Sunday, May 8, 2005

When violence from home comes to work
Domestic violence can travel beyond the home, damaging morale and profits

By Melissa Campbell
Alaska Journal of Commerce

Alyssa Gorham always said she had the perfect life. She had a great job, a beautiful daughter and was in a relationship with a charming man. They got married, had plans to buy a house and live happily ever after.

Then, just a few weeks after the wedding, Gorham found herself in the hospital, asking herself how everything could have gone so wrong. How could she have become involved with a man who subjected her to mental, emotional and physical abuse for the last four years?

"Being the headstrong person I was, I had to convince myself that everything was OK," she said. "I couldn't admit to myself that I was a victim."

Alaska towers over the national average in the numbers of reported cases of domestic violence. And it doesn't just happen in private bedrooms. Domestic violence and its effects can creep into the workplaces of both the victim and the abuser, effectively hitting their companies' bottom lines.

The realization that she was a victim of domestic violence occurred to Gorham during that four-day hospital stay in 2003. Reviewing her life, she came to realize that she had lost much: contact with family and friends, self-esteem and confidence, all of which can affect people's job performances. She also gave up good jobs at two companies.

At work, Gorham received constant phone calls - five to 15 a day - from her partner, whom she asked not be named in this story. The calls could be him just saying hello or could be attempts to start arguments, she said.

"There was one day I was in a meeting with my boss, some co-workers and a new vendor," she said. "We were about to close on a great deal, and in the next room, my phone started ringing. Five minutes later, my boss went in and forwarded my line. He just kept calling and calling because I didn't answer."

He would drop in unexpected, often several times a day. Sometimes he would show up expecting her to leave work early, and get mad if she didn't, she said.

Gorham felt it was best for both her and her co-workers if she quit.

Employers are required to provide a safe environment for their workers. But there are no federal or state requirements, or guidelines to recognize, if domestic violence affects employees.

Still, domestic violence that creeps to the workplace can put not only the victim in danger, but can put his or her co-workers at risk, as well. So it's in employers' best interest to help victims at work who are being abused at home, said Roberta Goughnour, owner of 3R Consultants, a human resources consulting company.

Here are some of the national statistics that show how domestic violence affects employers' bottom lines:

According to a 2003 Pinkerton Security study, the total costs associated with workplace violence top $36 billion a year, and affects more than 2 million people.

A 2003 Centers for Disease Control report said the health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking and homicide by intimate partners reaches about $6 billion a year. Of that, nearly $4.1 billion is for direct medical and mental health care services - the majority of which is paid for through company benefits plans - and productivity losses account for nearly $2 billion.

Victims in partner violence situations turn in a total of nearly 8 million days of paid leave a year, the CDC study found.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Labor said that homicide is the leading cause of death for women on the job, and 17 percent of them were murdered by their partners at the workplace.

In 2001, the DOL reported that men victimized at work report the crime to police about half the time, while women report it about 40 percent of the time. Only about a quarter of the rapes and sexual assaults are reported.

It's difficult to determine how domestic violence directly affects Alaska businesses. However, the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault reported serving nearly 3,400 new victims of domestic violence in 2003, according to a September 2004 release from the governor's office.

The release also said that nearly 6,000 new incidents of domestic violence against women, and 1,450 new incidents against children were reported to the council. The state's various programs provide more than 60,200 nights of shelter to nearly 4,000 women and children fleeing violent homes.

A recently released study by the Violence Policy Center said Alaska ranks No. 1 in the rate of women murdered by men. The study analyzed the nation's homicides that occurred in 2002.

Some 15 Alaska women were killed by men in 2002. That equals 4.84 murders per 100,000 residents. That's 40 percent higher than second-place Louisiana, at 67 deaths equaling 2.91 murders per 100,000 residents.

There's a fine line between prying and trying to help keep employees safe, Goughnour said. But it's important to understand that if something did happen, it would affect the morale of the entire company.

"If you let it go, you're looking at a morale impact," Goughnour said. "It says to employees, if you get in trouble, who's going to help?"

Goughnour said some of the warning signs include an employee coming in late, taking a lot of sick time and unexpected absences. Other signs are a high number of personal phone calls or an unusual number of visits from a partner.

Employers can, and should, take steps to keep the workplace safe. (See related sidebar, page A3).

Some ideas include putting brochures in restrooms, instituting a central switchboard and moving the victim to a different office.

The main thing is not to blame the victim, putting the responsibility on the abuser instead, Goughnour said.

Keep in mind, too, that the abuser's employer and co-workers could be at risk as well, Goughnour said.

"If they are prone to violence at home or in their personal life, there's a chance it will spill over into the workplace," Goughnour said. "But you have to look at the official job performance."

Warning signs are missing work, not meeting deadlines or poor-quality work.

The abuser could also be using company time to stalk his or her partner, parking outside the office to see when he or she leaves, or if he or she is with anyone.

"Nothing in their life is going right if they are stalking someone," Goughnour said. "They are trying to keep track of their spouse, not getting any sleep. (He) may start to lose his temper at work because you are questioning his ability to do the job."

These are things that could warrant discipline or even termination, but Goughnour warns to be careful in how it's done. "If you terminate someone with personal problems, you may have to worry about retaliation," she said.

In the year since her divorce, Gorham has worked to start a new life, without pressure or manipulation. Some days are better than others.

She rarely has to see her ex-husband anymore. But because they share a daughter, they still have contact, mostly through text messages, she said.

But on the day Gorham was called for a request to do this story, she didn't answer the phone. She said later that she had gotten about 10 text messages from her ex. Then the phone rang, displaying a number she didn't recognize.

She is employed by a major oil company and is working toward a master's degree in business administration. She also speaks publicly about her experiences.

"When I talk about this, people ask me why I didn't leave sooner. That question really gets to me," she said. "Why aren't they asking why he treated me like that? If he was a jerk all the time, it would have been easy to leave. But he was very aggressive and I am very passive. It was kind of like the Cleavers meet the Sopranos."

Gorham is also volunteering again, something she said her ex-husband pressured her to stop doing.

"It was a big part of the healing process," she said. "If I can make an impact on the general public, raise awareness, and increase the intolerance of it, then those four years I spent in complete misery were worth it."