mass Attacks in Public Spaces—2018,” United States Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, July 2019).

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Failure to provide adequate security for victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) can cause employers legal troubles. “Negligence lawsuits can result from an employer’s failure to implement adequate safety measures to address threats and prevent violence in the workplace due to intimate partner relationships,” concluded the study on domestic violence legal issues. The study reminds retail organizations that they’re legally obligated to provide a safe workplace for employees under OSHA’s general duty clause, and that “domestic violence clearly falls under OSHA’s definition of workplace violence.” The legal review points out that California OSHA has specifically identified Type IV workplace violence—personal relationship violence or intimate partner violence—as “likely to occur across all industry sectors.” This means that no employer in the state can validly assess that the risk of IPV doesn’t apply to their workplace.

So, when would a domestic violence incident at work cause legal trouble? “When injuries or deaths occur in the workplace as a result of domestic violence, an employer can be liable for negligence if it can be shown that they knew that an employee was being stalked, harassed, or threatened outside of work by an intimate partner but did not take reasonable steps to protect employees,” the analysis concludes.

Generally, state workers’ compensation laws serve as the exclusive remedy for the compensation of workers who are injured or killed on the job, but there are always exceptions, notes another study (“Responding to intimate partner violence in the workplace,” Security Journal). It cites a $1.85 million case stemming from the killing of a company employee by her boyfriend and coworker. The female worker had left her boyfriend, taking their children, after he placed a gun against her head and threatened to kill her. The company placed the boyfriend on leave from work, but he was nonetheless able to enter the premises and fatally shoot his girlfriend. “The fact that the employer was made aware of the threats before the fatal shooting occurred demonstrates how gross negligence may lead to liability,” the study notes. Additionally, employees who suffer criminal victimization in the workplace based upon their sex are not limited to the remedy of workers’ compensation and can be applied to workplace incidents stemming from IPV.

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So, what should you do? The checklist below provides a range of possible security measures that retail organizations should consider for protecting employees who are the subjects of IPV. Timely communication with human resources is critical on this front, as any delay in implementing protective safety measures puts an employee—and the organization—at risk. A study of 500 workplace assaults resulting from domestic violence found that the greatest risk occurs soon after a victim has left an abusive relationship, because one of the easiest places to find them is at their workplace (“Domestic Violence Assaults in the Workplace Study,” Peace at Work).

The study published in Security Journal also encourages security directors to involve themselves beyond physical protection. “Recent research indicates that women who are murdered at work are about as likely to be killed by a former or current intimate partner as they are to be killed during a workplace robbery. Therefore, the modern-day security manager may be expected to take proactive steps in developing policies and procedures, create and initiate training programs, and become knowledgeable of laws that deal with stalking and restraining orders that can help ameliorate acts of IPV at the workplace.”

Enhanced Security Measures for Employee Victims of Domestic Violence

To minimize the negative impact of litigation and other costs associated with IPV, studies recommend a range of management strategies that include developing a comprehensive policy, training, and employee assistance. These reports—as well as experts we interviewed—offer the following checklist of possible security measures to protect an employee of domestic violence. While no measure will guarantee immunity from a lawsuit, a retail security executive can improve the odds by creating a worker safety plan—in consultation with the employee victim—that implements appropriate measures from the list.

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The following ideas are supplemental considerations to basic security practices such as video surveillance and parking lot security lighting. Security teams should not solely rely on existing surveillance and monitoring infrastructure to provide deterrence against IPV-related incidents, however, as perpetrators of domestic violence assaults at work aren’t typically worried about evading recognition. Here, then, are some possible protection ideas for an IPV victim at work:

  • Designate a safe place for the abuse victim to go in the event an abuser shows up at the workplace.
  • Supply her or him with a panic button to call security for help and/or a cell phone to make emergency calls.
  • Use monitoring and detection devices to track the employee victim.
  • Provide appropriate staff with updated photographs of the abuser in case the person arrives at the property.
  • Vary the employee’s work hours so the abuser doesn’t know when the victim will arrive or leave work.
  • Change the employee victim’s phone number, extension, and email address.
  • Screen his or her telephone calls.
  • Remove the employee’s name and contact information from directories and company websites.
  • Provide added physical security to the victim’s work area, so the abuser can not walk directly to them.
  • Increase security patrols of the victim’s work location.
  • Temporarily move the victim to another work area.
  • Contact law enforcement to make them familiar with the situation.
  • Obtain identifying personal information about the abuser, such as date of birth and social security number, as well as a copy of any restraining order to facilitate police contact.
  • Increase parking lot security patrols.
  • Permit the victim to park close to the building or provide a protected parking space.
  • Provide a security escort to their vehicle or public transportation.
  • Help the employee victim get to and from work safely by alternate means such as carpooling or free taxi service.
  • Request patrols by local law enforcement at the beginning and end of the victim’s shift.
  • Provide security support to victims as soon as they arrive at work as most domestic violence assaults in the workplace occur in the parking lot at the start of a shift.
  • Counsel victims about the various civil and criminal options available to them.
  • Educate coworkers to limit the information they disclose about coworkers to avoid providing information the abuser could use to target the victim.
  • Consult the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA) Guide to help assess risk and select appropriate security countermeasures.
  • Ask the victim what other changes to the work environment would make him or her feel safer.
  • Help the employee victim with installing a home security system.

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