Subject: A crucial role for business

October 31, 2005

A crucial role for businesses
Experts urge safety measures for domestic violence victims
Employers should take an active role in assisting workers who are victims of domestic violence, experts say.

Not only can helping victims protect them from violence, it can also help to keep quality workers on staff, reduce employees' time off and insulate co-workers from the effects of violence.

Safe Nest, a local domestic violence victim advocacy group, encourages companies to help inform employees and customers about how to seek help from domestic violence through posters, brochures and fliers.

Some local employers agreed it's in their interest to help employees who may be victims of domestic violence.

"If a person is victimized we do an automatic referral directly to Safe Nest," Dan Kruger, vice president of human resources for Sierra Health Services, said. Kruger is also a former member of Safe Nest's board.

"If a person comes and they've got problems with attendance or they look battered we refer them to Safe Nest," he said.

The group's leaders also say employers should include domestic violence in their overall workplace safety policies and should be understanding and flexible if a worker is a victim of domestic violence. Maria Outcalt, a bilingual victim advocate for Safe Nest, said many victims who access Safe Nest's services find that their jobs have been impacted because of the abuse.

"Employers need to understand when someone is going through (domestic violence) that the person needs support," she said. "They also have to do their job, but the harasser could be calling them at work and keeping them from their job. The purpose is to make them get fired. That's one more way to keep them under their power."

Kathleen Brooks, associate director of counseling for Safe Nest, said domestic violence can become a more direct workplace issue when an aggressor takes it to the workplace.

"They can follow them to work, they can stop them at work, wait for them (attack) them outside of the workplace, or in the worse case scenario they can come into the workplace," Brooks said. "The awful thing is they (can) kill the victim and other people."

Brooks said there are ways employers can approach the subject of domestic violence with employees. She said the organization also offers training services to companies' managers, human resources officials and employees about how to detect the signs of domestic violence and how to refer possible victims for help.

She also said employers should learn how to address the situation if an abuser or both the victim and the abuser are employees. "There's a whole list of things they can do," she said.

"First of all the workplace culture itself should reflect that they understand domestic violence and help is available. If they have a (human resources) department all of those folks should be well-trained and have a written policy on how to handle domestic violence."

Tyler Corder, chief financial officer for car dealership operator Findlay Management Group Inc. and president of Safe Nest's board, said employers can make accommodations for employees who are victims of domestic violence by allowing them to take time off if they're dealing with legal issues or trying to relocate.

"One of the things we've tried to do is educate our employees," Corder said.

"I've had it happen to me twice where a person has asked for time off."

Brooks said oftentimes the kinds of accommodations an employer can make for an employee who is a victim are minimal. "The company can get a stalking order against the perpetrator that says he has to stay away from the organization," she said.

"You may have the worker not come to work for a few weeks to get a stalking order, or you have security walk her in and out. Get a picture of what he looks like and let employees know."

Managers and human resources officials can learn the warning signs that an employee is a victim of domestic violence, Brooks said. She said they include changes in work habits such as a rash of absences, problems concentrating at work, wearing off-season clothes such as a turtleneck to cover bruises.

She said employers can broach the subject with an employee who shows the signs of domestic violence by simply informing the worker that they care and that the worker can reach out to the employer for help.

Research shows that domestic violence can impact an employee's productivity and the bottom line. A study recently commissioned by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence shows that 21 percent of 1,200 workers who responded to a phone survey said they are or have been victims of domestic violence. The survey was performed by Group SJR, a national survey research and communications firm, between July 15 and Sept. 10.

The survey found that 44 percent of the respondents said they've experienced the impact of domestic violence on the workplace because of a co-worker; 65 percent noted that the "intimate partner harassed their co-worker at work (by phone or in person)"; and 27 percent of respondents reported "extremely frequently" to "somewhat frequently" having to "do the victim's work for them."

The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence is a nonprofit organization made up of businesses that collaborate on projects, sponsor research and offer training, program guidance and crisis consultation to the business community on how to cope when domestic violence impacts the workplace.

The group's leaders say employers should include domestic violence in their workplace safety policies.

Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, said community groups such as Safe Nest can be good resources for employers of all sizes. "For a small company that is reading this story, get those local service providers (involved)," Wells said.

"You don't have to be a big company to do this, all you really have to be able to do is learn how to recognize the warning signs." The Centers for Disease Control's National Violence Against Women Survey indicates that American women lost nearly 8 million days of paid work each year because of domestic violence. Patrick Hicks, managing shareholder of the Las Vegas office of employment law firm Littler Mendelson, said employers have some legal responsibility to keep their employees safe from domestic violence.

"If you know there's a potential for violence and you knew or should have known you have an affirmative obligation to take action," he said. Kathy Ehst, a local survivor of domestic violence, said a former employer of hers went well beyond the call of duty to assist her in getting away from her abusive ex-husband.

Ehst, who spoke at a recent Safe Nest luncheon about her experience, said after her speech that her former employer, Rawlings Olson Cannon Gormley & Desruisseaux, agreed to handle her divorce for free.

She said she hadn't worked for the firm in 12 years, but the firm's leaders readily agreed to take the case. She said the case lasted three years with her ex-husband trying to take away her two sons. "Nobody wanted to take my case," she said.

"I called a former employer, the fifth-largest insurance (law) firm in the state. They took on the case, they assigned a brilliant young man. (It was) victory after victory after victory," she said. "I don't recall losing one motion."