Supporting Employees During Domestic Disputes

Many moons ago I had an employee on my team who worked for me for nearly a year. She was a good performer. She did her work, but little did I know she was being abused by a boyfriend. One evening I got a text from her saying that she wouldn’t be able to work next Friday. That she was planning to leave her boyfriend, and she was planning on leaving the state. She feared for her life and wanted me to be in the know. She wanted to let me know what was going on, and I’m glad she did. The day came when the boyfriend returned home, and it was clear the employee had moved out. She shared with me the messages and harassment she endured. I advised her to be strong and not to respond to his messages. I also shared my own domestic violence story.

This time of year is triggering for me because of my own experience as a domestic abuse survivor. I won’t go into all of the details, but I will tell you about the kinds of resources that HR and business leaders can access and the things they can do help support employees who have experience or are experiencing domestic disputes and abuse.

Supporting Employees During Domestic Disputes

Domestic violence, or mental or physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, often affects the victims’ ability to work. More than one in four women and one in 10 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to advocacy group Legal Momentum, victims of domestic violence lose an average of 137 hours of work a year. Intimate partner violence causes victims to lose the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs each year. Some victims need time off from work to seek medical attention, a restraining order, or a safe place to stay. Others can’t get to work when an abuser disables their car, sabotages childcare arrangements, or leaves them without cash for public transportation.

These are the facts we really don’t like to think about, but we have to consider the safety and health of not only the employee being victimized, but that of others in the office environment who may be affected by harassment by the perpetrator of domestic violence if directed at the victimized employee’s place of work. Before we get into the legality of support like paid time off for employees impacted by domestic violence, let’s first talk about the “right” thing to do. First, as HR leaders, we should be prepared with empathy and with resources for the affected employee in the form of city or state organizations that can assist with medical attention, court filings such as a restraining order, and a safe place to stay for the affected employee and his or her children, if applicable. If you have an employee in your office because they have been the victim of violence, the first course of action is to do what is in your power to ensure their safety.

It is also important to note that these matters should be handled with the strictest of confidentiality, and with the victim of domestic violence voluntarily providing information about their situation. While it is legal to express concern about witnessed incidents, missed days, or unexplained injuries, we have to draw the line at pressuring an employee to offer an explanation or help unless the information is provided to us without provocation beyond a declaration of concern and attempt to begin a discussion about how HR can help.

Aside from your EAP, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) is the best resource for your employees no matter what state you’re in. If you’ve been drawn into a situation where you have an employee needing time off due to domestic violence, this is the best starting place you can share with them before you get into specifics of paid time off. The hotline is staffed by experienced counselors and can advocate for your employee to sever the relationship, get medical attention, help with court filings, and find a safe place to stay.

Additionally, several states have laws that allow employers to apply for restraining orders to prevent violence, harassment, or stalking of their employees. Legal Momentum has a state by state resource here. If the affected employee has voluntarily indicated (this must be volunteered by the victim or observed by someone on staff) that the perpetrator may show up at your workplace, you can take this step to help ensure their safety and the safety of the rest of your staff.

Companies should work directly with their legal departments to develop policies and programs, using the latest information on legislation regarding intimate partner violence, leave for victims of domestic violence, nondiscrimination laws, and workplace restraining orders. It’s important to consider state laws, and Legal Momentum has a summary of those here.


No Federal Laws Exist to Support Employees Who Are Domestic Abuse Survivors 

While no federal law explicitly protects victims of domestic violence in the workplace or permits them time off to deal with it, several states have passed domestic violence leave laws, which give victims the right to take time off work for certain domestic violence-related reasons. Some state laws allow leave for domestic violence victims to go to court to obtain protection orders, get medical attention, find a victim service program, and get other legal assistance. These laws also prohibit employers from discriminating against victims from taking time off for these reasons. However, employers can ask employees to provide documentation for their absence.

These laws vary significantly in the details, including:

– How much time off. Some states allow employees to take up to a set amount of days or weeks off; others allow employees to take a “reasonable” amount of leave or simply prohibit employers from disciplining or firing employees who take time off for reasons related to domestic leave.

– Reasons for leave. The list of covered activities varies by state, but most allow time off for medical care and psychological counseling, relocation or other safety planning, and seeking a restraining order or participating in legal proceedings relating to domestic violence.

– Notice and paperwork requirements. Most states require employees to give reasonable notice that they will need time off, although these laws also recognize that the employee may be facing an emergency and unable to give notice. State law may also require employees to provide some written proof that they took leave for reasons related to domestic violence.

– Some states require employers to pay employees for time off. Some states allow employees to use their paid leave (such as sick or vacation days) while taking time off for domestic violence; others require employees to use up all their paid leave before taking domestic violence leave.

Since domestic violence is so prevalent in our society, employers should be prepared to deal with the fallout that comes with this unfortunate situation. Beyond physical injuries and time off of work, there may be post-traumatic stress and mental health issues that arise due to a violent home life. Although you may not be required by law to provide paid or unpaid leave, employers should be mindful that empathy and patience may not only provide assistance to a troubled employee, but also boost the morale and loyalty of the workforce.

While my employee’s story has a happy ending. It was a scary one. The boyfriend who was desperate to reach our team member hacked into her social media and also began texting and harassing me. He threatened me and began messaging other employees who work in our office making comments and spreading lies desperate to get the employee to respond to him. Because of state gun laws where I lived, I was worried for my safety at home and at my office. I filed a restraining order. Having been a victim of domestic violence myself, I took no chances. The employee, thankfully, did the same, and more importantly got the help she needed to remove herself completely from the boyfriend’s manipulation.

The Reality Is Fully Recovering and Removing One From Domestic Abuse Make Take Years 

While the employee didn’t work for me much longer, my support didn’t end even though our employee/employer relationship did. I still even after all these years check in with her from time to time. I share this story because it is much more common than you think. It often goes unshared and unspoken with your employee left to continue to suffer in silence.

I was that employee in 2004. My boss had no idea, and I wish I had a manager like me to provide support, realize the signs, and suggest resources to help get me through what was the scariest and most terrifying time of my life. It wasn’t the actual abuse for me that was the worst. Yes, that abuse went on for nearly seven years. I was hurt physically and emotionally, but only when I woke up and left did I really understand fully. After I woke up and left, the worst was the stalking, the harassment, and threats on my life that happened after I left that. These for me were harder to endure than the emotional and physical abuse he inflicted on me when we were together. Both were horribly wrong, but I want you to understand that leaving your abuser is only the first step for your employee in a process to fully remove themselves from a harmful relationship. For myself, it was years even after I relocated twice to multiple states and was divorced for years. My ex-husband and abuser continued to try to contact me and cause harm until 2009. More than five years later he continued to try to cause me emotional harm through email, social media, and mutual friends we had in common.

And while your employee might not have this experience, it was the experience I had for myself. And as I’ve shared my story, I’ve heard from countless women that their story was like mine. EAPs while effective, don’t do enough. Do more. Ask questions. Offer support, and take action. It may save your employee’s life.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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