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COVID-19: The Rise in Domestic Violence

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, effective leaders are appropriately focused on thoughtful strategies to promote the physical and mental well-being of their employees. Yet, a less-publicized public health crisis is seeing a widespread surge across the globe—domestic violence.

Many managers and coworkers may struggle to accurately recognize the signs of domestic violence, a process that can become even more challenging now that many employees are working remotely. Once signs of domestic violence are recognized, a new question emerges for managers in particular: Is this issue any of my business? Am I even permitted to ask an employee if she or he is being victimized? And if there are obvious signs of abuse, then what?

The contributors to this article are members of Control Risks’ Workplace Violence Prevention Team with varied backgrounds in threat assessment, psychology, law, and law enforcement. We argue that the far-reaching and dramatic impact of domestic violence oftentimes becomes a workplace concern, one that leaders should address as part of their organization’s broader workplace violence prevention program. The following practical guidance is offered for consideration in addressing domestic violence issues both now and later—while employees are working remotely, and when they eventually return to the workplace post-COVID-19.

What Are the Signs Your Employees May Be Victims of Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence at its core is about power and control. During the COVID-19 crisis, an abuser may use your employee’s remote work assignment as an opportunity to tighten control over his or her victim. Signs of domestic violence in an employee, coworker, or colleague can sometimes be obvious. With remote working and social distancing, these signs can become obfuscated and harder to detect, particularly if the employee/victim actively seeks to conceal the effects of the abuse. Some common signs of domestic violence include:

  • The victim’s partner criticizes, berates, or disparages the victim in front of other people.
  • The victim is constantly worried about making his or her partner angry.
  • The victim makes excuses for his or her partner’s behavior or justifies the abuse as somehow deserved.
  • The victim’s partner is extremely jealous, constantly suspicious, or possessive.
  • The victim has unexplained marks or injuries.
  • The victim has stopped spending time with friends and family.
  • The victim is depressed or anxious, or you notice significant changes in his or her personality.

There are additional signs of domestic violence that managers may observe in a victimized employee during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • The abuser uses the pandemic as a scare tactic to keep the victim at home and isolated from others.
  • The abuser withholds essential items, such as food, toiletries, masks, or sanitizers.
  • The victim has unexplained changes in behavior such as an unreasonable refusal to participate in remote team video conferencing.
  • There are indications that the abuser is listening or monitoring work communications.
  • The language, style, or tone of the employee's correspondence has changed, indicating that the abuser is reading or editing the victim’s work.
  • The victim attempts to deliver a coded message for help.

What Does Domestic Violence Have to Do with the Workplace?

Domestic violence often seeps into the workplace and can impact operations in many ways. In the current crisis where many employees are working from home, if their abuser is listening or monitoring work communications, or reading and editing company correspondence, these behaviors present significant security and data privacy concerns for an organization and its client base. The negative business effects of domestic violence can include loss of productivity and performance at a time when leaders need to optimize both.

Domestic violence can often become an issue in the workplace as well, a concern both before COVID-19 restrictions and as employees return to work. An ex-intimate partner or former spouse can change her address and telephone numbers after a divorce or separation, but it may be more difficult to change jobs. A determined abuser knows that the victim can likely be found at work and may seek to contact her at the office. The potential for domestic violence and intimate partner relationships to spill into the workplace has been repeatedly recognized as a potential threat to employee safety and is even featured under the standard types of workplace violence (criminal intent, customer/client, worker-on-worker, personal relationship).

Do I Have a Legal Right to Ask My Employee about Domestic Violence?

Most employment law experts agree that employers cannot dismiss domestic or intimate partner violence as simply a family matter or law enforcement issue. While employers can be reluctant to dig into their employees’ private lives, balancing workplace safety with an individual’s privacy rights is a must.

Under the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “General Duty” clause, employers have a duty to furnish a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.” (29 U.S.C. § 654) Courts have interpreted this clause to impose a legal obligation on employers to provide a workplace free of conditions that either the employer or the industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard. Organizations carry an overriding responsibility to respond to signs of intimate partner violence when that violence threatens workplace safety.

