Domestic Violence Enters the Workplace

Companies find ways to deal with abused spouses.

December 15, 2008, 4:14 PM

Dec. 16, 2008 — -- Nancy Salamone, a bride at 19, discovered just after her honeymoon that her new husband's explosive anger could be triggered by the most trivial thing.

"I put the towels in the bathroom, not the way he was used to them, and that started off an evening of screaming and yelling and being physically abused throughout the night. It was my introduction to what my marriage was going to be like," Salamone said.

The truth of her marriage stayed a dark secret. On the outside, she was a smart and confident vice president of a company, but on the inside, she was a wife who'd been battered for nearly 20 years. After one harrowing night, she decided to get out.

"At one point, he got me on the couch and his hands were around my neck. And I said to myself, 'Just close your eyes, you're going to die,'" Salamone said.

She finally sat down with her boss and asked for help.

"I very simply said, 'This has been an abusive situation, I do not know what this person is going to do.' And that I was afraid," Salamone said.

Work became a safe haven for Salamone, and experts say she is far from alone. More women are turning to the workplace for help with an abusive situation at home.

Identifying Abuse and Reaching Out

Brooke McMurray, a successful executive who long ago divorced a husband she says abused her for years, is now helping other women in the same situation.

Working with a group called Safe Horizon, McMurray teaches companies to recognize the impact of domestic violence. In additon to the obvious personal toll, it costs American businesses an estimated $6 billion a year in health care expenses, lost productivity and unworked days, according to the American Institute of Domestic Violence.

"I used to go to my office and I used to close the door, lie down on the floor and take a nap because I had been up all night being yelled at and worse," McMurray said.

"I really believe this, that once people understand what this is and what it looks like, and how it affects them, that the workplace will become safer," she continued.

For Liz Claiborne CEO Bill McComb it's not just a productivity issue. The company has long been on the frontlines of the war on domestic violence. On his second day on the job, an employee and mother of two young children, Jeanette Claudio, was shot and killed by her abusive husband in their home.

"It made me immediately ask our people, 'What more can we do?'" McComb said. "The key is companies don't have to get into the business of domestic violence counseling. They need to get in the business of letting women know the workplace is a safe haven."

Jeanette Claudio's husband, Miguel Gonzalez, was convicted of murder and is scheduled to be sentenced this Friday.

Safe Horizon works with employees and managers to spot symptoms of abuse, such as long sleeves in hot weather or wearing sunglasses indoors. And most importantly, how to give victims a safe way to get help by providing domestic violence hotline phone numbers everywhere.

"It's a matter of posters, signage and referrals to websites and numbers," McComb said. "When you see the writing on the wall, literally you stop and you think."

Twenty-one states have laws that require employers to assist victims of domestic violence by granting leave if necessary and by banning discrimination against employees who've been abused.

Providing help for domestic abuse victims is more important than ever. The National Domestic Violence Hotline says they've gotten 17,000 more calls this year than last, with many victims reporting that painful economic conditions make their abusers lash out even more.

Brooke McMurray says that for every woman who calls a help hotline, there's a woman living in danger.

"When they answer the phone at the hotline...the first thing they ask you is, 'Are you safe?' And that is the most important question, because if you are being abused you're never safe," McMurray said.

Where to Get Help for Domestic Abuse

If you're a victim, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says you should tell your supervisor and hr manager what you're going through, and ask if there are options like scheduling or assistance benefits that can help you protect yourself.

The Coalition also recommends giving security a picture of your abuser, to protect you while at work. Seventy-four percent of battered women report being harassed by their abuser while they are at work.

If you have a co-worker you suspect is being abused, the Coalition says you shouldn't confront him or her directly. Instead, express concern and a willingness to listen and be supportive.

When he or she does confide in you, encourage her to tell your supervisor and human resources. And if you witness an incident at work, call the police immediately and make sure the incident is documented.

Check out the links below for more information about domestic violence and resources.

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