Policies address domestic violence

Published: January 19, 2004

By Lisa Rosetta

The Bulletin

When the estranged husband of a Liz Claiborne employee in Pennsylvania came looking for her at work, he was stopped short by security guards who knew he was ordered by a court not to contact her.

The man, who had made angry threats to her in the past, was carrying a gun.

Furious, the man left the company's campus and later ended up in a several-hour standoff with police. He was arrested before anyone was injured.

"It was really intense and it could have been really tragic because he was said to have weapons," said Jane Randal, vice president for corporate communications for Liz Claiborne, Inc., in New York.

The case highlights an uncomfortable reality for employers: Domestic violence that happens in an employee's life off the clock can spill into work, often with fatal consequences.

In Oregon alone, 10 women have been killed at work in the past seven years by an ex- or current boyfriend or husband. What's more, homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

That's why the Family Violence Council of Deschutes County is encouraging employers to adopt workplace policies concerning family violence, said Layne Hood, family violence prevention coordinator.

In September, the Deschutes County Family Violence Prevention Board adopted a model policy that was written and adopted by the Oregon Attorney General's Office, he said. The policy defines domestic violence and outlines what resources are available to its employees.

But it goes one step farther - it threatens employees who are convicted of a domestic violence crime with loss of their job.

The aim of such a policy, Hood said, is "to increase the social pressure to eliminate family violence ... this is a prevention plan."

In Deschutes County, law enforcement agencies have put such policies in place, even though federal law already targets the problem on some level. In 1993, Congress enacted the Handgun Violence Protection Act, commonly referred to as the Brady Bill.

Under the Brady Bill, anyone convicted of a domestic-related crime loses all privilege to carry a handgun. For officers, losing their weapon means losing their job, said Les Stiles, Deschutes County Sheriff.

Still, in November his office implemented an employer policy specifically addressing family violence, he said.

The policy establishes procedures for the investigation of domestic violence incidents.

It even goes so far as to alert supervisors to on-duty behavior that may be warning signs of domestic violence - stalking, inappropriate surveillance activities or a high incidence of injuries or verbal disputes, for example.

"This policy delineates a position by the sheriff's office of zero tolerance of domestic violence," the policy says.

It includes, "What happens if, what happens how, prescreening hiring and investigations, follow ups - all kinds of things in terms of what we do," Stiles said.

"We have (a policy) specifically relating to domestic violence because for years and years it was never an issue that was clearly and succinctly addressed," he said.

Andy Jordan, Bend Police chief, said his department put a family violence policy in place in 2002.

"I just felt like it was necessary not only to communicate to our employees how important of an issue this is, but to also let the public know that we have to keep our own house clean, so to speak," he said. "Domestic violence effects everybody."

The statistics are eye-opening:

a.. More than half of Americans say they have at least one friend, relative or co-worker whom they know has been involved in domestic violence, according to the 1997 Women's Work Survey.

a.. Nearly one-third of American women, 31 percent, report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to the Commonwealth Fund survey.

a.. One out of every five couples experienced domestic violence in the past year, according to the American Journal of Public Health. "Domestic violence is a huge problem in this county," Jordan said. "As law enforcement officers, we have to be the first to make the change."

Deschutes County is working on an all-encompassing workplace violence policy for its some 800 employees that will soon go to county commissioners with the recommendation that the board approve it, said Dick Ridenour, a loss prevention specialist in the county's Risk Management department.

"We're writing an overall violence policy and what we'll end up with as sanctions or means of enforcement and that sort of thing will really be up to the board (of commissioners)," he said.

"Whether it's becoming a bigger issue because of an increasing number of incidents or because it's becoming a bigger issue because of people's awareness or concern, it seemed wise for the county to have a specific policy on workplace violence so people know how to cope with it," he said. "If someone walks into the county assessor's office and makes a threat ... does an employee climb under a counter, push a panic button and wait for a supervisor to show up? What does an employee do?"

While law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Redmond Police Department, have either a family violence or workplace violence policy in place, few, if any, businesses do, Hood said.

"Some of the stress around adopting policies like this is, how far does the employer go? What is appropriate to do? If the primary breadwinner (commits a domestic violence crime) and you put them out of work, have you helped anybody?"

But there are compelling reasons for companies to consider family violence policies.

"We know domestic violence impacts productivity," Liz Claiborne's Randal said. "It reduces productivity, it increases absenteeism, it increases health care costs - there is a bottom line component for a company to get involved."

Family violence costs companies $3 to $5 billion annually, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

In addition to the costs, domestic violence also imposes a liability for employers. An employer may be held liable for violence that occurs in the workplace under a number of different legal scenarios, including negligence, vicarious liability and negligent hiring, according to an employer policy handbook published by the county's Family Violence Council.

Since 1992, Liz Claiborne has had a family violence policy in place, said Randal, who is also president of the board of the Corporate Alliance to End Family Violence.

The Alliance, a national organization of business leaders, was formed in 1995 to aid in the prevention of partner violence by leveraging the resources of the corporate community, according to its Web site.

Member companies have written up employer policies relating to domestic violence, some that spell out stiff consequences, including termination, for employees who are convicted of a domestic violence crime.

Companies such as Liz Claiborne are even prepared to change employees' work phone numbers, move their desks or offer them a security guard to escort them to their vehicles at night, Randal said.

Some companies also take the time to hang posters in bathrooms and break rooms with hotline phone numbers and resource information for victims.

"What we do is point people in the direction of help and let them know what's available to them," Randal said.

Companies interested in creating a family violence policy can visit the Web site www.safeatworkcoalition.org for suggestions on how to create one, Randal said.

Or they can contact Layne Hood, family violence prevention coordinator, at 541-322-7534. The Family Violence Prevention Board is prepared to help companies or agencies with policy development, planning employee training, referral support information and workplace family violence awareness.