Employers must also consider employee privacy rights arising under federal and state constitutions. Employees may assert claims for invasion of privacy, to include intentional intrusion into solitude or private affairs, public disclosure of private facts, and presenting a person in a false light to the public. An employer has a qualified privilege to investigate and address issues that are of legitimate concern to the employer, including protecting the safety of employees and others at the workplace. An employer’s investigation into potential domestic violence should be rooted in legitimate concern, undertaken in good faith, and include appropriate confidentiality and record-keeping safeguards.

Employers can achieve the appropriate balance between security and privacy by focusing their involvement on taking steps to safeguard workplace safety and productivity, while undertaking a supportive and compassionate stance to help affected employee victims. There are additional federal, state, and local laws relating to domestic violence matters employers should consider:

  • Many U.S. states and municipalities have anti-discrimination laws which require employers to provide employees who are victims of domestic violence abuse with reasonable accommodations. For example, the recently amended New York State Human Rights Law requires employers to provide time off from work to seek medical attention for the employee’s or child’s domestic violence related injuries and/or psychological counseling for the incident; to utilize services from a shelter, program, or rape crisis center; to participate in safety planning, including temporary or permanent location; and to obtain legal services.
  • As Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against discrimination in the workplace, employers may neither discriminate nor retaliate against an employee for taking leave for domestic violence related reasons.
  • While the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not directly address domestic violence, it allows employees unpaid leave to attend to their or a family member’s spouse's, parents', or children's serious illness or medical condition. Some state and local laws do specifically address domestic violence and require employers to provide unpaid leave.

What Should I Ask an Employee Who I Suspect Is a Victim of Domestic Violence?

Before starting a conversation on the sensitive topic of domestic violence, managers should remember that their role is to provide support to the affected to employee, rather than act as a counselor.

Managers could begin by asking COVID-19 related questions the employee may expect related to physical health and well-being, then segue into how the employee and others in the household are handling the stressors caused by the virus. Managers should consider asking basic, direct questions such as:

  • “Are you safe right now?”
  • “Are you afraid of the abuser?”
  • “Have you ever gone to a domestic violence shelter?”
  • “Has the abuser ever physically abused you to the point you have had to seek medical attention?”
  • “Do you feel you are always walking on eggshells?”

The focus should be on listening with empathy and demonstrating support. Each employee has unique needs, as each domestic violence situation is different. Examples of employee needs could include:

  • Seeking new housing to escape the abuser
  • Obtaining medical and/or psychological treatment
  • Food and other necessities
  • Seeking a protective order or other legal services
  • Having time to recover from the abuse
  • Assistance in establishing an environment that is consistent and predictable, to the extent possible, to restore the employee’s sense of control

Leaders should consider access to Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources in a remote environment and may need to add and train new members of their team during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as update internal websites on how to contact EAP. When employers become aware that an employee is a victim of domestic violence, EAPs are their VIPs. EAPs should have the most up-to-date contacts for outside local resources including domestic violence victim advocates, shelters and hotels, service providers, law enforcement agencies, and prosecutor’s offices. Through these contacts, EAP members should have the latest information on shelters that remain open, have available space, and have appropriate social distancing measures in place.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, which provided $45 million for domestic services though the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and an additional $2 million in funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

To ease an employee’s concerns about what to expect when calling the hotline, employers could provide a link on their intranet site to, which outlines questions a victim can expect to be asked and provides tips to victims on staying safe during COVID-19, including creating a safety plan, practicing self-care, and instructions on reaching out for help.

Employers should establish clear reporting channels for coworkers to report domestic violence concerns. As some shelters have reported a decline in calls, prompting advocates’ concerns that victims sheltering at home with their abusers have no time or opportunity to call a hotline, employers could consider promoting the use of code words for remote workers to securely telegraph a need for assistance. These code words could be modeled after the messages many bars and clubs offer for patrons to order an “angel shot” to signal to bartenders they feel unsafe.

Returning to the Workplace

Employers can and should be focused on getting back to operational business rhythms while promoting a culture that emphasizes the overall safety of their employees.

While implementing virus suppression screening measures, managers should watch for signs of employees who may have been personally impacted by the recent rise in domestic violence. Recognize that in cases of domestic violence, returning to the worksite may be the victim employee’s first opportunity to escape his or her abuser. The employee’s return to the worksite may also represent a loss of control to the abuser and could become a trigger and present an elevated concern for risk of violence at the workplace.

Consider taking the following steps when an affected employee returns to the worksite:

  • Reassure the victim employee that she or he will have time off if needed to seek shelter, legal assistance, care for children who may be affected, or other services without adverse consequences to employment.
  • Ask if the victim has already established protection or restraining orders. Ask for a copy and assist in monitoring to see that all the conditions of the order are followed. Corporate restraining orders should only be sought with participation and input of the victim.
  • Request a recent photo of the abuser and a description of the vehicle he or she operates. Alert others such as security and reception so they know who and what to look for.
  • Talk to the employee; work together to identify solutions. Follow up and check on his or her well-being.
  • Establish a physical space that helps the employee feel safe and secure, which could include relocating the victim employee so that he or she cannot be seen through windows or from the outside of the workplace. Offer a flexible work schedule if appropriate.
  • Do not include the employee's contact information in publicly available company directories or on the company website.
  • Change the employee's phone number, have another person screen and log the abuser’s calls, and divert any voicemails and emails left by the abuser to a designated mailbox to be monitored by an employee other than the victim to monitor for any signs of escalation.
  • Preprogram 911 on a phone or cell phone. Install a panic button in the employee’s work area and/or provide personal alarms.
  • Consider concealed, secure parking for the victim away from the street to prevent the abuser’s surveillance or detection of an employee’s presence or absence. Provide escorts to the car or to public transit.
  • Call the police if the abuser exhibits criminal activity such as stalking, trespassing, or unauthorized electronic monitoring.
  • If the victim and abuser work at the same location, if possible do not schedule both employees to work at the same time or location. Use disciplinary procedures to hold the abuser accountable for unacceptable behavior in the workplace.

Make Domestic Violence Response a Part of Your Overall Workplace Violence Prevention Program

We highly recommend integrating the issue of domestic violence into your workplace violence prevention policy and strategies. Within your policy, be sure to define domestic violence, address security and safety measures, outline recordkeeping protocols, clarify when domestic violence actions constitute a violation of an employment agreements or other terms of employment, and be sure to address both off-duty conduct and other non-actionable conduct that otherwise raises the concern of coworkers or otherwise impacts the workplace.

Policies should also include accommodations for victims, such as leave of absence provisions for reasons related to domestic violence that comply with state and local laws. Require or strongly encourage employees to report any restraining orders, and address situations where the employee is the abuser.

Encourage employees to report safety concerns without fear of losing their jobs. Thoughtful leaders will promote a culture and commitment to supporting domestic violence victims through updated EAP services and referrals for community resources. Because a frontline manager is typically the face of the company when it comes to identifying and initially responding to workplace violence issues, including domestic violence, ensure managers receive appropriately scaled training to both identify and respond to warning signs. Managers should know how to escalate domestic violence issues of concern.

A trained and centralized Workplace Violence Prevention Team should be prepared to assist and/or manage the more aggravated cases.

As an employer, appropriately addressing domestic violence is the right thing to do—you may be able to help prevent a tragedy from occurring while building a strong team rooted in trust and mutual support along the way.

Kimberly Brunell is an associate director within Control Risks' Crisis Security and Consulting practice based in Washington, D.C. Brunell focuses on the legal aspects of threat management in both the workplace and educational settings.

For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact [email protected].

© Control Risks Group Limited 2020. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part prohibited without the prior consent of the Company.